Actor, presenter and comedian Siv Ngesi reveals all to Lauren Shapiro

I meet him right after his cover shoot and even though the cameras are off, he’s still smiling like a spotlight. He’s changed into a grey T-shirt with shorts and flip flops, but the casual attire can’t hide his impressive physique. There’s a reason that 32-year-old Siv Ngesi is one of the most photographable celebs out there. My mission, however, is to get to know the man behind the muscles.

Born in Gugulethu in 1985, Ngesi grew up during the time the new South Africa was beginning. He credits his mother – ‘a strong, old-school Xhosa woman’ – with raising him to have excellent ethics and manners, and to know that he can achieve anything in life if he puts in the work. His mom also encouraged him to take speech and drama classes from age seven to channel his immense energy and creativity. Her intuition paid off – by age nine Ngesi was starring in American TV commercials and touring Asia as the gutsy, bighearted street urchin Gavroche in the musical Les Misérables. I compliment his natural talent, but he shakes his head with a smile. ‘All a child needs is people to believe in them,’ he insists. ‘It’s not so much about talent as that belief.’

You might recognize Ngesi from his bubbly personality as a TV presenter or clips of his hilarious standup comedy acts. Dekaf won the Golden Ovation Award for the best comedy show at the National Arts Festival and Race Card was so popular it ran for three years. His latest show, SIV-ilized, ran last October at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre to great acclaim.

‘What’s the secret to being funny?’ I ask. He smiles again – but he’s being serious. ‘The easiest was to make people laugh is through authenticity,’ he confides. ‘Humans laugh at things that have an inherent truth to them.’ He certainly pulls no punches in his latest show, satirising gender injustice, the president, and #RhodesMustFall, amongst other hot topics. He takes his inspiration from ‘the world at the moment’, drawing heavily on the media, social media, and his own experiences. ‘Anything can be funny if it’s done respectfully,’ he says.

While he loves the adrenaline and instant gratification of stand-up, Ngesi’s true love is film. ‘I always say acting is my wife and comedy is just the other woman,’ he says with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Acting is my everything and it keeps me alive.’

Since my editor gave me a very strict word count, I cannot list all of the dozens of roles he’s played on TV and film, but I have to mention that he features in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009) (in rugby shorts!) and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), where he plays aide to Idris Elba’s Madiba. Also in 24: Redemption (2008) as Thomas, a young man that helps humanitarian Carl Benton (Robert Carlyle) at the Okavango school for African war orphans.

On the small screen, he’s hosted SABC 3’s The Man Cave since 2015 and stolen the show (if not the prize) with his teammate Khabonina ‘Khabs’ Shabangu on Tropika Island of Treasure: Seychelles (SABC 3) last year. His travel series Wingin’ It sees Ngesi and his best buddy Janez Vermeiren jet off to foreign countries with no plan, no itinerary and only 48 hours to see, taste and experience whatever they can – often with hilarious results.

On social media, Ngesi has created a persona that is confident, brazen or – in his words – ‘in your face’. It clearly works for the 7 700-odds fans who like him on Facebook and his 91 000-odd followers on Twitter and Instagram. But in person he is softer and more modest. He’s also extremely kind. He wants to make a positive contribution to people’s lives through his foundation Siv Gives Back. He explains: ‘Where I am today is because of the kindness of so many people who recognised my talent and believed in me. But talent means nothing until it is shared.’ So doing free comedy shows, investing in students’ dreams, MCing for charities and assisting with fundraisers is a way of life for Ngesi. On top of all of that, he’s founded a new project called #DignityDrive, through which he distributes sanitary products to underprivileged women across the Western Cape.

Ngesi is one cheeky character – and I’m not only talking about his plucky personality. For those of you who you missed the meme of his ‘booty call’ at 5FM’s studio last June (Google it), Ngesi dropped his jocks for radio host Thando Thabethe, to uproarious response on social media. He admits to taking ‘bum shots’ around the world: ‘I see this incredible view and I think, “My bum would look better next to that!” His extremely well-travelled derriere is often the focus of fans, who he says regularly attempt to grope it. ‘It’s mostly good-natured,’ he assures me. ‘People are always asking for selfies or if they can sneak a peek under my shirt. Sometimes they cross the line, but I just laugh it off.’

He attributes his remarkable physique to his genes (pun not intended), and while he takes care of his body and enjoys the odd bout of boxing, he reveals that ‘great bodies are made in the kitchen’. He loves sweet potatoes, broccoli, tuna and chicken breasts. ‘I love breasts on a chicken as much as a woman,’ he quips.

But Ngesi is clearly not just a pretty face (or any other body part). His growing list of accolades includes three SAFTA nominations, impressive titles such as YOU’s Most Stylish Male Celeb, as well as mentions in the Mail and Guardian’s Most Influential Young South Africans and Internet Movie Database’s Top Ten Best Working South African Actors Overseas. And a place on Cosmo’s Sexiest Man calendar in 2015 (I had to mention that). But when I ask him to pick his favourite, he says unequivocally: ‘an SMS from my mum telling me that she’s proud of me.’

She has reason to be proud. 2018 promises to be a big year for Ngesi. Expect a national tour of SIV-ilized and a new travel show. His production company is working on a number of projects, including an hilarious local feature film about a black member of the witness protection programme set in Orania, with Ngesi in the title role.

In closing, I ask Ngesi what he hopes to achieve with his career in the entertainment industry. ‘If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d have said fame,’ he admits. ‘But now, I’d say power. I want the power to create. To tell authentic stories. The power to change lives for the better.’

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