Meet Lesego Tlhabi, a writer and a comedian best known for creating the character Coconut Kelz.
She was born in 1988, by parents Brian Tlhabi and Penny Osiris, who are both doctors.
Tlhabi studied theatre in London at Brunel University and musical theatre and television writing in New York at the New York Film Academy and Columbia University before returning to South Africa to work as a screenwriter in 2014.
The 33-year-old comedian is a television actress and had a stint as a performing DJ (as Dame the DJ) when she started vlogging on YouTube as her alter-ego, Coconut Kelz.
Thlabi says she took up her alter ego Coconut Kelz, a self-loathing black person, who hilariously articulates collective white anxieties in post-apartheid South Africa.
“ Its a character I created to address micro aggressions and racism, as well as mostly white privilege. I also use the character to highlight and address classism and privilege within the black community.
Sometimes I’m speaking to myself and my privilege when I realize how I viewed something is from the vantage point of having grown up the way I did and have my blind spots despite trying hard not to in my videos.
And of course, sometimes I’m addressing the general classism I see and hear on social media and from what I observe,” she said.
Coconut Kelz has been one of the leading cast members on local television, uBettina Wethu on SABC 1, a popular show that follows the endeavours of the main character Betty Sikhakane (Farieda Metsileng) as she navigates her first job in the City of Gold.
In addition to the humourous and compelling storyline, the show boasts a talented local line up including Zweli Dube (Dingaan Jiyane); Tsholofelo Mashishi (Linda Jiyane) and Lesego “Coconut Kelz” Tlhabi (Zaza Moloi).
uBettina Wethu is based on the successful international format Yo Soy Betty La Fea – most familiar to local viewers as Ugly Betty – and has been adapted to 19 global territories and aired in 180 countries, in 15 languages, holding the Guinness World Record as ‘Most Successful Telenovela’.
The show kicked off on SABC1 in April 2021 and regularly appears in the Top 10 most-watched shows on the channel, drawing over 2.5 million viewers for each of the trio of weekly episodes.
“We’ve been thrilled at South African viewers’ response to the show so far and we have grand plans for this stellar cast and their hugely popular characters,” says Producer Tshepiso Chikapa Phiri.
“The storyline is at a pivotal point, and we’re going to be building towards our season finale in August this year.
Fans may think they know the storyline from the various international versions of the show, but we’ve got some major shocks coming with a truly Mzansi twist”.
Glamour South Africa caught up with Coconut Kelz to chat about her life and acting roles on our TV screens.
GLAMOUR: How was the transition from being a popular YouTuber to being an actress?
Coconut Kelz: Well, I went to varsity 10 years ago to study theatre and performing arts so it was always my intention to pursue a career in acting and performing.
The transition was seamless because I play a character all the time and my background is acting.
It was extremely exciting to finally have that ‘big break’ moment because it’s been a long time coming and a lot of work behind the scenes to get to this point.
GLAMOUR: What inspired you to go into acting?
Coconut Kelz: I honestly can’t say. I’ve wanted to act and perform in general since I was a child and used to make my family sit and watch me in various skits or choreographed dances. I’m sure my first words were ‘quiet on set!’.
GLAMOUR: What's the toughest thing about being an actress?
Coconut Kelz: The hours are really hectic. People don’t realize we sometimes have 12 hours a day, 6 days a week schedule.
And putting yourself out there can also be difficult because people have so many unsolicited opinions and they feel they just have to share them for some reason.
GLAMOUR: Tell us a bit more about your role in uBettina Wethu?
Coconut Kelz: I play the role of Zaza Moloi, the social media queen at Nubia, which is the brand agency most of the characters work for.
She’s confident for the most part but like everyone else has her insecurities especially where body image and bullying are concerned. We work through that together, Zaza and I lol.
She’s very vocal about the issues that matter to her and she’s very loyal to and protective over her friends.
She’s a colourful character and she is definitely no shrinking violet- you see it even in her style choices and the fact that she’s not afraid to speak up for herself even to her bosses.
GLAMOUR: Do you see any similarities between Zaza Moloi and your YouTube channel alias Coconut Kelz?
Coconut Kelz: I think because they’re played by the same person, there will always be similarities to a certain extent but Zaza and Kelz are the opposite sides of the same coin, I guess, so still very different.
Very different upbringings and lives but I guess they’re both vocal about the things they’re passionate about.
GLAMOUR: In your book in 2019, you dished out important tips on “how to survive this Shithole,” but unfortunately we now are facing another Shithole - the covid-19 pandemic- so do you have any tips you can share with our readers?
Coconut Kelz: From Kelz: The best thing to do is to make sure you don’t panic because that is what the virus wants.
