To be trans and be in the spotlight, Itumeleng Mokwatlo on the entertainment and beauty industry

Itumeleng Mokwatlo. Picture: Supplied.

Itumeleng Mokwatlo. Picture: Supplied.

Published Mar 25, 2024


I met Itumeleng Mokwatlo around 2017. She was still working as a full-time make-up artist and had just partnered with Black Opal.

When she told me her life story and showed me pictures of herself in high school, when she was still rocking razor cuts and always carried an eyebrow pencil, I knew she was destined to be a star in the industry.

Fast forward to 2022, she called to tell me she had been nominated at the Feather Awards.

She invited me to her hotel, where she was getting ready for the award ceremony, wearing a dress that paid tribute to all the phenomenal trans women she had interacted with.

My child was barely three months at the time but I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity as I believed she would win, so I wanted to get that exclusive and be a part of such a historic event.

And she won the “Socialite of the Year” award, her first for her work.

From there, she was unstoppable, bagging collaborations with brands such as Tresemmé and Dove and gracing the digital cover of Glamour South Africa.

The girl had worked hard to create a name for herself in the entertainment and beauty industry.

Itumeleng Mokwatlo. Picture: Supplied.

This month, I got a chance to speak to Mokwatlo again.

When I asked her about her career highlights so far, she said: “My career highlights...Oh, where do I start? My first magazine cover with Glamour and Dove, December 2023.

“My work as a correspondent for Tresemmé, which is a wonderful infusion of my hosting skills and my love for hair.

“The inaugural Sorbet Make Up Artist Search as one of the adjudicators, working with Proudly SA for their red carpet and winning a Feather Award. There’s so many, but these ones stick out at the moment.”

That’s why when we celebrate women this International Women’s Month, we cannot leave out women like Mokwatlo, a powerhouse who’s been building her brand from the ground up in the dusty streets of Ga-Mashashane in Limpopo to toasting the success in the tall buildings of the city of gold.

I asked Mokwatlo what it’s like working in the entertainment and beauty industry as a trans woman, and she said: “Wow! This question! It's tough, I’d like to believe I do incredible work, although I often get overlooked when brands and opportunities with money arise.

“We constantly have to fight to get paid, although our merits are enough and provide enough reason for us to.

“I’m glad for brands such as Dove, Tresemmé and Bernini for always offering opportunities because they know the kind of work I put in, and not because they need to reach a diversity target.”

Itu Mokwatlo. Picture: Supplied.

And while women like her have to work twice as hard as the average woman, sometimes their efforts are not enough.

Not because they lack talent or skills but because the system doesn’t favour them. If anything, they use them for campaigns and discard them until the next big thing.

“Trans women in the industry are often looked at as fillers. Either for ‘inclusivity’ or a marketing opportunity that is often not beneficial for me, but whichever brand or platform is trying to make a statement.

“Trans women are still very much caricatured by the industry, and it’s going to take a long time till we are seen as humans before anything else. This is something I actually work hard at by being vocal and disruptive through my work.

“I aspire to see trans women offered opportunities because they are worth it, and they are damn good at what they do,” Mokwatlo shared.

On top of that, they still have to deal with a society that wants to police them on how to live their lives as if being themselves is a crime.

Itu Mokwatlo. Picture: Supplied.

“We have a big challenge of projection. This is a deep thorn that the society generally suffers from. I do, however, know it’s not about me, but it’s easier for someone to project to me than to face the reality of their life and what bothers them.

“It’s what I call the ‘how dare’ syndrome. How dare I be loud, proud and stern on showing up as my true self rather than diminishing who I am for society? People are not comfortable with that.

“Everything that challenges what they have been taught or lived to know, they feel is a personal attack on them, and that’s why they project,” explained Makwatlo.

Mokwatlo is fond of Dr Brenè Brown because in her book “Rising Strong”, she teaches bravery and how to live your truth.

“I love her quote: ‘True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild hearts against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.’

“Is a true reflection of how I live my life,” said Mokwatlo.

Even on Women's Day/ Women’s Month, trans women are not celebrated enough, and that has to change. Like everyone else, trans women deserve the same opportunities, equal rights and unquestionable respect like everyone else.

“Women are not celebrated enough, especially trans women. We need to be caricature and nothing else, and that’s why when we do groundbreaking work, the celebration voices are not loud enough,” Mokwatlo.

“We are here, we are trans, and we are not going anywhere. In the same way that people who violate these rights especially in the name of freedom of expression, we also have the same right. And lastly, don’t hate what you don’t understand.”