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Jamie Bartlett was as real as celebrities come. He didn’t even regard himself as one.

Jamie Bartlett.

Jamie Bartlett.

Published May 29, 2022

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We were at a roadshow when we met. I spotted him first, of course. His booming laugh made you actively search for him. And then his height made you find him. The coloured lenses from his glasses would always confirm who it was - Jamie Bartlett.

Finally making his way towards me, he stopped to greet and embrace many people, fans included. I studied him as he focused on each person who was reaching out to him, responding with his signature laugh.

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Eventually he arrived. His first words to me? “Jeepers, you smell good.” I laughed. He then turns towards me, a serious look on his face. “I like that piece you wrote about David”.

David is David Genaro.

“I think you got the essence of the man.” He smiled and moved on to greeting other people.

It was a ridiculously hot day in Durban’s spring in 2011, there were hundreds, if not thousands milling about at Gateway’s Wavehouse venue. Even so, he made a point of greeting every fan who screamed for him.

After a while his white linen dashiki had both sweat and make-up stains. I brought it up to him and he laughed. “You’ve got to give the people who love you, the love they give to you, man.”

That is an encounter with Jamie I will never forget. It was real. It was unpretentious and there were no celebrity airs about him.

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And as a young entertainment reporter and celebrity profiler at that time, it changed my perspective of what constitutes celebrity.

The passing of Jamie due to cardiac arrest, shocked many earlier this week. I was sleeping when I got the call from a friend asking if the rumours on Twitter real. I shot out of bed, ran to my laptop to start checking the voracity of this rumour.

My heart sank when I confirmed it was true. Tears welled up in my eyes and as I write the news piece announcing his death to our readers, it felt like a part of me was going, too.

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KB Motsilanyane with Jamie Bartlett on the set of Rhythm City during the filming of their wedding. Sasani Studios, Highlands North, Johannesburg. Picture: Jennifer Bruce

Jamie was loved. In my many years of moving in celebrity circles, profiling them and observing, I had never heard anything bad about the man. And this was evident from the outpouring of grief from the acting fraternity.

Even individuals who are rarely spotted on social media, felt it important that they share an anecdote about Jamie. From his professionalism, to being a pleasure to work with, the tributes confirmed what I always knew about the man – he was good.

The many times that I have interviewed Jamie, he would also help shape me to be a better reporter. He was tough on me when I asked him questions about his work, thoughts about the industry and the direction his characters were going.

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He forced me to dig deeper, to not be afraid of asking him questions I thought were out of bounds. Just as long as it was about work, of course.

And it is through these interactions that I could fine tune my skills as an interviewer. He contributed immensely to that. It’s something I told him once and he dismissed it. But I am happy that I told him while he was alive.

His career is storied. And yet even so, there was nothing that screamed “fame” about him. He detested being referred to as a celebrity. He was, as he described himself to me, in 2011: “A thespian. A work dog. A person who is there to make life lighter for people.”

And that he did.

The outpouring of grief from “Rhythm City” fans, has been incredible. I wonder if he knew just how much he was loved by people. How his work made him a fan favourite and a benchmark of what great acting is.

Jamie was fiercely protective of his characters. He hated it when people said David Genaro was evil. We once got into it over the phone when I asked him if David was a damaged soul and that’s why he was evil.

“I don’t think he’s evil. From 3-year-old girls to policemen, they all greet me with smiles on their faces, and you won’t get that if you are downright evil. The viewers have seen the man behind the mask.”

He did, however, finally relent that David was a dark soul. “Before the cameras roll, I access that dark space that he is in, so that when I need to start delivering lines it’s like a thunderstorm.”

I’m still sad that I have never seen Jamie on stage. He loved theatre so much and he was lucky to be able to take breaks from his TV shows in order to do theatre work.

And even so, he was not uppity about being a classically trained actor, who treads the boards with some of the best of his generation and those who came before him.

And that while theatre was great, it didn’t mean you were a better actor than those who have only done screen work.

“Sure, being theatre trained, one learns the techniques of breathing life into a character and that comes with massive emotion.

“However, it would be unfair for me to say that theatre makes one’s performance better. Not everyone has done theatre before and yet they are sound actors,” he said, during an interview in 2011.

That left an impression on me.

It’s been a number of years since I last saw Jamie. The last time was when he was a judge on “SA’s Got Talent”. But we didn’t get to speak, beyond a “Howzit China!” before he was whisked away backstage.

However, I am glad that people got to see the real Jamie – the lovable, but stern and unapologetic lover of the arts.

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