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‘It’s like, so much fun’ – Lesego Tlhabi on her vlogging sensation Coconut Kelz

2019-02-01 14:25
Lesego Tlhabi (PHOTO: Rowyn Lombard)
Lesego Tlhabi (PHOTO: Rowyn Lombard)

Lesego Tlhabi, the woman behind controversial vlogging sensation Coconut Kelz, tells DRUM why she’s having the time of her life.

She votes DA, thinks Mmusi Maimane is the Barack Obama of South Africa and even though her dad works with, “like, Cyril and them” she really doesn’t like the ANC.

She wore “MK chic” to an anti-Zuma march, her BFFs are “Mich” and “Sê” and she dressed in black for a week in support of white farmers who are getting killed “in their 10s and 12s”.

“I have a lot of friends with farms and I’m always allowed on,” she points out. Ashwin Willemse is “just so aggressive” and really, when you think about it, there’s no such thing as white privilege, guys.

“I mean, my friend Natasha’s dad is like, a super-dark-skinned guy and when he comes back from holiday he’s like, ‘Oh my God, Kelz – twinzies!’ So how can that be white privilege?”

This is the outrageous world of Coconut Kelz, the YouTube vlogger who has opinions about everything that, like, really matters. And she understands what’s going on this country because she, like, knows it all: she’s a black girl who went to a white school so she has a real grasp on stuff.

It’s satire at its best, a laugh-out-loud dig at the issues consuming SA and getting South Africans hot under the collar. And Lesego Tlhabi, the woman behind it all, had no idea it would be such a hit.

Kelz is an internet sensation with thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and a regular slot on Radio 702’s weekend breakfast show with host Phemelo Motene. “I really didn’t know she would be so popular because she’s quite controversial,” Lesego (29) says.

Kelz is a fictional character who arose out of real-life interactions, she explains.

“She was born at school because I’ve always been opinionated. I used to share my views on Facebook, kind of in rant form. Under the same posts would be tons of comments from lots of different white people who would say things like, ‘We don’t see colour’ and ‘We don’t see race, why don’t you move on?’ so after a while I felt like it was a joke.”

Frustrated by people who didn’t seem to get what she was saying, Lesego decided to make those same statements back to her critics in the hope they would see a different point of view. “Kelz is also a play on the type of person who people imagine comes from a private school and on people who only have white friends. Kelz always has a message.”

Lesego was inspired to create her after watching satirical sketches on comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Pure Monate Show. The aim, Lesego adds, is to make people laugh and get them to engage.

“It’s easier to make people engage with someone or something once you’ve disarmed them.” And with so much bad news and negativity in the country Lesego hopes the one thing people take away from Kelz is “we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously”.

Lesego has always wanted to be in showbiz but it wasn’t easy convincing her parents. Her mother, Penny Osiris, and father, Brian Tlhabi, are both doctors and wanted her to do a more “serious” course once she matriculated from the exclusive St Anne’s Diocesan College near Durban in 2006.

“I went to do a BCom at Wits but dropped out six months later.” She begged her parents to allow her to study drama but they still said no. So in 2008 she enrolled at the University of Cape Town and studied media for two years before dropping out again. It was at this point her mom finally conceded her child’s true passion lay in the arts.

With Penny’s backing, Lesego went to Brunel University London in England to study theatre and followed it up with an eight-week course at a musical theatre in New York. “I loved my time in London,” she says.

“That’s what gave me the confidence to do something like Kelz. Before I would wonder, ‘What if people laugh at me rather than with me?’” Her time away also showed Penny and Brian they’d made the right choice in sending her to an arts school.

“Now they get it and are super supportive,” Lesego adds. One person who also encourages Lesego’s creative side is her stepmother, broadcaster and commentator Redi Tlhabi. In fact, she adds, Redi was instrumental in convincing her dad to allow her to follow her heart.

“She told him how she was a creative too and she’d made it work, so I could too. I hope one day she and I will work on a project together.”

Kelz isn’t all Lesego does. She’s been working as a scriptwriter, producer and DJ since returning to SA in 2014 and has been a content producer for V Entertainment, contributing to such shows as All Access Mzansi and Squad Deep on MTV Base. But it was Coconut Kelz that thrust her into the spotlight. Kelz gets support from all over South Africa, Lesego says.

“From the apartheid generation, the coconut generation, white and black people. I’m not trying to diss anyone or hurt feelings.” And obviously, Lesego adds, she doesn’t personally agree with Kelz’s views. “Coconut Kelz is the opposite of me. I don’t subscribe to anything she says.”

While she initially struggled with people expecting her to be Coconut Kelz all the time, Lesego believes she can have a career where she can be herself as well as her alter ego. She admits it can be confusing being “two people” when it comes to MCing events.

“Someone will ask me to MC a function and I’ll agree but when I show up they’ll be like, ‘Kelz, you are going to . . .’” Lesego is hoping to establish herself as an actress too. Still, while Kelz is popular Lesego is going to take full advantage of it.

She has big plans for her alter ego next year, she says. “I can’t talk about what exactly is happening but there are TV shows, books and things.” Lesego also hopes Kelz leads to her owning a production company.

“I want to be in control of every aspect of my career. I want to create shows and be in all of them, like Oprah. I want to be a content creator forever. I want to write forever. I want to perform forever.”And like, if Kelz is anything to go by, why not?