IT TOOK five long years, months of preparation and a lot of patience, but she did it – and it’s all been 100% worth it. Sonia Mbele, the renowned actress and businesswoman, managed to pull off a successful, fun-filled first season of The Real Housewives of Johannesburg – and now she’s ready to take a few well-deserved days off.
But first the 41-year-old, who is the executive producer of the show alongside business partners Pebbles Gqunta and Rebone Sesing, has invited her mostly female crew members and DRUM to her upmarket home in Morningside, Gauteng to watch the last episode.
There’s a festive atmosphere as everyone gathers in the lounge, laughing and chatting away like family while they compliment one another on a job well done. Sonia mimics one of the phrases RHOJ star Evodia Mogase used to say, “What a joke, my darling,” and everyone laughs. Sonia is on her feet serving drinks and a delicious supper of couscous and a variety of salads with bottomless glasses of wine.
“We did it, guys,” she says and everyone screams as the credits roll up, showing the names of all involved behind the scenes.
It’s been a long couple of months of preparation and the cast and crew worked tirelessly, sometimes right through the night to try to meet their deadlines.
“It takes a team of positive minds to be able to produce a quality show,” Sonia says.
But it took a challenging five years to put the programme together. When she sealed the deal back in early 2014 with her then-business partners, she’d also been going through a highly publicised split from a well-known businessman and her attempt at making the reality show work initially failed.
Yet she learnt from her past experiences, she tells DRUM.
“I’m happy all my hard work and endurance didn’t go to waste.”
SONIA is dressed down in a black jumpsuit, a floral jacket and sandals from her own shoe range when she meets us at our offices after the last viewing. We ask if she wants anything for lunch and she replies she isn’t fussy as long as it’s not meat.
“I don’t like eating animals. I decided to stop eating meat a long time ago and I don’t see myself going back.”
Still, she doesn’t make a major fuss about it and there’s nothing diva-like about Sonia.
She got over the fame a long time ago, she says, and laughs at celebrities with big egos.
“I realised a long time ago that fame is not the beginning and end of it all. Fame for what if you’re not going to make a difference in someone’s life and empower people?
“I don’t take celebrities who act like divas seriously. I just laugh at them because we breathe the same air and we get the same rands.”
Life has knocked her down a few times and it’s helped her stay humble and grounded.
Five years ago, when the idea of The Real Housewives of Johannesburg was just a concept she was building with her partners, she got a taste of how cruel the industry could be.
She was fresh out of Generations – the show that put her on the map – and ready to pursue her goals of directing, producing and writing with her partners. But then her dream was shattered.
“I was going through a lot on a personal front,” she says. “The people I worked with reduced me to nothing and took advantage of the fact I was going through a messy break-up. “I lost my sense of self.” She was judged by friends and colleagues for the split, she says.
“I was in a dark hole, but I was committed to making the show work. I pushed and got the cast together, I got the sponsorship and 80% of the production was possible because I worked hard and made it happen.”
But then she received an email from her partners with her job description.
“I was no longer producer but told I needed to make coffee for people, hang curtains, move boxes and basically do the work of an intern.
“That is not what I had signed up to do. I was supposed to deal with bigger issues, but I was made to deal with broken doorknobs. Those people truly mistreated me.”
She did a lot of introspection. “I realised I was selling myself short.”
Sonia knew that if she left, the production would crumble. “I decided f*** this, I went home and handed in my resignation letter. I was then told, ‘No, you’re not resigning, you’re fired’.
“When everyone heard I’d walked away, they all pulled out and that’s how the first attempt of RHOJ failed.”
WALKING away from her dream wasn’t easy, especially since she was going through a break-up at the same time, Sonia says. She became depressed. “I tried therapy, but it didn’t work. Things got so bad I would even google ways of committing suicide and going out quickly and pain-free because I’d had enough of my life,” she says.
She would cry herself to sleep and sometimes sleep from Monday to Friday without checking on her kids, Donell (17), Khumo (11) and Mosa (7).
Her helper had to look after the kids as she was unable to at the time.
Things became so bad she was almost admitted into a psychiatric hospital in Sandton.
One evening after her son’s birthday five years ago, Sonia had a panic attack that changed her life.
“It was a sort of mental breakdown. After coming from dinner I just lost it and became hysterical. I was crying and talking non-stop,” she says.
A friend suggested she sleep over at her house so she could keep an eye on her.
“We got into the car and while on the highway I felt like I was losing my mind. I drove myself to the nearest mental hospital.”
She ran into the reception talking to herself. “I was rambling on and on when a nurse came to me. That woman was my saving grace.”
She asked Sonia if she was sure she was ready to be admitted because it could be a while before she was out again.
“I had a vision of myself in an institution, standing at a window and watching my children play outside – being trapped in a room, unable to go anywhere or move. I don’t know what happened, but I became determined to work hard on pulling myself out of the depression,” she says.
After the talk with the nurse Sonia left the hospital and went home.
“I made a conscious decision to work on my sanity. I prayed, fasted and drew myself closer to God. I was determined to accept myself for who I was and to love myself and never let anyone push me into that dark hole again. I never want to feel that way again.”
SIX months later Sonia went back to the hospital with flowers to thank the nurse, whose name she remembered as Kgomotso.
“When I got there I was told there had never been a nurse called Kgomotso at the hospital. I tried to describe her but no one knew what I was talking about. I realised then the voice of God had whispered in my ear telling me He was giving me a second chance at life,” she says.
