Michelle Mosalakae: More than meets the eye
Batho ba Modimo ” (which can loosely be translated to God’s people) were the first three words that Michelle Mosalakae uttered on our small screens.
It was a Friday night about a year ago when the young actress made her television debut as the traditional healer Zakithi on the popular local telenovela-turned-soap-opera Isibaya, and she has captured our hearts and minds ever since. She was, understandably, quite nervous about how her character would be received by the public, she admits, but as the weeks went on, it became clear she had nothing to worry about.We’re sitting at a busy Joburg restaurant, chatting away.
The thespian is wearing a trench coat in her favourite colour, pink, over a white vest. Her eyes are hidden behind trendy geometric sunglasses, and her trademark blond locks are loosely tied up in a ponytail.
Michelle stands out from the crowd with her perfectly milky skin and ethereal looks. Ever since she was a child, her mother, Sarah, raised her to embrace her difference, she says. “My mom always told me, ‘You’re different, and you need to embrace that, love yourself, and know that there’s something about you that will stand out as long as you have confidence in yourself’,” she says, slowly sipping her cappuccino. Sarah’s ears perk up when she hears her name being mentioned. As Michelle’s manager and close friend, she’s been sitting with us, quietly listening in on our conversation. But now that she’s come up, she ventures to speak, telling me how she remembers the day almost 24 years ago that her daughter came into the world. “Obviously it was a shock for me when she was born,” Sarah says, “but my family was supportive. I remember I prayed in my room and told God, ‘You gave me this child, and I’m giving her back to you to take care of her.
This one is going to be different. People all over the world must talk about her.’ And God answered my prayers.”Earlier this year, Michelle was announced as one of the ambassadors for international cosmetic brand Revlon, something she says took her by surprise, despite her mother’s fervent prayers ever since her high school days for a beauty-brand endorsement to come her way. “She has such beautiful skin. It just can’t go to waste,” Sarah explains.But it’s more than just skin-deep for Michelle. For starters, there’s no doubt about her acting talent. While actors often face several disappointments awaiting that one call that might change their lives, she was fresh out of drama school when she landed the role of Zakithi. “My agent kind of prepped me, telling me the likelihood [of getting a job] was that it could take a while,” she remembers.
“Every single day I was praying. I was like: ‘God, you’re a God of right now. My story is not like everyone else’s, it’s a different one, and if this is your plan for me, let your will be done’.” (Sarah does have one unanswered prayer for her daughter though — and that is that she will find a good man. She’s not currently dating. “I do like a good-looking guy,” the usually guarded Michelle reveals, but I’m very picky about the people I allow in my space. Besides, I’m a bit of a sapiosexual, which means I’m more about the mind, and I’m more interested in what he has to offer.” Sounds like Sarah needs to spend a little more time on her knees…) Although she has a congenital disorder, which means she was born with it, Michelle’s adamant it’s not the only thing defining her. “I’m an actress, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend… who happens to have albinism. There’s more to me,” she insists. “I’m doing what I do not because of that but because of my talent and the work I have put in.” She pauses and removes her sunglasses as she thinks. “It’s not like I don’t see it, or that other people don’t see it, it’s a part of who I am. I’m just saying it’s not my story. It’s just not something I put forward as the first thing.”
But of course she’s well aware people with albinism are often treated very badly. “People living with albinism are subjected to discrimination by people who don’t know, who don’t understand,” she explains. “There’s nothing wrong with not understanding. You just need to ask. You also need to understand that humans are just humans.” I ask if she sometimes feels there’s an expectation for her to be the “face of” people living with albinism. “I think there’s an element of me that’s responsible for being a role model,” she says.
“Not just for people living with albinism,but also for people who might feel they aren’t able to do things in society because of the way they look or where they come from. So in that way, yes, I do feel responsible to say, ‘Look, I have albinism — but look at what I have done’.” Very soon the list of things she “has done” will come to include more than just actress and model, as she’s also trying her hand at script writing now that Zakithi is taking a break for a bit. And sounds like there’s even more. “I have a lot on my to-do list,” she divulges although she’s sketchy with the details. “It’s quite broad and quite hectically intricate as well…. But it’s just for me to tell stories in as many different contexts in the world as possible.”
This article first appeared in print in the Sowetan S Mag June 2018 edition.