A chat with ‘Sushi King’

The multi-millionaire “sushi king” also likes girls with their clothes on, apparently, because when I arrive at his swanky ZAR club on the 7th floor of Sandton’s Radisson hotel, he’s smoothly schmoozing with two glamorous young women hanging on his every word.

I had a feeling I’d find him here, in his silver-and-gold themed emporium of pleasure overlooking Sandton on all sides, because although Kenny Kunene is known as a mining executive, his passion is partying and entertainment - fulltime. Still, though he likes doing business in his club, very coolly attired in his ZAR T-shirt, designer jeans, patent leather shoes without socks and white-framed shades, there’s no sign of champagne, the tipple synonymous with his name, anywhere near him. Just bottled water, and glistening surrounds bathed in the afternoon light.

Notorious "sushi king" Kenny Kunene. Credit: INLSA

“I am launching myself as the king of entertainment,” he declares, adding: “If you love something, you must do it, and I love entertainment.” His ZAR club opens on February 14 in the Cape Royale luxury hotel in Cape Town, he says, and “before June” in one of two top Durban venues being considered, one of them “a five star hotel”.

And while having models adorned only with sushi is off the table at these parties - “it’ll have to be in private,” he grins - he intends putting on a “spectacle” of some sort every time. Would these spectacles include a strip show? He pauses to think. “No, that’s been done. I want to stand out,” he says. There’ll always be beautiful women around, of course, a luxury he points out he was deprived of during his six years in prison.

Event planning would describe Kunene’s new limelit role more accurately then. “I did research on the sushi models before I decided on them. I wanted something different, and as South Africans we do business with the Japanese, so I thought it was a good idea. Also, I happen to really enjoy sushi. It’s the only Asian food I like, because it’s real fish,” he says. For the next run of “spectacles” his ZAR club team is doing similar research on “concepts”, on which he’ll have “final say”. “The idea is for everybody to remember my parties. Up to now Joburg celebrity parties have all been the same. You just drink alcohol and that’s it,” he says.

The “go large” entertainment bug has been in Kunene since he was a boy. “I grew up poor, but my late grandfather (he was raised by his grandparents and unemployed mother in Kutlwanong township near Odendaalsrus in the OFS) always insisted that if you invite people, you don’t go half way. You provide the best of food, drinks and music,” he says. “I’ve been in entertainment since high school, since prison actually,” he continues, explaining that he’d organise “parties” for his fellow inmates, with music and dancing and soft-drinks, to gain favour.

As for the addition of sushi models, although he’s bowed to ANC pressure to end their appearance at his public parties, he’s unapologetic about having hired them, and disputes the ANC Women’s League’s contention that it was “an attack on the bodily integrity and dignity of women in our country”. “They are acting as though the women were victims, but I had men too. There were two men and two women models at last Saturday’s party,” he says.

He jocularly repeats his cheeky tease to another newspaper earlier in the week. “I would have had Indian and Chinese girls in Durban. I just wanted to change the plates to see how the sushi tastes from different plates”. He brazenly embroiders this with: “I had black girls in Joburg, white girls in Cape Town, and I was hoping to eat sushi off Indian girls in Durban. I would love to eat sushi off Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj (hip hop star)… there are too many beautiful women to choose from. I still want to try Debra Patta, because there’s always something fishy about her reporting,” he smiles in anticipation of my arched eyebrow.

Oddly perhaps, the 40-year-old Kunene claims his excesses don’t extend to party drugs like cocaine and ecstacy. Master of the rhyming one-liner, he says: “I don’t sell dope, I push hope.” “In prison I was doing dagga. You need drugs in prison to get through it. You need to sleep. But I don’t want anything to do with drugs now. I hate anything associated with drugs,” he says.

About his friendship with ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, he’s equally unequivocal. “Julius is a leader who doesn’t get blown by the wind like other leaders. He is principled and represents his constituency, those young people who don’t have a voice, very well. When the youth sit down they are not in suits and ties, discussing what the suits and ties are discussing. Julius understands that. I respect his brains and I respect his leadership,” he says.

It was Malema who for once served his party by convincing Kunene to cease his sushi model craze. “He gave me a call and asked me to apply my mind in a way that would accommodate the party’s position. It was respectful, as opposed to last year when I was being addressed like an animal by Vavi (Zwelinzima, Cosatu general secretary), with everybody speculating on my income,” says Kunene, adding “I am not Cosatu. I am not a worker”. He stresses however that he “was born ANC and will die ANC”. “Just because I got rebuked doesn’t mean I change my allegiance,” he says.

Kunene’s Blackberry goes off a few times during our chat but he dutifully switches it off. He’s in demand, and seems to thrive on the attention. “I’m being interviewed by the New York Times this afternoon,” he says, donning his shades again. The glamour girls who melted away re-appear, asking him if he’d like anything. But his mind is still on business. “Give me your card,” he says, “and I’ll let you know about the plans for the ZAR clubs. And by the way, you’re welcome to the club anytime”.

I have to admit that it’s an invitation I may well take up, out of curiosity but also to indulge my own sybaritic bent. - Tribune