Zoe Mthiyane chats to us about motherhood and learning to live alongside fame

Zoe Mthiyane
Zoe Mthiyane
Jurie Potgieter/TRUELOVE
  • Zoe Mthiyane talks about using her mother's passing to survive every painful chapter and learning to live alongside fame.
  • On motherhood, Zoe says she lives for her kids and would forget to carve out time for herself.
  • To curb mom guilt, she says she learned who her children are as individuals and attended to that.

“You’re very tall!” exclaims TRUELOVE’s editor when former Generations: The Legacy actress Zoe Mthiyane joins our styling team in the kitchen at Gallery Momo, Parktown. A very graceful Zoe, who, in fact, has the aura of someone who attended finishing school, coyly admits that she gets that a lot.

“It doesn’t irk me at all when people comment on my height because I understand that we look different on TV,” she explains briefly, before being taken through the day’s outfit options. Also, at 1,75 metres, with a perfectly chiselled face, you’d assume that she’s had a tenure as a model. That isn’t the case, she says.

“Most people seem to think that I used to be a model. Yes, I’ve shot a few ads and modelled for a few designer friends, but I’ve never done it professionally.”

Pop Star days

Zoe shot to fame as a contestant on SABC 1’s singing competition Coca Cola Pop Stars back in 2003, and even though she didn’t make the top five that went on to form the group Adilah, she recorded an album with EMI.

Dissatisfied with the musical direction the record label had coerced her into taking, Zoe asked to be released from the contract, opting instead to perform at corporate gigs and her worst, weddings.

“I hated singing at weddings, but I needed the money,” she says in between a stifled chuckle. 

Entering Coca Cola Pop Stars, Zoe says, was a springboard into the industry. “I come from Richard’s Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, where there were no opportunities for a young girl who wanted to give this music thing a try,” she shares.

Given her shy nature, her decision to enter the singing competition raised many eyebrows. “I remember my mom and her friends asking how I planned to survive singing on TV because they hardly heard me speak,” she reminisces, adding that to quell her shyness, her mom and teachers encouraged her to take up drama with the hope that it would help her step out of her shell.

“When I came to Joburg, I decided to incorporate acting into my singing because I felt that the latter, alone, wouldn’t help me sustain myself. I was also paying my way through tertiary,” she says. 

Zoe got onto The Lion King South Africa, which took her to Australia. Following her two-year stint there, she toured Europe to pursue other opportunities. Now that she no longer feels anxious about making it in the music industry, Zoe says she’s fallen in love with creating music all over again.

Without giving any timelines, she adds that she’s been in talks with a few producers. “As a young girl, I walked into this industry headfirst and was gravely disappointed. I had high expectations until I realised that I had to jump through a lot of hoops. I don’t have a particular sound in mind as I find labels very limiting,” she says.

Life as an actress

The South African entertainment industry is notorious for being cutthroat and leaving many actors jobless and desolate. 

Zoe confirms this and says: “You can go through six months of auditioning and not land a single gig. During this time, your bills just pile up.”

She admits to having had many career highs while touring in Europe, such as singing at the opening of the Legend of Tarzan and travelling with other theatre productions. Now, she’d like to replicate some of those international career highlights back here at home.

“Internationally, artists get benefits like medical cover, insurance and the freedom to join a union. I miss all of that,” she says.

With that said, she lists acting on Generations: The Legacy as a big achievement. Following an audition and a few callbacks, Zoe joined the soapie as Zitha in September 2016. She was first signed up for three months, but as her storyline expanded, her contract was extended, too. 

Commenting on her devious character, Zoe says playing a villain has been an interesting turn of events — especially with the abuse storyline rolled out on the soapie in 2019 — because she’s mostly played the good girl.

“I’m lucky because there’s always been something challenging, yet enjoyable about each character that I’ve portrayed. With Zitha, for instance, she’s almost schizophrenic, so I’ve had to dig deep to bring her to life. 

“I wish I was as bold as her – but I’m moving closer towards that goal. I no longer hold back, nor do I doubt myself. Before, I was the queen of self-doubt. With time, age and experience, I’ve shed those negative layers,” she enthuses.

Playing such a challenging character comes with its share of negative energy that, if not controlled, can easily seep into one’s reality.

“When I leave set, I have to find moments that help me replenish the positive energy that Zitha [sucked] out of me, lest I find myself sinking into a dark space. What really [helped was] going home and being welcomed by my children yelling, ‘MOM!’”

READ MORE | 8 celeb moms on what motherhood has taught them 

Motherhood, my saving grace

Certain people and experiences lighten our load, making life that much more bearable. For Zoe, her children are her reasons for breathing, as the cliché goes.

In a typical instance of losing and then gaining some, Zoe became a mom six weeks after her mother’s passing in 2011. The entire family, she says, had been preparing for an out-of-town wedding, but a heavily pregnant Zoe stayed behind. Upon their return, her mother lost her life in a car accident.

“Imagine getting those type of news at 03:00. I don’t remember crying — my sister and I were literally screaming. My mom was the only parent I had left. My dad passed away when I was 22. She raised us on her own, was very strong and had been looking forward to being a grandmother. I’d gone home to prepare for my son’s birth and we’d been spending a lot of time together,” she recalls.

