How superstar publicist Farah built her fortune on fame

The artist Andy Warhol famously predicted that in the future, everyone in the world would be famous for 15 minutes. He was wrong. It’s the future now, and fame is a fickle, fleeting sensation that typically lasts 15 seconds. All it takes is an indiscreet moment on social media, and voilà – you’re Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram-famous. 

But true fame, superstar fame, magazine cover fame, fill-up-the-stadium fame, lasts a whole lot longer than that, and it takes a lot more than simply being in the right space at the right time. True fame calls for talent, attitude, determination, enigma, style, self-confidence, chutzpah, and a wealth of connections. And in South Africa, true fame calls for a fortune too. Farah Fortune, to be exact. She’s the sassy, sought-after celebrity publicist who has become a celebrity in her own right, thanks to her uncanny ability to turn bright and eager hopefuls into shining stars of media, screen, and stage. But Farah is also a savvy entrepreneur who left a low-paying job to start a small PR business of her own. She has since turned African Star Communications into a big PR business, with clients that include some of the biggest names in South African showbiz. Her secret? She succeeds by making sure other people succeed. “There’s nothing like seeing someone’s eyes just glow, and the smile on their face when they win their first award,” she says. “Just to see someone’s dream come to fruition like that…you can’t buy that kind of happiness.” With her company already expanding into other African territories, the ever-ambitious Farah sat down with Ruda to chat about change, struggle, motherhood, empire-building, and the true tale of the famous client who she loathed at first sight.

Hello, and welcome to another session of the Change Exchange. Where I have another fascinating guest today; Farah Fortune is from African Star Communications. They do PR and events, and she has a very specific niche in the market — tell me that?

Apart from our celeb sides, we have three divisions in the company — we have celebrity PR, corporate PR, and event management. So the niche with our celeb PR is we take the unknown and we make them the known celebrity. So we specialise in growing brands.

Fantastic, but I want to go back right to the start of your life, basically, because this is about Change Moments. And it sounds as if the first really dramatic change in your life was when your parents made a choice, when you were …?

10. Yes. When I was 10 … My dad had been working overseas. My mom was still here with all of us and my dad was like … you know … “You’re going to have more opportunities overseas.” Because at the time it was still very much apartheid, and there were schools we couldn’t go to … certain places we couldn’t go. My mom and dad could barely walk out in the streets together, because my dad is quite dark, my mom is quite light. So it wasn’t the easiest family life to have when you couldn’t include both your parents in certain things.

Were you as a child aware of that? How did you experience it?

Ja, I mean, you were aware of it, because … I was aware of it, purely because I knew I couldn’t go to certain things, certain shops. Before we left South Africa my parents said: “We want to show you South Africa before we leave.” And we took a trip on the Garden Route, and I think at the time the only hotel that would allow people of colour to stay in Durban was the Holiday Inn. And we stayed there and I said to my mom: “I’m going to the pool, I’m going to swim.” And she thought I meant in the hotel. But I had actually wanted to go and swim on the beachfront, and that’s why I went. And at the time because of the segregation, there was one pool for people of colour, and there was one pool for white people. And I didn’t know that there was this segregation of pools, and I actually ended up swimming in the pool for white people. And all I felt was somebody grab me from behind and pull me out of the pool, and it was my mom, in this panic saying: “You can’t swim here! You can’t swim here! You have to swim over there!” And when I looked over there, the pool was dirty and I was, like, ‘I’m not swimming there’. And you know, you realise as a child: “Okay, because I’m different, maybe that’s why we can’t do certain things.” And at that point you realise: “Okay, this is why we can’t do certain things.” We used to go with my mom to the store, and my mom … Because my mom is very light, they would think she was white and they would allow us into the shops. But if they’d see us standing around the corner, with … And my brothers are darker than us, as well … Then they would ask my mom to leave, because they would ask whose kids we are while we’re waiting for my mom, and if you were of colour you got served outside of the shop. And if you were white, you were allowed in the shop.

Sjoe, we forget, heh?

