This article originally appeared in Marie Claire (April 2017)
Few celebrities have captured the country’s – not to mention the tabloids’ – attention quite like Kelly Khumalo. Bold, confident and unabashed, Kelly has blazed a trail through the entertainment world, racking up awards, affairs and fans along the way. But just behind her in the spotlight stood her younger sister, Zandi, her backup dancer and singer.
As Kelly sang her way up the charts and into the tabloids, Zandi stood by her side, through the 2012 conviction of Kelly’s ex-boyfriend Molemo ‘Jub Jub’ Maarohanye for culpable homicide, to the 2014 death of her lover, soccer hero Senzo Meyiwa. But 2017 is a fresh start for the sisters. Kelly is joining Idols as a judge and has just released a new album, while Zandi is releasing her first album and settling into married life.
The power of sisterhood is strong with the Khumalos, in the same vein as Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. Beyoncé recently interviewed her younger sister for Interview magazine, saying, ‘I remember thinking, “My little sister is going to be something super special,” because you always seemed to know what you wanted.’ In the spirit of celebrating sisterhood, Kelly and Zandi sit down to talk about their careers, family and future.
KELLY: It’s so weird having you interview me.
ZANDI: I know! So, to the beginning of our musical journey…
K: It started at church. We sang in the youth choir.
Z: Let’s not forget the choir we had at home. Remember that?
K: Oh yes, the choir was made up of 14 kids, all of us living at our grandmother’s house. She had five children, so all the cousins were in this choir. Our upbringing wasn’t as hunky-dory as we may have liked it to be. The music in church kept us going.
Z: Yes, our grandmother had favourites at home and it wasn’t you and me.
K: We found solace in music, and when we moved to Joburg from KwaZulu- Natal, we participated in SABC1’s Crux Gospel Star competition in 2004.
Z: I made it to the top seven.
K: I was in the top three, and from there I got signed. The following year I released my first album, TKO.
Z: And we just began working together automatically. You were looking for a dancer and a singer. And I became that.
K: Did you enjoy working with me?
Z: I loved it. I would live all my industry dreams vicariously through you.
K: And now 12 years later your first, long-awaited album is dropping. I don’t know how many times I called you to pressure you to go into the studio to record. I’m so happy it’s here.
Z: You’ve been pushing me to do what I love. I don’t know what I’ve been waiting for. Now I have a soulful album dropping! How did you feel when I decided to go on my own, and no longer be your backup singer and dancer?
K: I always wanted you to grow and go your own way. As much as I loved working with you, I wouldn’t want to be that sister who ties you down to my dreams. I would have felt as if I’d cheated you out of your own destiny. I wanted you to flourish in your own career. Don’t cry, it’s going to make me cry too!
Z: [Crying] This is an emotional moment. Do you worry about me getting into the industry?
K: Not really, because you’ve had 12 years of experience in this game. But I am concerned that you have a laid-back and soft personality. In this shrewd industry, where people can be vultures, it might be easy for people to push you over. I have learned to fight and push back. So if push comes to shove, I will fight on your behalf.
Z: During my years of working with you I’ve witnessed so much…
K: I’ve had my fair share of crazy fans. I’ve had people collapse and cry in my presence, and throw a glass at me as I was getting off stage that has left scars on my neck.
Z: What about dealing with negative social media comments?
K: I actually don’t care. It’s that simple for me. I’m running my own race, which is more important than what the next person thinks of me. People trying to pull me down have nothing to do with me. I see comments on social media, people share stuff with me and tag me in posts. I untag myself, block what I don’t like and carry on with my life.
Z: What advice do you have for me about going into the entertainment industry?
K: Be yourself.
Z: I always try to see the positive in everything. Not many people have the privilege of having a sister lend a hand and say, climb up. But people do expect us to be measured on the same scale.
K: That’s unfair because you can’t compare my 12 years and seven albums to your first single and album. It’s very challenging for siblings to be in the same industry because it’s easy for people to compare them. They forget that as much as you’re from the same family, you’re different individuals.
Z: OK, now that we’re here, I’ve always wanted to ask you something…
K: [Laughs] Now that you’re the journalist.
Z: Yes! I’ve been exposed to three different Kellys. Kelly at home. Kelly before she goes on stage. And Kelly on stage. What goes through your mind during these stages?
K: I also experience very different people and I never know who’s going to come out. Before a show, I prep, prep, prep. And I’m nervous about everything. I make sure I don’t forget anything. It’s a panic. Backstage I’m super nervous; I’m about to crumble and die! In my mind I’m thinking, ‘What if I forget the words? What if I trip and fall? What if people don’t like me?’ This is me 12 years later.
Z: And on stage?
K: When I get on stage, I have the energy of 10 men. I transform into this confident woman who says, ‘You can’t touch this. I will sing you to your bones and make sure that by the time you leave, you think I’m the best thing you’ve ever seen.’
Z: I’ve felt that energy before.
K: I hate embarrassment and failure. So the person you see on stage hates mediocrity. I always want to be the best I can be.
Z: What about dealing with failure? K: I will never fail when it comes to this [pointing to throat]. I can fail elsewhere in life. But on stage nothing can go wrong for me. You can take away the sound, and I will still sing.
Z: Your new album is called My Truth. What’s your truth?
K: Embracing who I am and what my experiences have been. My truth is wishing for the best for myself; it’s who I am as a mother, a friend and an African.
Z: Speaking of experiences… Let’s talk about overcoming your challenges, specifically substance abuse.
K: I’ve been clean for about five years, with no desire to go back to drugs. I have chosen to live a healthy lifestyle for myself and my children.
Z: I’m very proud of you. It’s not every day that someone comes out of such a dark place with so much enthusiasm.
K: I’m trying very hard to self-preserve: to eat healthily and take care of myself. When I started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings (you came with me!), I was expecting to find ‘nyaope [a street drug cocktail of heroin, dagga and other narcotics] looking’ people but instead I found lawyers, businessmen and hot housewives. It showed me that there are so many different types of people caught up in it. If me speaking on the topic results in one life saved, that means a lot.
Z: It helps that we lean on each other. Despite us not working together any more, we still communicate a lot.
K: Thanks to FaceTime, and the fact that we always make time for each other. Sisterhood is not only about the good times but the support we offer each other.
Z: Shall we talk about love?
K: I love love. I don’t think I’ve really ever been in love but I still believe in it. What about you? How does it feel to wake up to someone every day?
Z: It’s been good, hard and beautiful.
K: I introduced you to Hloni Gumede.
Z: Yes, at a jazz festival in Durban. He bullied you for my number.
K: I thought, ‘Sure, have it. She’s never going to like you, so call her.’
Z: I tried to blow him off but he was such a nice guy, and he made me his wife. What about you? Seeing anybody?
K: Yes, I’m seeing myself! And it’s been lovely. I’m enjoying my space and the quietness. I’m in a selfish space; it’s about me, my career and my kids for the first time in my life. I’m at my happiest.
Z: I can tell. So many great things are happening. You’ve always wanted to be a judge on Idols. Now that it’s happened, how do you feel?
K: I’m humbled. And it’s assurance that whatever I ask from God, I get it.
Z: What will you bring to the show?
K: My input will be based on my years in the industry. I’ve also seen moments where contestants who can sing get turned away. So I’m hoping to change that. I believe I’ll give people who might have been turned away a chance again. I hear things that others don’t.
Z: And you’re very honest.
K: It’s a reality show, so it has to be as real as possible.