Everything you’ve heard about Khanyi Mbau is probably true. She doesn’t bat an impossibly lashed eyelid as she rattles off labels attached to her over the years: homewrecker, gold- digger, queen of bling, sushi body-shot babe, slut.

It’s a lot for someone who’s just turned the corner on 30 years.

‘I always say my spiritual age is more like 48,’ says the actor as she sips soy milk chai tea at a swanky Sandton hotel restaurant. She’s disarmingly honest – it’s a powerful weapon and she knows it. Khanyi knows quite a lot, like how to be a brand and how to maximise all she has to offer with calculated foresight on what she can get in return. She also knows about reinvention – the Khanyi of 2016 is quite different from TV’s Kideo kid (which she was until she was 11) or the trash-bling celebrity she was in the noughties.
She muses about how she was destined to have the life she’s had – a product of history and of personal circumstance. Born in 1985, she grew up in Soweto and was raised by her mother and grandmother. She goes by her mother’s family name. From the beginning she straddled different worlds and learned to extract what she needed from each. ‘On my mother’s side of the family were lawyers, doctors, economists. You had to pronounce English properly and my gran had a thing for beautiful interior design. On my father’s side they’re Zulus and he’s a taxi boss. The family didn’t care what the house looked like so long as there was food. There were guns and the taxi ranks were always dirty. So from the two sides of my family I learned to become streetwise and also corporately inclined,’ she says.

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There was always money. Khanyi remembers she and her sister would count hard cash from the earnings of her dad’s 40 taxis. Her mother’s middle-class background meant jetting off for holidays and affording luxuries even as she grew up in the township. School for Khanyi was Mayfair Convent Primary School, then Bedfordview High. It would be another merging of worlds, being among the first generation of Model C kids growing up in integrated schools. ‘I was one of the first two black girls in my class. We had white friends. We were all like, “Oh, so you have straight hair,” or “You have a bum,” or “You don’t have a bum,”’ she says.

Then she adds that she became one of ‘the guinea pigs’ – black people who became celebrities for something other than the Struggle. ‘We were known just for having money, for parties and cars,’ she says. She’s frank about ‘not being confused about the power of money’ or learning the art of manipulation by playing both sides of the different worlds she grew up in.

‘You learn to play with hearts, to win respect, to lose respect and to gain it back again. I don’t think people should be scared of me, but the reality is that if you play in the public space you need to know the art of manipulation,’ she says. Khanyi states these things candidly. It’s not a gloat exactly, because she also knows about being burnt when you play with fire. That fire took the form of two highly public, essentially toxic relationships. First there was celebrity businessman Mandla Mthembu, nearly 30 years her senior when she dated him at 17. She had his child one year later, only to have him leave her when their daughter was just three months old.

‘I didn’t love Mandla, but I worshipped him because he gave me my childhood dream of living like the rich and famous,’ she says. She knew hooking up with Mandla meant taking him from his family, that included an epileptic child. ‘It hurt for about five minutes, but then I got too busy buying my next car or looking for a bigger house,’ she says. After Mandla she became the sugar baby girlfriend of businessman Theunis Crous. It was another relationship that played out in tabloid glare and was particularly painful when he posted lewd photos of her on social media when their relationship crashed. The year things ended with Theunis, 2010, would be a major turning point. ‘Those pictures he posted were really painful because I knew how they made my mother and my grandmother feel. Everyone saw those pictures; the car guards and the lady at the checkout knew me. I decided that, as I was as naked as the day I was born in those pictures, it was either my rebirth or my day to die. I chose life.’ ‘Choosing life’ meant stripping herself of the false support of good-time friends and staying away from the social scenes that ended up as tabloid fodder. ‘It was made easy for me because no one wanted to work with me. I had the persona of a porn star,’ she says.

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While she got roles in Muvhango and Scandal in 2004, she was fired from the former for making headlines for all the wrong reasons. By 2010, money ran out. Before, she could command appearance fees of R35 000 a night; now she wasn’t even on invite lists. She had to move out of her Sandton home and move in with a friend in Pretoria for nine months.
‘I went from super-rich to zero,’ she says. ‘I got everything too fast – the husbands, the baby, the car, the money, the fame. I had everything but I wasn’t there. I fell into depression and I rebelled.

If you thought I dressed cheaply, I would be even cheaper,’ she says. ‘I didn’t care if my boobs were hanging out. I took all the hate and returned it with my anger. I thought I might as well drink and party myself to death. I cancelled out my mother. If you looked at me a certain way I’d take your husband or I’d take your father. I was a law unto myself.’
But Khanyi is the comeback queen. In 2011 she teamed up with journalist Lesley Mofokeng to write Bitch, Please! I’m Khanyi Mbau. Going back to the darkest parts of her life meant shedding tears, healing and therapy. By 2013 there were some TV roles and by 2014 her celebrity rating was on the up again, with her hosting the South African Film and Television Awards and appearing on Strictly Come Dancing SA and Tropika Island of Treasure. She even got her own show on e.tv, Katch It With Khanyi, that year.

This year she made the breakthrough to the big screen with Happiness is a Four-Letter Word. She was reluctant at first when she was asked to play the role of Zaza, a trophy wife. ‘When I read the casting brief it literally said, “Khanyi Mbau, but a classier version”,’ she says, chuckling. ‘I had worked so hard to move away from this and I felt that taking the role would put me straight back to where I was. But my mother said to me, “If you are a good actor, people will see the film and see the similarities; you’ll bring Zaza to life, but you’ll walk out there yourself.”’

Critics loved her in the movie, saying, ‘It’s Khanyi Mbau who steals the show. Her raw emotion and vulnerability is captivating to watch.’

Today, she’s glowing. She is living her life on her terms – the boobs are done, the Botox is a lifestyle regime, and so is the controversial skin lightening, she says. She watches what she eats and invests in the finer things in life. Her best friend is still Lerise Dickens. They’re as different as night and day but Lerise is a cherished constant in her life, Khanyi says, who ‘gets’ her. Her sister

Buhle’s perennial caution to her big sister is also unexpected: ‘Don’t be so kind to people.’

Khanyi’s love of the last seven years is Tebogo Lerole. Tabloid rumours still churn, but she says the musician has given her peace and a functional relationship – something she’s never known before.

‘He’s my biggest fan but he’s not my groupie. He doesn’t have money and it doesn’t bother me. He loves me for who I am.’ She’s in a good space, she says. She can own the soundtrack in her head – it’s Lebo Mathosa’s ‘Brand New Day’.

‘Lebo was in a dark place at that time. I think of Lebo, and of Brenda Fassie, too – they never made it back. I did, though. I did make it back.’

Written by Ufrieda Ho for Marie Claire’s June 2016 issue.