3 February 2007

South Africa: The Bald Truth? Nataniël Knows Show Business

Johannesburg — BENEATH Nataniël's bald pate simmers a brain that cooks up creativity and business in equal portions.

Having graced South African stages for 20 years, Nataniël has carved out a reputation as one of the country's most recognised and business-savvy entertainers.

Kaalkop, as he is affectionately known, has shunned the mainstream and prefers to paddle in a pond of his own making.

His audiences are a phenomenon in themselves: people from all walks of life, gay and straight, English and Afrikaans. Ooms and tannies from the dorpies go to see him for their annual dose of skandaal and titillation.

"The middle-aged people come to see how to dress for the fuller figure, and copy the patterns of my outfits," he speculates, with studied nonchalance.

Nataniël is one of the few South African entertainers who can truly be said to be in "showbiz" -- the business of putting on shows. He refuses to be a starving muso -- how passé!

He likes the fine things in life and has ensured that he is financially comfortable, thank you very much. Work is his elixir. He has also become a retail entrepreneur, having just opened his first shop, Kaalkop Studio, in Irene's Southdowns Centre, selling organic kitchen and lifestyle products.

From February 8 to March 4, he returns to the stage with the bilingual production The Hong Kong Kiss, which combines vignettes with new music. His annual shows at the Theatre of Marcellus at Emperors Palace are guaranteed crowd-pullers.

In the course of more than 50 stage productions since 1987, Nataniël has put on eight Asian-themed shows, and The Hong Kong Kiss continues his fascination with the Orient.

"My build is very good for a kimono," he muses, after roundly insulting the flower arrangement in the interview suite at the posh D'Oreale Grande Hotel at Emperors. "And I like Asian design -- it's clean. But Hong Kong is different to China and Japan -- it's like Witbank with a harbour. It's very modern and industrial."

This show is a mixture of fact and fantasy, based on his business trip to Hong Kong last year to meet one of the world's most famous porcelain masters and designers of ceramic bowls. Apparently, it turned into an odyssey filled with intrigue, misunderstandings, deceit and a near-death experience. Nataniël is joined by the performers with whom he'll be sharing the stage. "I'm celebrating my 20th anniversary, but also celebrating all the people who've been working with me."

While giving them each a chance to talk, he circles the room restlessly and fusses around like a mother hen, chipping in here and there, obviously not accustomed to sharing the limelight, even if his intentions are sincere.

One of these co-stars is Robert Finlayson, who has returned from London where he played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar last year. He has been nominated for a Naledi Theatre Award. Another long-time collaborator is the bubbly singer Wess-Lee. Nataniël is her child's godfather -- he was present during the birth.

Having taken a break from her solo career, she's bouncing back with a new album this year.

"Nataniël is my guardian angel," she says adoringly.

"That's because I give her alcohol," he ripostes.

Lydia vom Hagen has finally got around to making her long-promised solo album, a jazzy, meditative adult contemporary release. "Every year I talk about it, but I knew that when it eventually happened, it would be good. I'm very finicky about those things."

"I told them that if they both did albums, they'd get their pictures on the billboard," Nataniël interjects.

Every year, he introduces new talent in his shows, and this time it's the turn of Lulu Dikana.

This songwriter and star of such shows as Hot Chocolate is blessed to have Anneline Malebo, a member of South African supergroup Joy (of Paradise Road fame), as a stepmother.

Relieved to be the centre of attention again, Nataniël holds forth with characteristic frankness, like a monarch lording it over his rapt subjects. Having interviewed him several times over the past 10 years, I am never sure whether he deliberately plays up for the press, or whether his candid utterances come naturally. This time, however, he seems more subdued and serious than on previous occasions.

He says the most important lesson he's learned in his 20 years on the stage is the value of perseverance and hard work. "I don't have a sex life, so I need to keep doing something exciting, otherwise I'd die of boredom. I just work, while others get overwhelmed. I don't relax -- ever."

Years ago, audiences saw Nataniël as a novelty -- an androgynous oddity with outré outfits and heavy make-up, someone through whom you could vicariously live out the daring side of your nature. He was our own Boy George. But he's so much more than a man in a dress (in fact, you seldom see him wearing one these days) -- beyond the mask is an accomplished artiste and an astute businessman who should be taken seriously rather than viewed merely as a curiosity.

One gains the impression that only a select inner circle gets to see the real Nataniël; that he puts on a show not only for his audiences, but for the media too. Ostensibly an exhibitionist, he strikes one as an incredibly private person. It was fascinating to witness him allowing a glimpse beyond those walls when he wrote tenderly about his little sister's wedding for Sarie magazine last year. So, where does the façade start and end?

"Socially, I have no emotional privacy," he reveals. "But I'm private about my everyday life, not because I'm famous, but because it's nobody's business.

"That's why I've stopped people photographing my house.

"Your life must be seriously pathetic for you to be interested in certain things. People are dying, children are being abused and half the population is living in the veld, but people would rather watch other people's lives."

As for the next 20 years, Nataniël has several goals to achieve, but one day he'd like his epitaph on his grave to read:

"He was a singer, and he turned it into a business." And that's the bald truth.

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