Life’s no drag for Odidi

2015-01-25 15:00

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When Odidi Mfenyana first put on stilettos and a wig in a theatre, his father, Reverend Mlamli Mfenyana, and mum Freda were right there, cheering in the front row.

Now he’s hoping to open an Urban Culture Drag School in Cape Town specifically aimed at gay children growing up in the city’s townships “to teach them confidence and to give them something constructive to do”.

The flamboyant actor, born in Cape Town in 1978, grew up at the Holy Cross Anglican Church in Nyanga. It was headed by his father, a former chaplain at the University of Fort Hare, Eastern Cape.

“I always knew I was gay,” says Mfenyana. “At school we had to play rugby. I was the hooker. In the scrum, I would just scream!”

He has long since swapped rugby togs for high heels.

Between bites of rabbit pie at Frères Bistro on Cape Town’s foreshore, Mfenyana credits his mother, a retired community nurse, for his sense of style and flare.

Mfenyana – who goes by the stage name of Oddiva – is petite and smells of cologne.

His father wasn’t surprised when he came out of the closet at the age of 21.

“Well yes, I’ve always known you were gay,” the reverend replied.

His mom said: “Oh, so now you’re black and gay!”

Mfenyana says he was always welcomed in his father’s church, probably largely thanks to the teachings of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, his father’s former boss. Even then, Tutu was vocally accepting of homosexuality.

“It was the time when [then Namibian president] Sam Nujoma and [Zimbabwean President] Robert Mugabe dismissed gays as worse than pigs,” Mfenyana recalls.

“I was doing a history assignment on it, so I asked Arch Tutu for a quote when he came over for lunch one day. The Arch said: ‘I would not believe in a homophobic God.’”

In 1987, Mfenyana went to Bishops Preparatory School. His older brother was the first black pupil at the top-dollar private school; his sister the first black girl at equally posh St Cyprian’s School.

Over weekends, the siblings went home to Nyanga, where power outages caused havoc and political refugees camped in their back yard.

After school, Mfenyana starred in numerous productions and TV shows, most notably the SABC1 drama Interrogation Room as gay detective Ntando Mqombote.

In 2001, the drag queen Oddiva was born in playwright Brett Bailey’s production Big Dada: The rise and fall of Idi Amin.

“Brett wanted me to do drag – a combination of Brenda Fassie, Shirley Bassey and Grace Jones. He called her Oddiva.”

The play toured abroad to much acclaim.

In 2009, Oddiva started putting on a regular cabaret show at Beefcakes restaurant in Green Point.

“Because of the way I grew up, my shows always have a social conscience, a political edge,” he says.

Indeed, Oddiva was known to get crowds jiving to Fassie’s Weekend Special, only to punch them in the stomach with jibes like: “Oh look at me! The only black person at this restaurant who is not working in the kitchen!”

Today, Mfenyana greets partygoers as the front of house manager at Green Point’s trendy gay nightclub Crew Bar.

“In a way, I’m doing what my father always did. He would sing a lot and perform standing in front of the church. Our voices are very similar, too. We are high tenors.”

Mfenyana describes Oddiva: “The physical manifestation of a human bridge between the past, present and the future. A living embodiment of South Africa’s miracle. Oddiva embodies the revolution.”

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