I was expecting a statuesque, Amazonian powerhouse of a woman. I suppose because through her Sunday Times columns, Jani Allan had become a larger-than life persona who in 1987 was voted “South Africa’s most admired person”. But seeing her at 6 Spin Street for a Big Issue fund-raiser to promote her book, Jani Confidential, I was struck by how tiny she is. And her apparent shyness.
Dressed in demure chocolate brown from head to toe, Allan’s eyes were partially obscured by a jaunty peak cap for most of her public interview with Vivien Horler, Cape Argus and Weekend Argus books editor. What she lacked in stature, Allan made up for in make-up – perhaps another protective barrier?
Allan admitted early on in the interview, billed as an “Intimate evening with Jani Allan”, that she almost didn’t get on to the plane at JFK in New York to return to South Africa after leaving more than a decade ago.
“I said to my friend, who is a cross-dresser by night and a mortgage broker by day, (and) who took me to JFK, I said to him it was the worst idea I’d ever had. Writing the book was the worst idea. I don’t interact a lot.”
She also downplayed the glitzy lifestyle that she had enjoyed in the 1980s. “It wasn’t about me. It was about the persona that the Sunday Times created.”
She may be more comfortable at home with her Pomeranian dogs – “I’m a pom mom” – but Allan’s acerbic wit and snappy retorts to Horler’s questions gave the audience a good glimpse of the flair that made her a national treasure 25 years ago.
When asked who would play Eugene Terre’Blanche in the movie version of her book, she said, without missing a beat, “Mel Gibson, that’s for sure.” And later she quipped that during an interview with students from the University of Johannesburg, she had pointed out to them: “I have underwear that’s older than you.”
This self-deprecating humour pervaded much of the interview. She laughed off her early publicity shots, and the image that appears on the cover of her book. “Ja, very Goth,” she said.
She later told Horler that she’s always been quick to poke fun at herself.
“I do have to say I’ve always written with a self-mocking kind of edge and I do mock myself probably as a precaution, so that I do it before other people do.”
One would think that, 25 years after losing a highly public court battle in the British High Court against Channel 4 over the controversial documentary, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, meeting Eugene Terre’Blanche and perhaps getting too close to the AWB leader, would top her list of regrets.
And yes, she said she did regret heeding the advice of lawyers who said she had a strong libel case against Channel 4. “It was the most idiotic thing to do.”
But for Allan, who has spent the past 12 years working as a waitress in Lambertville, New Jersey because it was the only job that didn’t require a Green Card, her biggest regret is “not finding the Lord sooner”.
Now a born-again Christian, she admits she found religion after a “dry patch”.
“I was so annoyed with the Lord. I asked how he could make me wait on tables when I have more degrees than a thermometer. Then miraculous things happened. I know I couldn’t have written the book, found the energy, if it wasn’t for the Lord.”
Allan seemed surprised, and almost irritated, that people still seem to be fixated on the ET saga almost 25 years later. And she added that news of his violent murder did not affect her that much.
“Obviously no human being, no creature, nobody, nothing should be terminated with such extreme prejudice. But no, I can’t say it affected me. He was an interview topic.” She added that a lot of people mentioned in her book were now dead.
Horler asked Allan when, after her Sunday Times interview with Terre’Blanche was published in 1988, did she realise that she was in trouble.
“I think when the front wheel of my Lancia had come off and I had just collected the car and I didn’t know, but it was subsequently proven, I was under surveillance by three different intelligence agencies. I did go to (Sunday Times editor) Tertius Myburgh, but he said I’d been watching too many movies,” Allan replied.
She also did not shy away from her portrayal of former housemate and renowned astrologer, Linda Shaw, as a philanderer who needed a “turnstile” at her bedroom door. “It’s true,” she told the audience without any qualms.
Shaw testified during the Channel 4 court case that she had seen Terre’Blanche’s holey green underpants through the keyhole of Allan’s bedroom. Allan denied the affair at the time, and was forced to flee to Britain when her flat was bombed.
She also does not regret the now infamous extract from that watershed column, which she described as her “Rubicon” and in which she wrote: “ET doesn’t walk into a room, he takes occupation of it. To be honest, he’s a hunk, far more attractive than his telegenic image. Could it be people have the wrong image of him? I have to remind myself to breathe. I’m impaled by the blue flame of his blowtorch eyes.”
When asked if it was perhaps time to take another stab at her journalism career, Allan said she would love to write something other than “one fillet SOS extra bitch – sauce on the side”.
She’s already dabbled in animal advocacy and blogging, most recently about lion hunter Melissa Bachman – who’s got “spectacular boobs and spectacular teeth” – and the Oscar Pistorius trial.
But Allan clearly hasn’t lost her interviewing skills, and she managed to deflect several of Horler’s prying questions as only a good journalist who is more adept at asking than responding would.
When Horler asked whether Allan had ever repaid the £1 million in costs to Channel 4 after losing the libel case, she retorted with: “This is Helen Zille’s response to questions she doesn’t want to answer”, and lifted up her face away from the audience.
Allan has no plans to return home to South Africa, unless “someone makes me an offer”. And for now, she seems content to close the book on her former high-profile life, preferring to eke out an honest living as a waitress. “It teaches you humility, which is good. And boy, am I humble.”
And when Horler reminded her, however, that she will always be inextricably linked to the hirsute AWB leader who later died an ignominious death, she snapped: “In your mind, not in my mind. In mine, it’s O-V-E-R. To me it was one chapter in a life that has been as full as a pomegranate is of pips.”
* Jani Confidential by Jani Allan is published by Jacana.