Ja, and that’s how I grew up. So I think my parents … You know … They got tired of living that life. My mom and dad got tired of not being able to go out in the street and hold hands without being judged or looked at. And my parents moved us out of the country. We moved to Belgium.

What difference … First to Belgium, and then to the UK? Heh?

Yes, and then to the UK.

What difference did that make in your life, looking back to it now?

Moving?

Yes.

So much. I think it opened my mind so much, and my mind-set. And just what I was capable of. I think at the time I knew if we stayed … Looking back now, I knew if we had stayed in South Africa I would have only been open to going to certain universities or a certain type of education, whereas moving … It gave us so much opportunity and we were able to see things so differently, and I was saying before we were talking … We were there two days … We were in Belgium … I think it was the second day, and my dad said: “Let’s take a walk around. I want to show you where we’re living.” And I see a black man kissing a white woman, and I grab my dad and I was, like: “Tell them to stop, they’re going to get into trouble!” And my dad, then had to sit me down and explain that the world is not like that, it was just South Africa. And that was a lot for me to take in as a 10-year-old child, understanding that people’s skin colour is what determines how far they go in life and I think that’s when I realised we’re all the same. It’s just that our particular country needed to get itself together.

Literally.

Literally, yeah.

So what brought you back?

I actually got married. I actually met my husband overseas, and he was also from here, same story, when he was young, his parents moved to Canada, he moved back for work. His company was growing really well … I was studying law at the time and it was just easier for me to move than for him to move. So I ended up moving back. My parents had already moved back … I think I moved back in 2004, and my parents moved back in 1996. But because I’d grown up in England, I didn’t want to move at the time. And I think I just was a bit weary of where the country really was, and I always thought if I have children, I don’t want them to experience the same childhood that I grew up in. I want to be a lot more open-minded. I’m very lucky I had a child outside of the apartheid era, and she’s not affected by it in the same ways that … She understands that people are people, and their skin colour doesn’t make a difference.

And how did you experience South Africa when you came back?

It was very different to what I have experienced … From being limited from going to certain places … it wasn’t like that anymore. There was so much more opportunity, there was more chance for jobs, although when I first came back and I started looking for a job, I remember going for an interview — I won’t say which company — and the lady said to me: “You’re very qualified for this job, but you’re not dark enough. I know you’re coloured, but you’re not dark enough.”  And she said: “You see that lady sitting there?” And it was a white lady sitting there at reception. “She doesn’t even know her job’s gone, because we need to replace her with someone darker.” And for me that was, like: “Wow, so that’s where we’re at right now.” So that was also a lot to take in. I think I realised we still have a long way to go. But we have come a long way too.

But you started your own thing when you were still in your 20s? How did you get to that decision? What made you take that step?

I was tired of having a boss. I was tired of this … You know when you’re working for someone and you start your own business you really think you’re not going to work 9 to 5, and you think that having your own business, you’re going to be a lot … There’s going to be time and you’re going to be able to do so much more. No-one tells me that it’s not like that. But at the time I thought it would!

But you are the worst boss for yourself.

And I had a job that I was doing in the same field, and I was getting paid R12 000 a month, and I was billing clients anywhere between R200 000, R2 million, and I was, like: “I’m getting paid R12 000 and I’m handling all these accounts? Something’s not right here. I’m really good at this, so I’m sure if I try to do this by myself I could?” I originally started my company … A different company with a very crooked business partner, and that didn’t go well, but it taught me lots and lots of lessons.

Like what?

Like I never wanted a business partner again, and not to say that it isn’t a good thing; I think for me it wasn’t a good thing. I also realised that I needed to know more about what was going on in my business in order to make sure that I never ended up in that same situation again.

So next time round you would be really hands-on and you owned it in every sense.

Ja, but in the process of having that business, because of having a crooked business partner, I lost a lot of money. Most of my money, and I had to go back to work. And from going from this place where I tried to build my own company and going back to a boss, I was, like: “I can’t do this! I really can’t.” And you’re getting paid R12 000 a month, and at that time I had already been divorced and I was a single mom, and I had to pay for my car, my rent, my child’s school fees, put a roof over our head, feed her … And that was hard.

