Durban - Until I met her, I’d rather have stuck pins in my eyes than interview Sorisha Naidoo.
The impression I got of her from the pages of newspapers was of a shameless gold-digger who married a man 23 years her senior for his bucks.
I despised the materialism and pretentiousness she seemed to represent, but a visit to her uMhlanga pad revealed a more nuanced picture.
She’s mightily ambitious, but you don’t have to dig too deep to find an eminently likeable person, keen social climber that she may be.
There’s good reason Naidoo’s in the media crosshairs: she’s good-looking, bright and controversial, not least because she punts a skin lightening cream in post-apartheid South Africa. She’s smeared it liberally all over her body and it has rendered her a few tones lighter than the hue she was born.
And Naidoo is married to South Africa’s biggest self-promoting businessman, Vivian Reddy, a politically connected mogul who likes the tag “billionaire”.
Their plush house, in a gated estate on the uMhlanga Ridge, is tasteful glass and stone. Chandeliers twinkle in the afternoon sunlight. It’s comfortable and not over the top.
The bar is stocked with every shade of Johnnie Walker. Portraits of Reddy and luminaries take pride of place.
There are snaps of him with Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma, Dali Tambo, Oprah and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
There’s no doubt money buys you influence – Naidoo, not in so many words, will be the first to tell you that. But she seems not entirely defined by the money and influence she’s synonymous with.
Celebrity interviews are difficult. Savvy stars are generally on a charm offensive. They want you to write nice things about them and they give interviews to drum up support for their new book, movie, etc.
Next week Naidoo will launch an anti-ageing cream she claims will make my wrinkled forehead feel like a baby’s bum.
This does absolutely nothing for me, but on receiving the press release, I dared her public relations consultant to set up an interview.
She did, and there I sat with Naidoo, who was attractive in a disarmingly homespun way.
As we sat down, she motioned to an ugly pair of pugs grunting on the carpet. Max and Macy.
“They fart a lot. I’m warning you now so you don’t think it’s me.”
I didn’t think leggy beauty queens with perfect teeth farted, let alone uttered the word.
In the flesh, Naidoo is the antithesis of her public image. While she glides around like a TV star and is immaculately turned out, she’s warm and sincere.
And, most appealing, she’s absolutely candid about all the nasty stuff that’s been said about her, such as her “buying” Facebook friends, her weight, her complexion and the relationship between her and her much older husband, whom she allegedly stole from his loyal wife of many years.
One of four children to Shallcross shopkeepers Krishna and Lalitha, Naidoo says she worked the till at their store all through her matric year, until her brother was shot dead in an armed robbery.
To recover from the trauma, she went to university in Bangalore where she studied pre-medicine for two years, which she hated.
Returning home, she got a journalism degree from Rhodes University and in 2001 stopped being a working-class kid from Shallcross. She won the Miss India South Africa pageant and was launched on a path to fame and fortune.
The crown landed her a job in public relations with Southern Sun and a DJ slot on the graveyard shift at East Coast Radio, which involved getting up at sparrow’s to drive from Shallcross for her 3am to 6am slot.
Soon Naidoo got bumped up to co-host the breakfast show with Alan Khan and became the public relations officer at Sugarmill Casino.
Around that time she met Reddy, who called her “a lot” and wooed her over coffee.
Naidoo says initially she thought he was “an annoying Indian man”, but soon saw a different side to him. He paid her attention when no other guys asked her out.
Naidoo took an offer to move to Highveld Stereo when she and Reddy had been seeing each other for about a year. In Johannesburg she starred in the TV soapie Scandal.
At the time, Reddy told her he was separated from his wife. Naidoo didn’t grill him about this because it was “none of my business”.
“We didn’t see each other a lot, but we’d talk for two hours a day on the phone and he was so refreshing. His conversation was challenging and he fed my mind.”
Naidoo says they spoke mostly about business, but also about philosophy and aspirations.
So how does she respond to claims that she’s a gold-digger?
“I welcome it. It used to haunt me, but I don’t care now. I always earned a reasonably good salary and I’ve never stopped working.”
She proudly declares that she’s bought her husband a R300 000 watch for his birthday, with her own dosh.
So how much is Reddy really worth and how much of it is hers?
“I really don’t know. I haven’t asked. What’s his is his and what’s mine is mine.
“I don’t even know if I’m in the will… I’ve got to credit Viv, he said I must stand on my own… he could find someone else tomorrow. I’ve got to be independent and self-sufficient.”
When Naidoo started her cosmetics business eight years ago, she mistakenly assumed Reddy would fund it.
“I didn’t even think about money. I’m like ‘please lend me some money’ and he’s like ‘no’, and it was a slap in the face, but I’m grateful. Viv said I had to build up a credit record with the bank and I did.”
Naidoo says she happened upon the skin lightening cream by chance. She was modelling for an FHM shoot and she didn’t like the dark colour of her knees and elbows.
She tried out creams she discovered on the internet. She got lighter and thought it looked “cool”.
People commented on how pretty she looked and asked her how she did it.
“I thought ‘Duh, this is glaringly obvious’ (the business opportunity), and I’ve been doing it for eight years.”
Naidoo says being light-skinned is prized in Indian culture, which is bolstered by Bollywood.
“If I didn’t do this, somebody else would… now I’ve dropped a few shades, I’m locked in. If I stopped, people would say I don’t have confidence in my own product.”
Having said that, Naidoo says she’s actually darkened recently. She’s constantly experimenting with creams, using herself as a guinea pig rather than anyone else.
At one point, she burnt her skin using an inferior product, but persevered because the skin lightening cream awakened her interest in cosmetics.
It turned her into a “Google freak” and helped her land the African rights to the Crystal Tomato range, which will be launched next week.
Isn’t the preoccupation with beauty shallow?
Naidoo’s answer is contradictory, if revealing. “Yes, it’s very vain. I’d never deny it. I want to look like this when I’m 40. In this industry, it’s expected.”
Then Naidoo says she doesn’t hanker after the spotlight any more. She’s happy with her 51kg frame and laughs off Winnie Madikizela’s comments about her skinniness being unAfrican.
She has a faux American accent, maybe a TV affectation. She jokes about her four tattoos, justifying them with an enthusiastic chirp you’d expect from a teenager: “Hey, I’m from Grahamstown!”
In the next breath, she talks earnestly about her goal to grow her business and age gracefully.
Naidoo’s genuinely attentive and hands-on with her children Kalina, three, and Saihil, five.
She credits her hard-working parents for whatever success she’s achieved.
No longer fazed about being called a trophy wife, Naidoo says she and Reddy would probably be together if they were poor.
“As long as he could still feed my soul. Money is circumstantial.”
The demands of their respective businesses mean they see each other about three times a week, either in Durban or in Johannesburg, where they have a flat. Naidoo says she’s done with worrying about her image in the media.
“I like to think I’m me, that I’ve never changed from the Shallcross girl who can go behind the till tomorrow…The people who matter in my life know me.” - Sunday Tribune