He’s no caveman

He’s no caveman

Lunga Shabalala may frequently be voted one of the sexiest men in South Africa, but there’s more to this guy than chiselled arms and a mesmerising smile. By Rebekah Kendal

It’s hard to imagine Lunga Shabalala as a scrawny kid. The guy in front of the camera – who transitions effortlessly from charming to roguish to the guy-your-parents-would-love – has the kind of musculature that sells underwear. Literally. He was a Calvin Klein underwear model. And yet, Shabalala assures me he was quite small for much of high school. Ten years ago, that skinny teen at Maritzburg College wrote his future self a letter.

‘The opening line was: “I’m sure you’re surprised that you are now living a celebrity life. I hope you’ve met Thierry Henry”. I did that. The letter speaks about travelling … and I’ve been to all the destinations mentioned. But, at the time, all of these things were very unrealistic. I hadn’t even been on a plane at 17. I did every single thing in that letter.’

These days, the musings of his 17-year-old self may not seem all that outlandish; but, at the time, they seemed pure fantasy. Shabalala grew up in a household that valued education above all else. A year after composing the letter, he went on to study town planning and private development at Durban University of Technology at his father’s request. It wasn’t exactly a passion, but he was good at it. And, were it not for a former girlfriend who persuaded him to enter a competition to become the face (or, should we say, abs) of Calvin Klein underwear, Shabalala might very well be sitting in an office drawing plans.

‘People never believe me when I say it, but I never saw myself as one of those attractive model types,’ laughs Shabalala. ‘For me, it’s always just been fun. It doesn’t take too much thinking. You’re just standing in front of the camera and moving around – it can’t be that hard! I always feel that people get nervous or feel intimidated because they are no longer in the present. Just be in the moment, and you will have fun. It’s the same as everything else in life.’

After he completed his degree, Shabalala, who was at that point firmly established as a model, decided to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. His father, who couldn’t understand why his son chose to give up a career in town planning after working so hard for his degree, was not pleased.

‘Nowadays, he is okay with it because I’m able to support myself. I am able to live the life that I envisioned for myself, and, I suppose, that’s what every parent wants for their child.’

In 2011, Shabalala took part in a countrywide presenter search for a show called Selimathunzi – and won. He tried his hand at radio, acting and DJing, but none of these career paths appealed to him as much as being the host of a television show. Two-and-a-half years ago, he bumped into Janez Vermeiren backstage at the South African Music Awards. The two got chatting about how South Africa needed a magazine-style show directed at men, and The Man Cave was born.

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‘Everyone was just throwing everything into one basket and hoping for the best. And it worked out. Three episodes in, we were getting commissioned for a second season. Next thing, we were going to the US and doing all these crazy things!’

While the show has got bigger and better with each season, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Along the way, the team has learnt some important and expensive (an $11 000 taxi fare!) logistical lessons. And, while it looks like Shabalala is living the good life on camera, he admits that the journey has been bumpy.

‘One thing you realise when you get into entertainment is that getting in is easy. Staying here is hard. Staying here and being successful is even harder. There were times when my pay cheque didn’t last for the month. There were times when all I ate for an entire week was peanut butter. You keep up a facade because that’s what people expect. Success comes to those who can uphold this front for as long as possible. The downside is that you start doing stupid things just to be able to come across a certain way.

‘Over the past five years, I’ve learnt that the industry is really no different from high school. You just want to be popular and to be around the cool kids, even though you don’t like the cool kids. I suppose the people who enjoy it are the ones who learn to be comfortable with themselves in the space.’

For Shabalala, that moment came when his beloved grandparents passed away. He realised at their funeral that popularity is fleeting, and that the people who really matter in your life are those who take the time and effort to be with you when you are hurting.

‘When I stopped worrying about the limelight and decided to do what I do because I love it, my delivery just became easier and more free, and people enjoyed it more. I am having more fun and, because of that, I am no longer as apologetic about what I say on TV. I have made peace with the fact that if you like me, you’ll take me as I am. If you don’t, so be it. And the truth is – at the end of the day – people will adjust.’

Being on The Man Cave has given Shabalala the opportunity to live out some of his fantasies. He has interviewed his idol, Thierry Henry, been hit on by Jessie J, sought advice from Richard Branson (if you no longer love what you do, quit) co-piloted a plane, and driven a Nascar vehicle in Vegas. He has also forged some truly invaluable friendships with his co-hosts. ‘We grew close, we grew to hate each other and we grew to love each other all over again. You go on these trips for three weeks and people start missing their families, and then all you have is each other. They really are my brothers. Obviously, not as close as the friends I’ve had since high school, but the dynamics are also just pure. We understand that we spend time with each other because of business, but we like each other out of choice.’

While he’s the first to admit that much of his home is a man cave – he has a massive TV for watching sports and playing PlayStation, and a wall dedicated to signed sports jerseys and memorabilia – Shabalala understands there is more to being a great man than toys and gadgets.

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‘Character makes a good man. It’s what you stand for when no one is looking. It’s the person who you are when no one is going to applaud you. It’s about the way you treat people who you don’t have to treat well. Everything else comes as a consequence of good character. It’s not about what you have or how you dress. I grew up with great men. I hope I’m a better man for their lessons.’

Shabalala – or Traps, as his friends call him – seems to be doing a pretty fine job of being a good man. He is not afraid to tell me that he is scared of dogs, that he lost his first boxing match, or that he was depressed for a few months following the death of his grandparents and divorce of his parents. When he tells me about the schoolgirls who invite him to their matric dances, he doesn’t ridicule them, but mentions that he is learning to let them down gently. He admits that the things he really loves doing – singing karaoke at home with his friends at 4 am – don’t look good on social media. And he speaks at length about his favourite charity, Project Gateway, which is dedicated to supporting the families of those who have died as a result of HIV/Aids.

When it comes to talk of the future, Shabalala is divided. There’s a voice at the back of his head – the one he tends to listen to – urging him to attempt to build a career abroad. But there is also another voice: one that wants to give back. Shabalala is passionate about helping young athletes to achieve their dreams by focusing on their home lives, and all the socio-economic factors that get in the way of their success. I suspect he’ll figure out a way to do both.

‘I’ve decided to keep writing myself a letter every 10 years. I’ve already written my next letter. It’s even more ridiculous now. It makes no sense to me, but, hey, I’ll get it done. I’m a big believer in the idea that you speak your truth into existence.’

Photography: Andreas Eiselen/HSMimages.co.za, Courtesy Images
October/November 2016

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