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Hellen Motsuki: La femme fatale

Motsuki blossomed in 2023 thanks to her career turn as temptress Melita on Skeem Saam

Emmanuel Tjiya S Mag Editor-in-chief
The talented Hellen Motsuki.
The talented Hellen Motsuki.
Image: Steve Tanchel

Everywhere leading lady Hellen Motsuki goes she is met with adoring fans shouting “Melita!” Her femme-fatale onscreen persona has rocked Mzansi in the deliciously pulpy and darkly twisted storyline about infidelity.

At her cover shoot I get to experience the irresistible allure of Melita, with the staff at Villa Simonne Boutique Hotel in Joburg hardly able to contain their excitement. As soon as she walks in, they mob her and take turns snapping selfies. 

The 35-year-old actress loves all the attention — it has taken her over a decade to score a career-defining role. She’d yearned for it since booking her breakout role as Nadia in the SABC 1 soapie Generations: The Legacy in 2010. Motsuki has been playing Melita (first introduced as a goody two shoes) on soapie Skeem Saam (also SABC 1) since 2014. While the role was quite small for years, that all changed when her character had a clandestine affair with the married John Maputla (Africa Tsoai) last year. The scandalous fling quickly turned Melita into a hit with television viewers, who just love to hate her.

And who can blame them? Motsuki is good at playing bad. A year later, there came an even more taboo storyline of forbidden love, when Melita seduced married Mr Kgomo (Lebohang Elephant). Mzansi was shook. Clips of Mr Kgomo acting like a love-sick puppy while Melita demanded a “10k girlfriend allowance” went viral. Catfights, fires, and comas kept viewers on the edge on their seat weekdays at 6.30pm while Melita remained a hot topic on social media. 

“We started shooting Melita and Mr Kgomo’s storyline last November. It aired from late January until August and every night I was trending,” Motsuki says in awe.   

At the height of it all, Motsuki was left shaken when a viewer threatened to beat her up while she was shopping at her local supermarket with her son. While she laughs about it now, at the time it was no laughing matter. 

“I was minding my own business when this woman hit me on the heel with her trolley,” she says. “I thought that it was accidental. When I looked back at her, she started to curse me out. I was confused — until she threatened to slap Melita. To protect myself and my son, who was terrified, I left the trolley there with my groceries and walked away. When I got to the car I was still shaken. It took me about two days before I could laugh about it.” 

Image: Steve Tanchel

Motsuki is nothing like Melita. For starters, she is happily married and her husband accompanied her on set. In preparing to play Melita, she relied on a lot of research and the assistance of an acting coach on set.

“I needed help, in particular with the romantic side of her, because when she was first introduced she was a humble and focused career woman who didn’t have time for men,” she remembers. “When they switched to her being a homewrecker, it took a lot of work. I have been married for such a long time and have forgotten how to even flirt. I had to practise on my husband and use puppy eyes. As a married woman I had to understand that a woman like Melita feels no guilt.” 

Motsuki views playing magazine editor Nadia on Generations as a necessary learning curve. Although the character she played for over three years failed to take off, she will forever be grateful for the opportunity. She also played the resident lawyer on the SABC 2 drama Muvhango and had stints on telenovela The Queen and Wandile Molebatsi’s film Tooth and Nails: A Gospel Music Story, playing a character similar to Melita. 

“Generations was my university. Even after I was done with my scenes, I wouldn’t go home. I would ask questions and was so curious about how the production worked behind the scenes,” she says. 

Born in Lephalale, Motsuki was encouraged to follow a career in engineering, medicine or teaching. Her parents forbid a career in entertainment, as they felt it wasn’t sustainable. So, after high school, she pursued a degree in psychology, but eventually dropped out and secretly joined an acting agency, which was how she ended up on Generations.

That role helped her convince her parents to let her follow her passion. “I’ve always been a performer — even when I was young I’d stand in front of the TV and demand that my parents watch me instead,” she says. “In-between my studies, I worked at Home Affairs and was bored behind the keyboard. Instead, I Googled how to break into the industry or looked at celebrities.” 

She is the youngest of three girls and her parents are divorced. “I value and commend them so much. They were married and then got divorced, but they were still best friends, I never experienced any rivalry,” she says. 

Motsuki declined to comment on her marriage, only saying when the topic came up: “I’m happily married. What I have is so beautiful and I try to protect it from the public.” 

She was much more open talking about her seven-year-old son. “Motherhood is so challenging. He is more like me and speaks his mind, like me. It is challenging, because we get into a lot of arguments,” she says. “But I’m enjoying it and I would do it all over again. The most beautiful thing about motherhood is to do it when you are ready. I was ready. We spoke about it, we enjoyed ourselves first, and waited until we were ready. We planned everything and he’s such a blessing.” 

The future is bright for Motsuki, who is praying for acting opportunities that offer her a chance to show her range — from action to rom-coms and more.  

Image: Steve Tanchel