Sade Giliberti | We’re just people who want to love freely

Sade Giliberti: “You’re so much stronger than you believe.”

Sade Giliberti is one of South Africa’s most iconic openly queer personalities, having grown up with millions of other teens on television as a presenter of SABC 1’s YoTV for a decade.

Sade went on to present other shows including MTV Choice and So You Think You Can Dance (SA) and work behind the scenes on a range of television productions. She’s also delved into reality TV as a contestant on Celebrity MasterChef South Africa and Survivor South Africa (Santa Carolina).

Now based in London, the award-winning presenter, actor, videographer and editor is a voice for LGBTQ equality, pulling no punches when it comes to speaking out on visibility and inclusion. She’s also been an ambassador for the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG).

Sade spoke to MambaOnline about coming to terms with her sexuality in the public eye, her struggles with mental health and how she’s coping with lockdown.

What is a typical weekend like for Sade Giliberti?

Last weekend I went to my first BBQ – which was a little wild. But also great, because I had boerewors for the first time in I don’t know how long! Normally, weekends are spent really chilled or at the driving range these days – my girl [Chané Scallan] is getting me into golf.

How has the lockdown and the pandemic affected your daily life?

It’s definitely been a time of introspection, growth, renewal, anxiety, depression and without a doubt boredom. And it’s all happened in the flow of a rollercoaster with unexpected turns and dips – except this is a really long ride and it feels like I’m blind-folded the whole time! All the different emotions coming and going day in and day out. I’ve definitely been more in touch with self, thus questioning a lot about life, what I want, and where I want to be. It’s been very interesting.

How would you describe your relationship with South Africa at this point in your life?

I love South Africa, it’s my home. Always will be. I visit as often as I can, at least once a year – sometimes more if I’m down in SA for work. I still work with quite a few brands and want to continue working with more. My father, my friends – who are family to me, still live in SA, so the links will always be strong. Truth is, South Africa does have a long way to go, but I also think South Africa is fantastic considering how much we have been through as a country, and how young we are as a democracy. Things like GBV, loadshedding, corruption, crime etc. all sadden me to my core. Especially because my people are there dealing with this every day. But I remain hopeful for the future of South Africa.

So many South Africans remember you fondly from YOTV. Does it ever get annoying that you’re often identified with that role?

It used to get annoying, especially when I was a young twenty-something just trying to live my life and be an ‘adult’. But I soon realised that YOTV had a massive impact. It will be etched in the memories of millions of South Africans and I am a part of that. To be honest, it’s an incredible honour.

Someone recently told me that even though they didn’t as a child understand what being gay meant, they somehow knew when watching you on YOTV that you and she were connected. Something about you spoke to them as a queer person.

Yeah, I know this all too well! I’ve been told by a few hundred people, if not thousands [Laughs]. I used to get – and sometimes still do – loads of messages on social media saying exactly that; that it was because of me and seeing me on TV that spoke to them as a queer person. It’s weird because I was just a kid navigating my sexuality on my own and not really having any public figure to look up too. I knew many queer people behind the scenes, but I didn’t see myself represented anywhere, especially locally. And to have been that representation for others is quite fucking profound.

You’ve spoken about your struggle with depression and self-harming as a child. How did you reconcile that then with your public persona as a bubbly child presenter?

I guess it was more others reconciling my public persona as a bubbly child presenter and the fact that I was a self-harmer and struggling with depression. For many, the two don’t go together at all. How can you be so happy on TV, but also so depressed? And in recent years, we’ve seen that many bubbly personas actually do struggle with depression, so it’s not that uncommon.

You’ve continued to be very public about living with depression…

I was given the opportunity to be an ambassador with SADAG, and be a voice for young people and it was a no brainer for me to openly speak about my struggles. It’s always been about helping at least one person and letting them know that they are not alone in feeling what they are feeling and that there is hope. With a public platform like mine, why wouldn’t I want to shed light on a subject that was taboo? Especially having first-hand experience. We are all human after all…

What helps you get through those darker times?