And you believed that you could do better on your own?

You know, looking back at it now, it was so cocky! It was just, like: “I can do this!” And you realise, you know, you realise how hard it actually is. And I didn’t have anyone to tell me: “Do this …” or “Don’t do this with your money.” Or “Help this”. So it was hard. But looking back, I don’t think I would change anything. I don’t think I would be here unless I had gone through all of those struggles, because …

What was the worst moment?

I think the worst moment is when you have a business and you’re not making money, and I wasn’t able to pay my rent. And I wasn’t able to feed my child. I think that was the hardest thing. And we got kicked out of our house and I had to live in my car for a little bit with my daughter, and that’s hard. Your pride really takes a knock, because you don’t really tell anyone, and that … Up until a couple of years ago I didn’t tell my family that story, because your pride just kicks in and you want people to think that you’re doing well, but you’re not. But I just believed that it would work. In my heart, I just knew that I was going to make this work. And eventually it got better.

What was the contract that came through, or what changed?

I think just my understanding of saving. I very much live now … Because of that I live now by the philosophy of: “Do I want it? Do I need it?” And I ask myself that question when I buy anything. And it made such a difference to the way I saved money, and I got a little bit of work with a company that somebody had recommended me to, and it wasn’t a lot of work but it was enough to get a new place, and put a deposit down, and luckily it was only within a few weeks. Got a new place … But I was still quite broke to the point where my daughter lived on two-minute noodles for a long time, and whatever she didn’t finish of that, I used to eat. And that’s how we lived, even while I had this business. And after about four years I think I started making a little bit of money — it wasn’t … it was enough to survive, and that was great. And that was okay for me. Because a lot of people say: “What’s your definition of success?” And because I think I’ve been through that, for me my definition of success is as long as my child’s stomach is full and she’s got a roof over her head, and she’s got clothes on her back … That’s my definition of success. But I’m very grateful, also, at this point … I have staff, I have an office, the business does well … But it took a long time to get there. But I don’t think you’ll get anywhere if you don’t struggle to get there, because you don’t appreciate it otherwise. I really don’t think you appreciate it if you don’t go through those things.

Was the connection with AKA a Change Moment? You said in an interview that I had read that he pursued you for four months. Why didn’t you want the business?

I didn’t want the business, because I didn’t like him! He wasn’t very famous at the time – he’d had a couple of singles out … And just through the industry I had heard he was very arrogant and the few interactions I had had with him, I just didn’t like him. And then his management kept pursuing me, and pursuing me, and then one day I was sitting in Taboo, in the nightclub, and his manager came up and I was standing in a corner, and he literally cornered me, and he was, like: “Just give us the meeting!” And I was. like: “Okay, fine. Fine!” Just so I can have fun! And I ended up meeting him, and I sat down and I spoke with him, and I really enjoyed our conversation, and it turned out that actually his cousin is married to my cousin, and that was a common point and we ended up talking, and I just said to him: “Listen, I’m already rude. I don’t need to deal with someone like you. So we’re going to have to find a balance in here. I don’t need these diva tactics with you. And we just got along so well, and the relationship took off, and my business took off as much as his career took off, and we really helped each other get things off the ground. And I’m very appreciative of him for that, and I know he appreciates me for that as well. And we still talk to this day, I’m no longer his publicist, but we still have a good relationship.

But that became a kind-of niche market for you?

Very much so. I always … The celeb side … We originally did … Took on actors and actresses, but I grew up with hip-hop. My first love in terms of music is hip-hop, and my brother introduced me to the genre of music when I was 11, and he introduced me to every female rapper first that there was, and then he introduced me to everybody else, and I just had this love for hip-hop and R&B and when I found that I could actually take the love of music and help people pursue their careers, it was something I definitely wanted to see. But that was … That’s very much and still is very much a passion inside of the business. The side that makes us the money and keeps our reputation going well, is the corporate side of the business, as well as event management. But I don’t think I’d ever give up the celeb side of it. I just … You know, there’s nothing like seeing someone’s eyes just glow and that smile on their face when they win their first award, their first interview … Just to see someone’s dreams come to fruition like that. You can’t buy that kind of happiness for someone, so to play a part is really nice.

