Rosie heading for the Big Apple
Rosie Motene exudes classic elegance as she sits poised on the edge of a white chair outside of Tashas Cafe at Melrose Arch.
She’s dressed in a simple, figure-hugging black dress, with matching kitten heels, and has a black shawl draped around her shoulders to keep out the chill.
She chose the venue for our interview – it’s one of her favourites.
She’s known Tasha, the owner, even before she opened up her first cafe in Atholl Square in Sandton.
When Motene lived in the area, she’d stop by every Sunday after a long walk to relax, read the newspapers and have a bite.
It was her “me time”, reveals Motene.
“Besides, they make the best freezochinos, and their chicken pregos are just fantastic.”
Her mouth engages easily in a smile, reaching her eyes that are sparkling as if she has some secret delight.
What’s causing the twinkle is not really a secret, though – in just three months’ time she is heading to New York to pursue a childhood dream – to be on Broadway.
“It’s exciting and nerve-wracking,” Motene says.
“I was supposed to leave in March, but I waited to ensure that a programme that I’m co-producing will run smoothly after I’m gone,” she says.
Even though she has friends in New York and has made contacts in the industry, Motene says it’s going to take hard work and tenacity to make it, and she knows she is going to have to start at the bottom – going to auditions and chasing scripts.
But it’s a risk she’s willing to take, because she has nothing to lose.
“I have no children and I’m not married. I’m going at it alone because I know there are more opportunities out there. And I want more out of my craft,” says the 34-year-old.
Motene’s life and career have taken interesting trajectories. She was raised by two families, and both have left their mark on her.
When she was born, her father worked at a service station and her mother was a domestic worker for a Jewish family on whose property they lived.
Her parents had intended sending her home to Phokeng in Rustenberg after three months to be raised by her maternal grandmother.
But the Jewish family fell in love with her and she stayed.
“From day one, I was their fifth child,” says Motene.
“Remember this was during apartheid – so they were always very protective over me.”
When she was nine-years-old, she realised that there were certain things that she couldn’t do and places from which she was banned.
“I remember not being allowed to go to a swimming pool because it was segregated. Even though I explained to people there that I could swim and that I was in the A team at school, I wasn’t allowed in. I didn’t understand it then.”
She also recalled her adopted father having to phone restaurants in advance, and the family having to enter them through the back entrance. It was a confusing time for her.
One day she asked him: “Why am I black?”
He replied gently: “Because you were born at night and you’re special. And the stars come out at night to shine on special people.”
But this comforting explanation didn’t help her through the name-calling she was to experience from both ends.
White people, she says, would call her the “K” word, while black people would label her “coconut” or “Oreo (black on the outside but white inside)”.
And despite having the best of both worlds from both families, it did lead to something of an identity crisis for a time.
She learnt her mother tongue, Tswana, only when she was in her mid-20s.
“The times were different – harsh – but gave me a tougher skin. It taught me not to discriminate, and that what counts is what’s inside. I hate it when people judge on face value.”
“But I do feel very blessed. And my adopted father taught me to stand my ground… I’m getting back to my traditional side and I’m also following the Jewish way. I love the synagogue, and what’s nice about New York is that I discovered a female rabbi there. They also have a community of black Jews, which is exciting.”
Another upside is that she’s so close to her adopted family and her biological one.
She’s getting to know her nonagenarian grandmother more, and finds her a truly “beautiful woman”, who during one visit wore all the scarves that Motene had bought for her on her travels.
“I thought that was a fabulous thing to do,” Motene recalls.
She was always attracted to the entertainment field, dreaming as a child of becoming an “extravaganza dancer”.
She obtained a BA Honours degree in Dramatic Arts from the University of Witwatersrand, before striking out in theatre, film and TV.
Among her many credits is her five-year role as Tsego Motene in the soap Generations, which made her a household name, a role in the film Hotel Rwanda and the lead in The Other Woman. She performed in Dawn Lindberg’s Vagina Monologues, presented SABC3’s magazine programme InStyle and co-presents and produces inserts for Studio 53, M-Net’s African lifestyle show.
Regarded as one of South Africa’s most stylish women, she has graced the covers and pages of magazines such as True Love, Destiny, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Style.
In 2008, she was nominated for the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year awards, and is an active campaigner against women and child abuse.
In 2003, she completed the volunteer training and public awareness course through Powa (People Opposing Women Abuse) and was appointed to its board in 2008.
She also sits on the board of trustees for The Tomorrow Trust and is chairperson for Childline.
Her commitment to the fight against women and child abuse stems from an abusive relationship she had while at varsity.
Having abused her verbally and emotionally, and broken her spirit, her boyfriend took her to a quiet park one night to beat her up.
“He didn’t like the fact that I was dancing with a guy,” Motene says, adding that it was Hillbrow’s homeless kids, the “twilight children”, who came to her assistance.
“He tried to follow me to my flat, but I was carrying mace and sprayed his eyes.”
Motene was taken to a hospital in Hillbrow by her friends.
“I pressed charges against him, but because I didn’t know what my rights were, they were dropped.”
Years later, she was asked to speak to a women’s group in Port Elizabeth, only to arrive to find that she had left her prepared speech on the plane. So she decided to speak about her experience.
“I had never really spoken about it to anyone, and there I was crying and speaking about it openly. It was therapeutic. I realised then that the bruises I had may have healed on the outside, but not on the inside. So I joined Powa.”
Motene pauses to remove her shawl. It’s warmer now and she asks if it’s all right if she wears her sunglasses.
We move on to a more joyful subject: her passion for the theatre.
She loves losing herself in the characters she plays. She loves exploring the dimensions a character can take.
And it’s the adrenalin rush before going on stage and the appreciative applause afterwards that she finds addictive.
The proudest moment in her career, so far, was playing the role of Mandisa in John Kani’s acclaimed play, Nothing but the Truth.
“We performed to sold-out audiences, of about 800, and received many standing ovations. There is nothing like that feeling of being on stage and being acknowledged.”
The play successfully toured Australia in 2005, and toured again in 2007 to the UK.
“It was a 90-minute play of such intense, passionate emotions. And telling the story and being on that journey was just mind-blowing.”
The best part about touring in the UK, she says, was performing in Birmingham.
“There’s a big South African community there. It was powerful because they could reconnect to the story we were telling.”
Even though she has an uncharted future ahead of her, she has much to look forward to, she says. There’s her dream to chase the Oscars, the Tony awards – and of falling in love again.
“I love being in love,” says the celebrity, who is ready to get back into the dating scene after taking two years to get over a previous relationship.
“South African men are very traditional. They say they want an independent woman, but when they get one they don’t know how to handle the relationship. I suppose it’s also that whole celebrity persona. I really don’t know what that means because I’m just celebrating life. I’m no better than the next person.”
With all of these achievements – including buying her house and her first car, a black BMW, at the age of 26 “with no help from the family” – Motene says she is “still Rosie” to the people she loves.
“I still clean and cook. And I can be a klutz, I’ve tripped on stairs,” she says with a grin.
“And when I’m moody, I stay at home. But most nights when I really want to cheer myself up, I dance naked to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer and You Give Love a Bad Name,” Motene adds, giggling helplessly now.
She takes a few deep breaths to compose herself.
“It’s my family, though, that keeps me grounded,” she adds.
“If I had to throw the diva thing to them and my friends, they would put me down like this,” she says with a smile, clicking her fingers.