I started meditating when I was a child [and] I still meditate to this day. Having lived with depression basically all my life, I can feel the dips happening. I believe in allowing yourself to be in your feels, so if I’m having a ‘no day’, then it’s a no. I will stay home, probably in my pyjamas all day and just watch TV, or sleep. But I tend to pull myself out of it very quickly. I know that if my emotions stay low for three days, I’m going into the danger zone. And by this point, I need to have a serious talk with myself about what’s happening internally. Getting physical also helps, so any form of exercise is always good. Then I get creative, I take my camera out and take random photographs, I write, I draw and I do things that make me happy. And if I’m at work, even better, because nothing makes me happier.

Child stars often seem to go “off the rails” later in life. Is that something that you’ve seen or can relate to and how did you handle being a child celebrity?

There’s a lot of pressure on you when you’re that young and that famous. All these rules about what you can and cannot do, the fact that you’re this idol to other kids when you yourself are a kid. When you turn 18, all you want to do is hit the clubs and get drunk, but you can’t really do that. Well, you can, but all eyes are going to be on you. It’s a lot. And yes, I have seen other child stars spiral and go “off the rails” – but it’s also a part of life, and a part of growth. Starting in the industry at the age of three, I was always surrounded by adults who protected me and kept me grounded. From my parents, to my agents, to producers and directors I’ve worked with, to my teachers at school.

What advice would you give to yourself at the age of 16?

Wow! Tough one… Sixteen was my toughest year. I’d tell 16 year-old-me to be at peace. You’re doing the most and going through the most shady and it’s okay. Navigating life and emotions will always be hard, but know that what is happening to you now is no fault of yours. You are so okay, and you will be okay. You’re so much stronger than you believe.

Is it true that you were outed by the media?

Yup, it’s true! I guess a few people kind of figured it out or maybe had speculated. The young queers who watched me on YOTV and knew that we were family, knew. But the public as a whole didn’t and my moment to stand on my own soapbox was taken away from me. It sucked. I felt robbed of my own story. And I hated that a fabricated question and answer about my sexuality was added to an interview that had nothing to do with the actual piece.

How do you feel about media speculation about celebrities’ sexuality?

The media will always need an angle to tell a story or make a piece juicier, and I think it’s BS that the media will use any angle they need too to get the views, clicks or reads that they want. But hey, that’s just the dark side of my industry.

“Homophobia has always been a weird one for me… what are people so afraid of?”

You’ve said that your dad was worried that coming out could affect your career…

It didn’t. Thankfully. What mattered in my career was my talent, not my sexuality, and for that I am eternally grateful.

What is your view on coming out? Some say that visibility, despite the risk, is the only way we can change attitudes while others argue that it’s a predominantly Western idea that’s not always appropriate in other contexts.

There’s nothing Western about coming out and there’s definitely nothing Western about homosexuality, queerness, lesbianism, bisexuality, transness etc. Queer people have existed for centuries, and if people took the time to look into their own cultural history, they will find the stories. History books have been ‘whitewashed’ all over the world. We tell a version of history written by Westerners, thus brainwashing everyone into thinking a certain way. Almost every culture in the world recognises queerness and have indigenous words for certain types of queerness – like the Hijras in India for example. The Bantu people used to have boy-wives. Shaka was known to have intercrural sex with his male warriors, same as Ndebele warriors who used to have sexual relations with each other before battle. The Dagaaba people of modern-day Uganda didn’t assign gender based on anatomy but more the energy one exudes. The Yoruba people of Nigeria didn’t believe in binary genders and would assign a gender to a child when they were older. Queen Njinga of the Mbundu people of modern-day Angola was a gender bender. She wore both men’s and women’s clothing, her troops had to call her king and she had female wives. If we really look into queer African history, you’ll find many stories of same-sex relations, of non-binary living, of trans communities and so much more. So visibility will always be important, to remind people and educate people on the fact that being queer isn’t a Western thing. It’s been a part of humanity since the beginning of time. Yes, there will always be a risk; everything in life comes with a risk.