And often artists are so focused on what they do, that they can’t handle this other stuff.

Yes. Because we have some amazing artists in South Africa and they’re really good creatively, but you cannot do this without a team. You need people behind you that are going to … While you’re stuck in the studio, that are going to pursue your career for you outside. The interviews, getting your music on the radio, getting the best person to shoot your music video. It’s very hard, and also just to tell you how to have an interview, how to conduct yourself in public, how to conduct yourself on social media — that’s really hard. If you never had that kind of training before. So artists are very much creatives. And that’s all they’re really good at. So you have to have a team behind you if you want to make it work.

Make it a partnership.

Yes, definitely.

And now? Branching out into Nigeria?

We’ve branched out into Nigeria. We’ve had our office there since 2011. We are looking at opening other offices around Africa. I don’t …

How do you experience that? Is Nigeria … Is the Nigerian market … Is Lagos very different from Johannesburg?

Oh yes! Everywhere is different from South Africa. I travel a lot within Africa — I absolutely love my continent, because a lot of people say: “Oh, Africa is the future.” And I don’t believe Africa is the future, because I believe Africa is the Now. We really are doing everything now, and that’s why everybody else is coming to us now. If you look at international music videos — there are … You look at Beyoncé, for instance. It’s African dancers in there, it’s African wear … Even her sister Solange … Even though she’s performing in America, it’s African wear, it’s African traditions, so we need to be very proud of the fact that people are now coming to us and realise how amazing we are now. And I hate people who say Africa is the future, because we’re going to be the now for a very long time. Please understand that. So it’s amazing — I love travelling on the continent, and I think I’ve always said that this company will never go to Europe or Australia or Asia or anywhere else. I very much want to build within Africa. I feel that this is my child’s future, and I feel like this is where I need to contribute.

But how did you experience that first opening yourself up to a different environment?

Even though I am African and South African, we very much think we’re the America of Africa. Everything is here. But going into the rest of Africa is amazing. We have no idea … I don’t even think we touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Africa really is about. Nigeria was very much a culture shock for me, and very hard to get into, because one …

In what way a culture shock?

I think it’s still very male dominated. It’s not as easy to get around. Even the infrastructure is very different. The way everything is run … Even running a press conference is just completely different to what you would do when you do here.  And that was a lot for me to understand and get used to. And also just like meetings, for instance. People don’t have meetings in Nigeria during the day. They just don’t. Everybody works — nobody answers emails. You have to phone people and you meet them in the evening when they have time. And then you get your meeting done, and the next day, whatever it is from that meeting, will be implemented during the day, but they don’t have meetings during the day. They’re just not those people.

Their rhythm is different.

Very different to us — a little bit slower, also just catching up from the PR side is a little bit different. But amazing ideas and creativity when you work with people from Nigeria or from Ghana or from wherever. It’s very different, but just absolutely amazing. Like I said — it was a culture shock. Very male dominated, took a long time to get in there. That’s why we only opened there in 2011, because being a woman, being a light-skinned woman in Africa — the rest of Africa — is very hard. And just the cultures are so different. Therefore, wherever I go and I want to do business, I always try and go there beforehand, just understand the culture a little bit so I don’t offend anybody, just understand who you’re dealing with, who are the ball players in that country and who you need to know, and who you need to network with, because you can’t just go in there and think you’re going to go and do business. You really need to understand who you’re doing business with.

You talk a lot about your daughter. How did she change your life? Do you remember her being born?

Yes, I do. I was in labour for three days. So I remember that very clearly. And I was very stubborn, because the doctor wanted to do a C-section and I was, like: “No, if this is the only child I am going to have, I want to have a natural birth. I want to experience this. If I never have kids again, this is what I want.” And I spent three days in labobour and she slept the whole time! They kept monitoring me and she slept the whole time. They tried to wake her up so maybe she would … You know, get things moving, and she just wasn’t having it. Eventually … I went into labour, I think, 04:00 the Monday morning, and I eventually gave birth at 16:45 in the afternoon on a Wednesday.

