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Jani Allan and the Prince – no poster child for ‘slut shaming’

Who would have thought former South African columnist and media celebrity Jani Allan would have so much in common with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and Justine Sacco, former IAC head of global communications. All have suffered ‘slut shaming’ – the very modern term for the very ancient social activity that is bullying, AKA mob justice, AKA public shaming. Allan has been in South Africa to launch her memoir, Jani Confidential (Jacana). Prince Buthelezi flew from Durban to Cape Town specially to show support and spend time with her. You can hear her in her own words, on the awful toll slut shaming  has taken on her health in body, mind and spirit, and why, like Lewinsky and Sacco, she refuses to be a ‘poster child for slut shaming’. Here’s how all three women have fought back to reclaim their life narrative. – MS

By Marika Sboros

Jani Allan
Jani Allan. Picture: John Hishin/Books LIVE

Slut shaming is as visceral and nasty as it sounds. It has nothing to do with sex or perceived inappropriate sexual behaviour. It has everything to do with jealousy, envy, mob hysteria, righteous fury and social control.

Most of its victims are women, but men are also subjected to it. It wreaks havoc on health in body, mind and spirit.

Former South African columnist and media celebrity Jani Allan is arguably the most well known victim of slut shaming worldwide. Like Lewinsky and Sacco, Allan has paid a hefty price not just financially, but mentally and physically.

All three can probably count themselves lucky to have survived slut shaming. In a worst-case scenario, victims have killed themselves.

Lewinsky has said she came close to committing suicide after revelations of a sexual relationship with then US President Bill Clinton beginning in 1995, and suffering “humiliation to the point of suffocation”.

Allan never contemplated killing herself. She did come within two hours of dying from a bleeding ulcer in the wake of accusations of an alleged “affair” with South African racist white supremacist leader, Eugène Terre’Blanche founder and leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a white supremacist group, in the late 1980s.

In a later blog she said she could write “an Egon Ronay guide to the nursing homes I was in during my spot of bother with the press. I developed a bleeding ulcer and was rushed to the Parktown Clinic with hours to live (there is nothing quite like lying on the bathroom floor throwing up blood while the press are banging at the door).”

Justine Sacco
Justine Sacco. Picture: FACEBOOK

Sacco didn’t even have sex with anyone.  She tweeted a tasteless joke about AIDS that went viral, just as she boarded a plane from the US to South Africa in December 2013 . By the time the aircraft landed at OR Tambo International airport, Sacco had been fired, was greeted by a lynch mob of total strangers, and subjected to a relentless spiral of abuse on social media, including death threats.

In an interview for the New York Times with Jon Ronson, author of a seminal book on the topic, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Sacco said: “I cried my body weight in the first 24 hours.  (It was) incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.”

Sacco, Lewinsky and Allan all lost lucrative jobs, though Allan may have fared the worst. She lost everything, an affluent, privileged lifestyle, money, friends. Apart from the ulcer, her back went into excruciating spasm, requiring traction. She went into long-term psychotherapy and has been on anti-depressants ever since.

Former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Picture: By Mingle Media TV [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Monica Lewinsky. Picture: Mingle Media TV [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Unlike Lewinsky, Allan lacked the safety nets of family and friends’  support – and  financial resources allowing for small luxuries like time to meditate ande physical pampering.

To escape the public shaming, Allan fled first to Britain where it followed her, and then to the US where she has ended up penniless, working a “brutal, mule” schedule, long hours six days a week as a waitress in a high-end Lambertsville, New Jersey restaurant, cleaning toilets and hauling heavy buckets of ice up steep flights of stairs.

These women have fought long and hard to survive the effects of slut shaming, and have to some extent succeeded. However,  they are likely always to be looking over their shoulders,  figuratively, for the next attack.

I shadowed Allan during her week of media interviews to launch her searing memoir, Jani Confidential, which I have reviewed for BizNews. Allan admits to feeling more than a little nervous about coming back to South Africa for the first time in 14 years. She describes the flood of goodwill that has flowed over her at media launches of her book, from men and women of all ages in  this country, as miraculous, almost biblical in its proportions. She even won over hard-nosed members of the media at the Cape Town Press Club – and that’s no mean feat. Tony Leon was in attendance.

Jani Allan, Prince Buthelezi
Jani Allan with Prince Buthelezi. Picture: John Hishin/Books LIVE

Prince Buthelezi, an old friend, flew in specially from Durban to spend time with her.