Surround yourself with things that make you happy for your mental wellness, for me it’s chardonnay and my puppy, Sgebenga.
And make sure you go on a vaccination-cation, I went to the Maldives. It’s lovely this time of the year.
From Lesego: It’s very difficult to see beyond this very terrifying and heartbreaking moment to a time beyond this.
We’re experiencing so much loss, of different kinds, at such a devastating rate.
There are many resources people share for places where you can get (free) therapy to get you help from grief, depression, anxiety…
And to try remain hopeful for the time we come out on the other side.
GLAMOUR: We’ve just ended Youth Month, what does it mean for you to be a young person in South Africa right now?
Coconut Kelz: I won’t lie, being a young person in South Africa right now means a lot of disappointment… a LOT… in our leaders and a lot of uncertainty in the future.
Unemployment figures are at an all-time high and our leaders are stealing and just letting us down at every turn.
I’m sure I was meant to write something more inspiring but right now that’s how I feel.
GLAMOUR: Have you ever doubted yourself? and how do you take care of your mind and body when self-doubt sets in?
Coconut Kelz: Self-doubt happens quite a bit. Especially in big career moments.
This year I hosted the SAFTAs Craft Awards with Tracey Lange and I experienced a lot of doubt as to how I ended up with the opportunity, if I could even handle such a big moment… and I did! My mom is the biggest cheerleader I have.
She believes her kids can do anything and I trust my mom, so who am I not to believe her.
How I take care of my mind is by surrounding myself with people I love and just supporting each other and mostly laughing together.
I’m a generally happy person so I’m lucky that way. And body, my trainer hasn’t seen me in months but I love tennis and netball and I love what boxing does for me even though I mostly swear the entire hour lol!
GLAMOUR: Given an opportunity, what would you tell your 16-year-old self?
Coconut Kelz: I was asked this recently and I wouldn’t warn her about anything. All the mistakes she’s going to make are part of what gets her to this point.
But I would hug her very tightly because at this moment she’s extremely sad about her parents’ divorce and yet she has no idea that a little into the future she gains two wonderful bonus parents.
I would tell her whatever happens, it’s going to be ok and not to sweat the small stuff because high school is about to end and she is about to enter the best years of her life.
And those best years get better and better, even 16 years later.
GLAMOUR: What would you say scares you the most about being in the spotlight, especially as a young black woman?
Coconut Kelz: The fact that grown ass men (mostly white) spend a lot of energy trying to tell me what to do with my platform and make thinly veiled threats because I won’t ‘comply’.
The misogynoir is scary because I know one of the things that most annoys men is when a woman does what the fuck she wants to do. And that’s me.
The constant threat of violence because my work exposes racism is anxiety-inducing as well. South Africans at large are not ready for any form of the truth because in 1994, a plaster was put over a gaping wound and they never really had to actually do any introspection or any actual change.
GLAMOUR: What would you say to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps? 3 tips on how to make it in the Showbiz world?
Coconut Kelz: I would tell them not to follow anyone’s footsteps because you don’t make it anywhere trying to be someone else.
But for anyone who wants a career in entertainment, I only have two steps and that’s
1.to put yourself out there. Create that channel, or podcast or get to making jokes on social media. Whatever you want to do, you have to make sure people see you doing it already.
That’s the quickest way to ‘open the industry’. Most of my friends in the industry, also are comedy content creators who got exposure that way.
2.Don’t listen to what haters have to say. So many people want to derail you, want you to feel bad about who you are and what you do and your belief in self- it’s called projection and disappointment in their own lives.
Bring him down syndrome reigns supreme in SA. The only opinions that matter are the ones of people who love you because the criticism is always constructive.
But don’t allow a stranger to ever make you feel bad about yourself.
GLAMOUR: What are the 5 things people would be surprised to find out about you?
Coconut Kelz: This thing of you asking specific numbers bathong! LOL!
1.I’m really shy. Meeting new people is very hard work for me and internally I’m probably screaming a little bit.
2.I’m a really good dancer in a variety of styles as I’ve been dancing since I was a child and even represented SA in hip hop championships.
I’m also a tap dancer (I don’t do it anymore but would love to find a place that has adult classes that aren’t beginner), did ballroom (would also love to get back to this).
3.I can sing quite well and wanted to actually be a singer at some point. I studied musical theatre in NYC and it was one of my majors at uni.
4.I am a really anxious flyer. Girl turbulence is a sign that we’re going down.
5.I have 14 tattoos and counting… Although that might not be too surprising but I’ve run out- LOL.
GLAMOUR: What are you most grateful for?
Coconut Kelz: My family and my career.
GLAMOUR: What would you say are your 3 biggest regrets?
Coconut Kelz: Leaving London as soon as I graduated is probably my only regret in life honestly.