Hot young thing: Sylvester Chauke

You may not be aware that Sylvester Chauke, one of the freshest minds in marketing in South Africa – known for truly shaking things up – is out and proud.

This young Soweto-born maverick was the brains behind the irreverent and memorable campaigns that helped made Nando’s famous and poked fun at South African culture, including newsmakers like Julius Malema.

In 2010, Sylvester joined MTV Networks Africa as Director of Marketing and Communication for trendy brands like MTV, MTV base and VH1, before going out on his own as head of DNA Brand Architects.

He’s been recognised by the Mail & Guardian as one of the Top 300 Young South Africans, by GQ as one of the 35 Most Influential Young South Africans and, more recently, was selected as a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum, which took him to Davos in Switzerland.

Not just a corporate star, Sylvester’s also got a social conscience and serves on the board of OUT, the Pretoria-based LGBT health and well-being NGO.

This inspirational and down-to-earth groundbreaker opened up to Mambaonline about coming out the closet, his love for marketing and his thoughts on the gay community.

When did you first decide that marketing is what you wanted to do?

The exposure I got in my dancing days as a youngster brought me to some really cool realisations. Attending my first TV ad audition at age 12 made me aware of a world that seemed interesting and the kind of career path that I’d like to follow. Already then, I knew I wanted to work with brands; creating adverts.

Do you think that marketing and advertising can change social perceptions and not just sell brands or products?

Absolutely it can. It’s quite sad to see so many brand people not understand this. Yes, you can sell your pies but you can do it in a way that inspires.

So, what would be your dream brand to work on?

Gucci. I love the philosophy, their creative obsession and design aesthetic. Why? Because I’d rock those Gucci outfits day in and day out!

How do you feel about the use of stereotypes in South African marketing – especially the use of gay ones?

They drive me nuts and they keep being reinforced. We are so much more than “fruity” personalities only interested in clothes and being “fabulous”.

Do you think that marketers in South Africa are clued up on the pink market?

A few brands engage well with the market. The majority, however, are very conservative and still think within their familiar box. The pink market is a huge consumer and supporter of brands. Brands that are serious about building loyalty should consider this market.

You’ve been on the board of OUT for years. Do you consider yourself a gay activist?

I just want to give my support on the board and help drive the group. I do see myself having an everyday role as an “activist” who showcases how we as a community are more than what people think. We have the same dreams, drives and motivations and we should be treated with the respect that we deserve as humans, regardless of our sexual orientation.

What for you is the biggest challenge facing the LGBT community in South Africa?

We need to be more supportive of each other. We cannot be destructively competitive. We should engage more with each other on areas outside of clubbing and celebrate our community more – and build role models.

Do you think South Africa can lead the way in Africa when it comes to LGBT rights?

In many ways I think we do. Our Constitution protects our right to be and that is special, although it needs to “live” a lot more in our communities. South Africa can highlight the need for human rights to the rest of the continent when it comes to LGBTI issues since in many ways we can be vocal about issues, versus a lot of our neghbouring countries.

What about your coming out? Did you struggle with accepting that you’re gay?

Oh yes, I did struggle. Mainly because, in my mind, being gay came with a lot of baggage that I did not want to carry. For me it seemed that gay people were over the top, promiscuous or prostitutes. They were fashionable, but they did not seem to have anything that I wanted to attach myself to. In fact, I was scared to be gay! It was a really tough journey but, thankfully, I realised that I needed to create meaning of what being gay meant for “me” and that really liberated me from the negative baggage. I wanted to show that gay people are not the way that some people and the media had painted them – particularly then.

So, when you were growing up in Soweto, what kind of concepts did you have about what being gay meant?

I thought it meant that you have to be a dancer, a hair-dresser, a fashion designer… That you have to be loud, dress in drag all day, possess a lot of shock value and, in many ways, be the resident clown who no one takes seriously.

Do you think that gay public figures have some responsibility to be open about their sexuality; to live “authentically” in the public eye?

Oh yes, they do! Far too many respected people are hiding behind excuses as to why they cannot be who they are and this really does not help. I am encouraged by the younger crop of gay people who are much more settled in their accpetance of homosexuality. They are helping demystify being gay and are helping build respect for our community.

I’d also argue that more prominent, especially black, gay South Africans need to stand up and be counted as gay to really deal with homophobia in South Africa…

Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. How else do we win the war if we are still embarrassed to acknowledge who we are?

What about work? Have you always been out in your professional life?

I’ve always been out at work. Strangely, I was more comfortable being out in the workplace than at home. In one of my interviews at a previous job, that question came up and I didn’t blink an eye. I said “Yes I am gay!” And I got the job. People respect people who have conviction and who believe in themselves.

Has being openly gay affected your career?

Most of my career’s been in the advertising and marketing industries and while there are occasional sour grapes, it’s generally a less homophobic industry. I have been the recipient of negative backchat and the likes but after going through that all my schooling life, it’s a non-factor today. I zone into that special place and snap out of it. Thankfully, I’ve not had violent acts against me because of my sexuality. It breaks my heart to read of those who’ve been killed or beaten up for it. It’s insane!

Do you go to gay cubs or bars? Is the gay community in South Africa still racially divided?

The racial divide is as clear as day. Personally, I have a wide circle of friends that cut across the racial divide but, in many ways, this requires me to do a bit of juggling sometimes. The reasons could be a number of things, but a few stand out for me: the lack of integration of places to hang; the music; the cultural aspects are not quite integrated; and establishments cater for different audiences.

Let’s get personal… Are you single or involved?

Yes, I’m involved. Almost four years. He’s mental, makes me laugh, drives me nuts at least once a week and loves me like no one has ever before. He’s my soul mate.

What qualities appeal to you in a guy?

Love for family, passionate, a hopeless romantic, does not take himself too seriously… and must have great toes!

Toes? Okay. And how would you rate yourself as a boyfriend? Would we want to date you?

Oh yeah, I would. I’d drive myself crazy though. I have high standards even for myself. I tend to lose the plot occasionally.

Do you hope to get married? What about kids?

Yes I do. I even have a wedding song in mind. As for the kids, maybe in a couple of years…

What advice would you give to a young gay South African who’s still in the closet and afraid his sexuality will affect his chances of success and happiness?

You set your limitations. If it was easy, it would not be worth it. Take the journey and be patient with yourself. There is no one fomula that works. Repect your family, be sensitive to the world’s perceptions of you but the end goal should be you claiming your own life and living your true worth. Focus on building you, and take your family on that journey with you.


Food: Chinese
Food: Baked cheese cake
Drink: Hunter’s Gold
Holiday Spot: Phuket, Thailand
Place to live: Manhattan, New York
Actor: Meryl Streep
Music/Musician: Are you kidding me? Madonna!
Way to relax: Movies
Place to eat: Bukhara and Tasha’s in Rosebank
Pet/s: My partner Thabiso
Style of dress: Casual funk
TV Show: Women Who Kill and RuPaul’s Drag Race

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