You started out in front of the camera but also work behind the scenes. Do you have a preference and what do you ultimately want to be remembered for?

Can I be remembered for both? Because that’s what I want. I enjoy being on screen so much. I love entertaining people, I love playing different characters, and I love presenting fun and interesting shows. But I also want to be the creator of the story, and I want to tell stories that inspire, that move people, that make people laugh, and cry. I want a piece of both pies.

You’ve used your platform as a public figure to be very vocal about LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion. Was that something that came naturally to you?

If not, why not? I have the platform, I’m already a speaker, so why not speak about things that matter. I’m queer, and I care about queer rights, and queer people. We don’t all have to be activists, some of us don’t want to be or aren’t cut out to be. I was never trying to be an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, but it just happened and the glove fits, so I’m going to wear it loud and proud!

South Africa continues to face high rates of violence and discrimination against (especially black and brown) queer people. Recently, queer dancer Kirvan Fortuin was stabbed to death by a 14-year-old girl, allegedly after she made homophobic comments. How does that make your feel; that 23 years after our constitution came into force this remains a reality?

I was disgusted by the news of Kirvan Fortuin and that a 14-year-old could have that much hatred in her for another human being. Like many other people of colour in South Africa, especially black lesbians, the reality is saddening that it is in fact not safe for them to live their lives. But this comes down to education and more so to remind people about our history, and the fact that we are all human, regardless of sexuality. Homophobia has always been a weird one for me… what are people so afraid of? Because phobia is fear-based, so what’s the fear when it comes to us queers? How do we honestly scare people? I mean, a spider is scary, clowns are scary, ghosts are scary. We are just people who want to love who we want to love freely. So we’re colourful, but is that such a scary thing? It’s so stupid!

 

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Tell us about your relationship. How long have you and Chané been together and how did you meet?

Well, it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had, I can tell you that much. We’ve been together for just over five years now. We met briefly about 10 years ago in South Africa; she came to my birthday with a mutual friend. We didn’t speak much on the day but we went out for drinks a couple of times with said mutual friend and there was a spark. I thought she was hilarious. We didn’t do anything about it back then – she was moving to the UK and I was in a very confusing time of my life. But fate brought us together years later, and at the right time. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Is raising kids something you’d consider for yourself?

I’ve never wanted to be a mother in the traditional sense. I’m not about being pregnant. Never have been. I always told myself that if anything, I would adopt one day. I’ve felt this way since I was like seven years old. Too many people out there having babies they don’t want. So when I’m more comfortable in life and if the urge is there, we will definitely consider adopting. For now, we’re both broody for dogs!

Do you see yourself as a role model and do you ever feel burdened or obliged to present an always positive and affirming image as a queer public figure?

I have never really seen myself as a role model, but apparently, I am one, so I will humbly accept the title. I don’t feel obliged to present any image to be honest. I try to be a positive and affirming person, and I’d like to think that I am. Obviously, things piss me off and I’m not going to be all sunshine and rainbows every day, but that’s normal. People nowadays crave realism in others. Not just filters, poses, and inspirational quotes captioned in your sultry Instagram posts. Yes, we all like those things, but also, it’s so much fluff. It’s fake and it’s exhausting. If I’m not real with my fans and followers, then who the hell am I?

What new projects are you working on?

I always try and keep things hush. More so because everything is so unpredictable. I’ve got a few possible projects that I’m working on and hopefully one day soon I’ll be shouting out loud about them for you all to see. My side hustle in videography, and editing work tends to keep me busy. It’s always quite exciting because each project differs from the other and I’m constantly learning. And I love that, I love learning!

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