In retrospect, Zoe says that going into motherhood after burying her own mother gave her a new sense of strength and a different outlook on life.

“This was a period during which I needed my mother to orientate me on all the good and bad of the new journey ahead. Feeling lost, I clung onto my firstborn. I was concerned with just surviving,” she says, tears almost clouding her eyes.

She quickly regains her composure and continues, “I haven’t gotten over losing my mom, but I’ve learnt to bargain and live with the pain. Losing a parent isn’t just about losing them in physical form. It is losing that comforter that you call at 04:00, telling them that things aren’t going well, and someone who would pray with you over the phone.”

By clinging onto motherhood, perhaps as a form of solace, Zoe says she did not realise that she was committing the biggest mistake that most mothers are guilty of.

“I lived for my kids and would forget to buy myself stuff, or even go out. We, moms, often feel guilty about wanting time out, forgetting that these rare moments should never trump all the good that we do. To curb mommy guilt, I’m learning who my children are as individuals and attending to that,” she explains.

If I had to read one book for the rest of my life

It would have to be an autobiography. I’m more of a listener, than a talker. I’m drawn to people’s lives and love learning from others’ stories. 

This chapter of my life is titled

Forgiving And Centering Myself, Finding Clarity And Putting Less Focus Into Negativity. I don’t have a single name to encapsulate how I’m feeling, but this is my current state of mind.

Meals that I cannot live without

I love homely meals – I’m not big on fast foods. I eat a lot, and exercise regularly. I think where most people go wrong is that they think starving themselves will help them lose weight, when in fact, it makes the body go into survival mode.

On a Sunday morning, you’re likely to find me

Drinking coffee. My day doesn’t start before that – it’s very important as a mom. I like to ease into the day, spend time with the children, clean up and maybe go to church because my son enjoys Sunday school.

On regrets

I’ve survived many hardships and came out the other side feeling stronger. If I hadn’t gone through what I did, I wouldn’t know what I know now. I’ve had some nice knocks along the way (chuckles).

On her lowest moments

When my career was stagnant, I once called my late mom and told her that I wanted to move back home. She’d always remind me that the road to success is pricky, tell me to hang in there, and insist that I come home for the weekend to recollect, and then return to Joburg. 

On what keeps her afloat

I’ve had to cut down on a lot of friends. I now surround myself with prayerful women, who are always happy to run with the prayer baton on my behalf on days when I don’t feel like it. I know I can count on my older sister and cousin at any moment. At home, I try to create a completely loving space.

On what’s inspiring her right now

For the longest time, I was driven by wanting to be a role model for my kids. Now I finally understand the meaning of life being too short – I’m pushing myself to do the things I’ve always wanted to. This was inspired by my mother — how she was here the one minute, and gone the very next.

On motherhood

I’m a perfectionist who wants things done according to my plan. Motherhood has taught me to be flexible and never to cry over spilt milk.

On her bucket list items

I think I have achieved most things that I’d set out to do. For example, I never thought I’d be able to sing in front of a big crowd, then I went and sang in front of 13 000 spectators at Wembley Stadium, England. I’d like to tap into fashion, at some point, because that’s what I actually studied.

Game of fame 

Zoe starts off her answer on what fame has taught her with, “sjoe”, followed by a big sigh. She sounds like someone who’s either been burnt by fame, or who’s looking forward to finally saying her piece on all the abuse she’s had to endure.

“I didn’t go into this looking for fame, even though I knew that the two walked side by side,” she says, also mentioning that fame has been tricky to navigate. Judging by how graceful Zoe is and her nonchalant attitude towards the limelight, one can’t help but wonder why, at one point, her personal life and character was a recurring subject in the tabloids.

“The worst is reading a made-up story, and the sad thing about being in the spotlight is that people gobble up whatever negative story they are fed. It’s tricky because you want to fight back, but that takes energy,” she says, an air of defeat evident in her tone.

So, how has she kept her head up amid a raging sea of negative publicity?

“As a black woman, it is already difficult for me to survive or sustain myself and my career. To then have your name dragged in the mud for absolutely no reason is just sad,” she says.

She’s had to shift focus and, she says, seek solace in the fact that those who matter in her life know the truth.

READ MORE | Ayanda Borotho warns against harmful Huggy Wuggy game – plus how you could protect your children

Lessons learnt

Zoe hasn’t walked out of the tabloid chapter empty-handed — she’s gained a few strategies that keep her sane. The first is to never read comments on any negative story written about her. Secondly, she refuses to discuss her love life.

“I spent so many years preparing for my career, studying and hustling, only for my efforts to be reduced to my love life. I’ll confirm whether I’m in a relationship or not, but that’s where it ends,” she says resolutely.

And adds: “Initially, I thought telling my side of the story was the right thing to do, until I learnt that by the time a tabloid journalist calls you, they’ve already decided on an angle and in most cases, the story is written.”

At first, when thrust in the pits of negative publicity, Zoe would ask her family to give her space to cry and pray. Her biggest epiphany came when a friend reminded her that if she could survive her mom’s passing, then she could tackle any problem.

“Pain is never in vain. Those tough moments have also reminded me to thank God for whatever big thing He’s preparing me for,” she says in conclusion.

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