Allan also easily charmed guests at book readings, including one of Gorry Bowes-Taylor’s legendary Wordsworth Literary Lunches, held at  the A Tavola in Claremont on April 20 – with a delicious lunch costing just R280, including a welcome drink and endless glasses of wine with each course.

Bowes Taylor says Allan, a former model,  was “pitch perfect,  her body still shaped for the camera cue, her hair, that she claims is styled by an egg-beater, still the iconic long blonde. The voice vulnerable, strengthening as the punters applauded, laughed and gasped.”

Allan “intrigued and teased the guests just enough to have them flooding the book buying and signing queue”, Bowes Taylor says.

There was the odd chilly breeze in the winds of change whipping up around her. When Allan referred briefly to Terre’Blanche, a guest  asked whether she had indeed slept with him.  She immediately shot back: “No. Did you?”

When a male interviewer asked that same question during another media interview, Allan sighed and said: “Do I really have to sit here, after more than 25 years, and listen to that question.”

It struck me as the definition of insanity in action: people kept asking her the same question, over and over for more than a quarter of a century, expecting a different answer from the one she has always given.

Jane Raphaely, doyenne of magazine publishing, gave a powerful endorsement of Allan in a thank you speech at the Adele Searll’s 100 Club at the Mount Nelson:

To Allan, she said: “I’m so glad you have written the book because it will lay to rest the ghosts.”

To the guests, Raphaely said: “Jani did not have an affair with Terre’Blanche. I could tell that from her writing. I urge you to read her book.”

Jani AllanSome have been critical of  the book’s cover, the iconic image of Allan in her heyday as a gossip columnist for the South African Sunday Times, staring directly into the camera with a full, blood-red mouth. One interviewer asked why she chose a picture that was “sexy and provocative”.

I wondered about the sub-text of that question – as if it was meant to hint at guilt on Allan’s part for looking sexy and provocative; as it it could have precipitated the serial betrayal that  followed, and she  were somehow complicit in the emotional rape she suffered for decades thereafter.

I’m hoping I got that all wrong.

I preferred the brilliant Marianne Thamm’s lyrical observations of the cover in her review of Jani Confidential for the Daily Maverick: “It is the surface, superficial Jani. Bottle blonde, wearing a military-style side cap, heavily made up with angular cheekbones, her alluring, full, cherry red lips – mirroring a female primate in oestrus – an atavistic trigger for the powerful men in the country who desired, wooed and orbited her.

“It is Jani Allan wearing her full body armour, her armadillo carapace.”

Carapace is a word Allan uses often for the various shields and self-defence mechanisms she forged to protect herself against the violence of the vagaries and vicissitudes life hurled at her.

Ultimately, as Thamm notes in the blog, “none of it protected or buffered her: For when it came, nothing and no one could or would stop the fall.

“Betrayed by almost everyone, and in some measure the architect of her own destruction, Jani Allan ended up like fresh road kill while many South Africans rubbernecked past the scene of her spectacular crash from stardom to ignominy and exile in America, an ageing, acerbic survivor, waiting tables with only her beloved Pomeranians for company.”

Allan’s story points to one of the powerful triggers for wannabe slut-shamers: her glacial good looks and ice-pick sharp cheek bones that have withstood the passing of the years. One bitchy comment emanating from a rather ‘unfortunate looking, overweight female’ at one of the literary lunches referred to the wrinkles on Allan’s face when she smiles, as she does often.

But it’s not just her good looks that sets Allan apart and makes her a target for jealousy and envy in others. Her fierce intellect and prodigious talents are intimidating. She was a piano prodigy from the age of  four, won a classical music competition at age 10, was a ballet dancer till she grew too tall, was reading Chaucer at age eight, was a Latin scholar, and excelled academically at school and has an honours degree in fine art from the University of the Witwatersrand.

The combination of beauty and brains is oxygen to slut shamers’ destructive fire.

There have been well-meaning comments about the “fragility” of Allan’s mental state, and her vulnerability. These belie the mental and physical strength, and oddball sense of humour that keep her going.

In March, the New York Times carried an interview with Lewinsky describing her as “ a bundle of contradictions: warm yet cautious. Open yet guarded. Strong but fragile … likable, funny and self-deprecating. She is also acutely intelligent, something for which she doesn’t get much credit. But she is also stuck in a kind of time warp over which she has little control.”

That could just as well have been written about Allan.

Sacco, Allan and Lewinsky are  wresting back that control, and reclaiming and changing the narrative of their lives. The New York Times interview is headlined: Monica Lewinsky Is Back, but This Time It’s on Her Terms.

The same can be said of Jani Allan.

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