She’s one of the most familiar faces on Mzansi’s celebrity landscape, gracing magazine covers and appearing in hit films. But even fans who’ve followed her stellar career for years will see her now as never before. This time there’s no warpaint covering her gorgeous skin. Instead Leleti Khumalo (48) is showing every white patch on her body in new e.tv drama series Imbewu: The Seed.
The actress, who shot to fame as a teenager in Sarafina!, is also trying her hand behind the scenes as a producer for the show. But it’s her role as MaZulu that’s bound to get the nation talking, partly because of the juicy role and also because Leleti’s has shown her skin condition for the first time onscreen.
She only has an hour to spare between filming, Leleti tells us as she steps off the set. She settles into a chair and gets straight to the point: after years of hiding her skin under layers of make-up to mask her vitiligo, she’s on a mission to educate people about the condition in which the skin loses its pigment.
“I used to cover my white patches with make-up but for Imbewu I did not be cover it. People get to see me without the make-up,” she says. “I had a long discussion with the creators of Imbewu and they actually allowed me to do it. My plan is to educate people about vitiligo but I also don’t want to do a half job. I’ll be doing educational talks on vitiligo and I’d obviously want the talks to have an impact.”
Leleti, who has openly spoken about her condition, started developing vitiligo at the age of 19 but as a young woman growing up in the township of KwaMashu, KwaZulu-Natal, she didn’t know what it was. “It was pure ignorance on my part,” she says. “In fact, I didn’t even know what it was until I became pregnant.”
She takes a deep breath then continues. “It’s deeper than what people see as it affects every aspect of your life – although it’s not painful, it is incurable. “My doctor warned me it’s going to be worse after giving birth, but at that point it didn’t bother me as I was too excited about the babies,” the mom of four-year-old twins Yamukelani and Ulwenzile says.
But her joy soon turned to despair, then depression. When she became pregnant in 2012, Leleti was expecting triplets and not twins – but tragically lost one baby at birth. “Losing my baby was one of the hardest moments in my life,” she reveals. “I was left with too many questions – I cried, I prayed and I blamed myself. It was a double tragedy for me as I had to deal with my skin condition at the same time.
Her broken heart wouldn’t have healed were it not for the support of her husband, Skhuthazo Khanyile. “We dealt with the loss of the baby and he assured me he still loved me despite my skin condition. “These babies are the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she gushes. “In my previous marriage I tried everything to have babies, but nothing worked.” Leleti was previously married to playwright Mbongeni Ngema, who created Sarafina!. “I’m not sure where I’d be had I not met Mbongeni,” she says of her ex. “Maybe I’d be far with my career or I wouldn’t have made it. What I know is he gave me a good platform.” A year after her 13-year-marriage to Mbongeni crumbled, Leleti met businessman Skhuthazo and “it was love at first sight.” She credits her beloved husband for helping her love herself, flaws and all. Her skin condition, which had got progressively worse during pregnancy, paled in comparison to the loss of her baby but it also troubled the popular actress.
“My skin was changing every day and I went straight into depression. There were days I couldn’t cope and there were days I’d feel stronger. Suddenly, I was more conscious about my looks and I kept wondering how people would accept me,” she says.
She slowly learnt to live with her condition. “The more I researched vitiligo the more I became comfortable in my skin. I’ve accepted that this is part of me.” That’s the reason she chose to portray MaZulu as naturally as possible. Leleti’s eyes light up as she talks about her new role. “MaZulu is a rich but miserable woman. Her husband is infertile and the only person who knows about this is herself and her mother-in-law.”
The saucy storyline is bound to get people talking, she says. “MaZulu gets impregnated by her husband’s younger brother and her job is to keep the secret. “The story might be viewed as taboo but the reality is such practices exist in our African communities.” She landed the job after leaving Uzalo where she played the much-loved character MaNzuza.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity as it means growth and recognition for me. I believe the creators of Imbewu considered my experience and skill as well as the journey I’ve travelled.”
Producing has always been her dream.
“As an actress who’s been in the industry for a long time I didn’t want to be just an actress, I wanted to change the narrative,” Leleti says. “I wanted to tell women’s stories from behind the scenes and from a woman’s perspective. So when I was asked to join the production team I took the opportunity with both hands.”
With her hectic schedule as a mother, wife, actor and producer Leleti seems to have everything under control. But she’s quick to tell us one of her biggest challenges is time. “I have to divide my time between acting and producing. When I’m not on set I’m involved in planning, researching and doing other roles as a producer.” Like any new job it’s daunting, but she’s in good hands with Imbewu creators Duma kaNdlovu and Anant Singh. “The advantage is I’m surrounded by people who’ve been doing this for decades. They didn’t just support me, they also allowed me to put my creativity in the storyline.”
As a black female producer in a male dominated industry, she’d love to see more transformation in showbiz. “The creative industry hasn’t transformed much. There’s still a lot of exploitation and gender stereotypes. It’s up to us as producers to change this.”
“One of the biggest challenges is the lack of recognition for black talent. In most cases those with real talent are overlooked and the ones with no talent get the roles. Seemingly, looks are more important than talent. This is wrong, it’s unfair and it is killing our industry.
“It’s actually one of the reasons I decided to become a producer. I know I can’t change the industry, but I want to be remembered as someone who introduced change,” she says.
She’s been blazing a path for more than 30 years after she starred as Sarafina! on stages from South Africa to New York, earning her a coveted Tony nomination and NAACP Image award for best actress. With such a track record, Leleti is likely to change Mzansi’s showbiz scene again – and this time she’s doing it freshfaced.