“I know it sounds absurd, but that was a spiritual moment for me.”
Since then Sonia puts God first in everything.
“I’ve always known God, but now I am a true believer. I don’t allow my beliefs to deprive me of enjoying my life by being too critical and judgemental, but my belief cannot be shaken.
“The day I almost lost my mind is when I decided to live my life to the fullest. I became happy. I started choosing the kind of friends I want and the career I want to pursue.”
She communicates with God daily through prayer, reads the Bible every morning and plays gospel music regularly.
“Even in the car, I have conversations with God while I plan my day. Everything I do has God’s hand in it.”
SONIA has become a motivational speaker and has learnt to forgive people who have hurt her as well. In 2015 it was reported Sonia had assaulted her helper at the time, Noleen Zhangara. “No one bothered to ask for my truth at the time to find out my side of the story. “The truth is that she attacked me and not the other way around. I opened a case of assault against her and she left South Africa for her home in Zimbabwe, for a year. “On her way back to South Africa she was arrested a t the border. But when she finally came back she apologised for lying because she couldn’t quite live with herself. “She felt guilty for not telling the truth. But I don’t want to dwell on that. My point was I have forgiven her and moved on. “I don’t want to go through life with anger and bitterness.”
SONIA’S professional life is going well now. In addition to the success of RHOJ, she also recently launched her own range of shoes. She had always wanted to have her own line but wasn’t too sure how to go about it, she says. Then she was approached by Pesso, which owns Step Ahead shoe franchises across the country, and she jumped at the opportunity.
“I love shoes – everyone knows I’d thought about having my own shoe range, but I was waiting for the right time. When they approached me, it’s like the universe had heard my prayers.” Sonia created her own Sonia Mbele range of shoes for Step Ahead and Shoe Connection stores across the country. Everything I receive is something I want and had been praying for.”
All her designs and ranges are inspired by showbiz and named accordingly.
“One is called Opening Curtain, the other Closing Curtain, there’s a Starlet and an Opening Sequence,” she explains.
The veteran actress has also gone back to acting and has a role on the Mzansi Magic drama series The Imposter. She’ll never let go of her first love, acting, she says. In The Imposter she plays the role of fearless arms dealer Big Daddy. “I fell in love with the character the minute I heard her name – I mean, Big Daddy! When I read she was an arms dealer I became more intrigued.” Sonia was tired of always playing the housewife or the corporate businesswoman and needed a more challenging role. “I get offered a lot of roles but I don’t want to be typecast. Big Daddy has balls of steel and she’s feared by both men and women and I loved that.”
THIS has been a good year for her, Sonia says. “I went through a dark phase in my life for years but I managed to get back on my feet. I could describe 2018 as the year I reached my peak – I am really at my happiest.” She’s now able to balance her duties as a mother, businesswoman and actress.
“I have a beautiful, warm, happy home for my kids. I am doing what I love and find joy in waking up every morning. This year everything erupted – it’s the year of the volcano for me,” she says.
Sonia is very involved with her children. Every weekday she wakes up at 5am and gets them ready for school.
She’s there to help them with their homework and reads to them before bedtime.
“I try to balance my life. I have minimised events I attend and I choose where I want to be and the friends I keep. Motherhood hasn’t been easy, but it has been pleasurable. I’m at peace, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done and my sleeves are rolled up.”
She’s keeping her fingers crossed that there’ll be a second season of The Real Housewives of Johannesburg next year.
“We might make a few changes to the cast,” she says.
In 2019 people can expect to see a lot more of Sonia’s name in TV credits.
“I have a lot of content and in the past four years, I literally didn’t sleep. I put ideas down and created shows. Next year I’m looking to pilot the ideas and make them into reality television. I’m taking my time because I want to craft them properly. I want to have 10 shows across the board. I have a never-drying well of ideas and people need to watch this space.”
THE actress is in such a good space now she believes she will find love again. “When I was in the dark hole, I stopped believing in love. “When I got out of it I realised I still believe in love and hope to one day meet the right person.”
She isn’t ready to share whether she has met a special someone yet but she smiles and admits she’s in a good place.
“Let’s just say I’m happy and I would get married again,” she says.
“Man, I’m a sucker for love. But I also believe in not settling for less. I’m looking for my soulmate, the person I am ordained to be with. I don’t want to make the same mistakes I made in my marriage, therefore I am willing to wait.”
She is a nurturer and caretaker, she says.
“I love the family unit. I love being at home, cooking and taking care of those I love because it keeps me grounded.”
She’s found peace with her life, Sonia says confidently, and all her blessings have started pouring in.
IN FOUR years the actress and entrepreneur moved out of her marital home and bought a new house for herself and her children in Morningside, she registered her company Sonia Mbele Films (SMF) and is a partner at Rosa Productions where she works with mostly female directors, writers and producers.
“Men are very much in the minority. We want to change the way things have always been done in the industry. I also want us to partner with a loan company for our staff members to get home loans.”
Sonia wants to build her company into an environment where people can come to work with their children because there would be a babysitter, and people can feel appreciated.
“I don’t think filmmakers and actors are well looked after. I look up to people like Oprah and [American television producer] Shonda Rhimes, who take care of their staff and grow with them. Oprah doesn’t want to grow alone, and I tell my friends to stick around me and they will go places.
“And I mean it,” she says. “It starts with me but if I can also hold someone’s hand and help them along then I’ll gladly do it.”