Goodness!

Yeah! So it was a lot … An amazing experience. I remember, I was so scared of being a mom — never wanted kids. I never wanted — my family always knew this — I even got married on the basis that ‘you understand I don’t want children, right’. And I got pregnant and I cried for nine days straight, because I thought: “Oh my god, I’m going to be a terrible mother! I don’t know how to handle myself — never mind a child!” And I had this beautiful baby girl, and she was born and she didn’t cry — the doctor clears the airways … And she did nothing. She just opened her eyes and the doctor was, like: “Oh my god, she’s so forward. She’s awake!” And they gave her to me and I was, like: “What do you want me to do with her? I was so shocked. And then they took her and then she started crying. And my husband at the time, he started singing to her and talking to her and she was quiet, and I just remember looking at this bundle and thinking: “Oh my god, I don’t know what to do!” And at that time, if you had natural birth, you had to stay in the hospital for three nights. And caesarean was five nights, and I stayed there for the three nights, and every night I sent her to the nursery. And my ex-husband, he said to me: “What’s wrong, are you scared of the baby?” And I’m like: “Listen here, for the rest of my life — even when she’s 18 and she’s out in the club — I’m going to lay in bed and worry about this child. Every day, for the rest of my life. Give me these two nights to sleep!” And he was, like: “Okay, I get it.” And I think she was about six, and she went to stay over at his house and she was sick, and he was up all night and he said: “You know, I finally understood what you meant by wanting to sleep two nights.” So it’s been … It was an amazing … It still is an amazing experience. She’s a little adult, she’s my mother. She’ll ask me where I’m going, ask me why my skirt is too short, tells me she’s going to leave the keys for me … Do I have a remote before I walk out the house … She’s so … She’s my little PA at home. But she’s 11, she cooks, she loves to bake … So I’ll go out, by the time I come home, there’s scones and cream and jam at home. She keeps herself busy. But she’s constantly telling me she needs a sibling, so yeah …

And?

I’m busy.

Busy working on it, or …Too busy?

I’m busy growing an empire, okay? I’m trying to keep her in shoes! For now. For now.

I’d like another child, but not right now. Maybe not right now, we’ll see how it goes.

And your home? What’s your home like? Where is it? How did you choose it? Why?

Johannesburg, Morningside. I chose my home because the minute I walked in on the driveway, and there’s these three little steps that goes on to the porch — I made an offer before I even went into the house. I just knew. I knew this was where I wanted to bring my child up. I mean, up until she was … We’ve been there three years. So up until she was nine, we literally moved every year. We were renting places, and when we moved into the house, my daughter said to me: “You know mommy, I really want to put this painting up, but do you think it will leave marks when we move out?” And I said: “Baby, this house, you can do anything. This one is ours! When you’re in matric — that’s the tree I’m going to be take you — you’re going to stand next to that tree and I’m going to take a picture of you there. Because this is where we’re staying, so you can paint this room, if there’s a hole in it’s not going to be a problem. And that took long for her to understand that concept.

What was it that spoke to your heart as you walked in?

I just … I love entertaining. And I think that was one of the things that was really important to me. So she could have birthday parties and I could have dinner parties, and the garden is …

Space and light?

Space and light. And also just the garden is huge, and I wanted … No matter where we’ve lived, no matter where we’ve rented, I’ve always had a garden. I always said my child is never going to grow up in an apartment … If I can afford to not have her playing on a balcony and me having this paranoia about her falling off or not being able to even go outside, then I’m not going to live there. So having a home which is hers, is something really important for me. Even if we had nothing else — a roof over our head that was hers that she grew with memories … I mean … I want my child to come home from university and see the little marks she made on the wall, you know? Because she measures herself every couple of months. I want her to see those things. I need her to have a childhood. Ja.

All of the very, very best. I can just see an African star rising.

Thank you very much. And thank you for having me.

Until next time, you be well.

  • This interview first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in it don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.