SA’s empress of hype spills the beans on the art and science of going viral

Hype is the art of whipping up interest, stirring up buzz, concocting the fusion of elements that conspire to make a person, a brand, an event or a trend worth talking about in the public arena.

In the always-on age of social media, the quest is to achieve the level of instant, fleeting fame – or, perhaps, infamy – that is associated with going viral.

Sometimes this happens by spontaneous combustion, as when a single tweet or Instagram flits across the world in a flash, but more often, you’ll find an expert toiling hard behind the scenes to get us talking, sharing, and posting.

In South Africa, few are more accomplished at this task than Melanie Ramjee, who calls herself The Hypress – the Empress of Hype. Her wealth of experience and insight in the field dates back to her school years, when she joined forces with her DJ boyfriend to start a record label called Eargasm.

Her tireless energy and enthusiasm made her a natural in the entertainment business, and after studying fashion design and cutting her teeth in the world of mainstream PR, she branched off on her own, taking on the name that has made her almost as famous as her celebrity clients.

Ruda sat down with the Hypress for a candid and revealing chat about the joys and challenges of life in the short-attention-span era, millennials and their multiple jobs, and the delicate balance between motherhood and work-from-home entrepreneurship.

Hello and welcome to another session of the Change Exchange, and as always this is going to be fascinating, because our guest is fascinating. Melanie Ramjee, welcome, you’re a publicist, blogger, events manager, what am I leaving out?

Mom, full-time job, times three.

Full-time job. And you’re known professionally as Hypress, why? How did that happen?

I think when the social media industry started, it was just a name that I was working on, and I, because I do PR I bring hype to different brands, so Hypress kind of worked. And it just stuck.

Empress of hype?

Yes. Just stuck, so here we are, 15 years down the line. I kept it.

But you started out wanting to be a fashion designer. You studied fashion design.

It’s true.

How did that happen?

I think I just have the fashion…

Gene?

Designer gene in my blood, so I’m just really good at it, but it wasn’t my passion, so I studied it just so the parents could get off my back, cause it was something I could study. They didn’t get what PR was.

Yes.

But it was just something I was passionate about. I love people, I love selling things, I like making brands sexy, and I love writing. So, I think my parents are a bit old school, so they didn’t really know what PR was.

They wanted you to get a real job.

So, ja. Fashion designing seemed like a real job at the time. So studied it for three years and when I was done I could say bye, I’m done, PR, I’m done fashion, went into PR.

You and your boyfriend started something called Eargasm when you were barely out of nappies.

Jeez. You’re taking me way back.

Tell me about that?

That’s true. I had a DJ boyfriend, he worked at a night club, I would run the door, and we’re like, let’s start a record label. There was, we loved hip hop and at the time there was no hip hop labels, so we’re like, let’s do this. I was still in standard nine, I think, 17 year-old, we were like let’s do this. I had my weekend job, and I would work at the club in the evening and we started a label called Eargasm Records, which then changed and morphed into Eargasm Entertainment, and we did that for a few years. And that’s what got me my name in the PR industry.

So you kept that going while you were studying something else?

Yes, cause he had his DJ’ing, I was studying, I was in matric and when I left matric I did fashion design and we kept running it while we were still studying.

So if you’re talking to young people now, how do you make it happen for yourself? Is it, would you say, keep those two streams going – get education in some direction but in the meantime build up something?

Ja, I think young people, millennials and probably the next generation, are that, they are different, so they are having three jobs. We were the beginning of a different generation, or different kind of person. So these days millennials do keep 3 jobs, which is great because you can’t just have one job in 2019 to survive, so definitely, I’m all for it to do different things. And maybe you do one to build your career and another one for passion. And that’s where I am.

Someone asked you, well, said that he would pay you to tweet for a campaign, what was it, Brutal Fruit?

Oh my gosh, yes. That’s how I started with social media. I had registered for my Twitter account, I really didn’t understand where it was going, but my very first client was a PR agency who contacted me from Brutal Fruit and said…

So when they contacted you, I mean, what did you think? What, how much did you know?

I was what is Twitter? I was like what do people talk about, you have these 120 characters, do you talk about going to the loo? Or waking up in the morning? And the whole campaign was around Kim Kardashian coming to South Africa, so I was like, okay, what do I need to do? And they offered to pay me to tweet, but my profile was private at the time, so the obvious thing is I had to unblock it. I was a bit scared, cause now everybody could see what I was talking about, I’d be open to the world. And I think we were all sceptical when social media first launched, everybody can see your business. It wasn’t, you know, it was Facebook on steroids. But I tried it, I gave it a go, I think I got paid R2,000 and it was amazing. Just to talk about meeting Kim Kardashian? And that’s where it all took off. That’s where my social media career started.

When was that more or less?

I think 2009, when she came to SA. Just before World Cup.

It’s just a decade ago.

It was just a few days ago.

And how have you seen the PR world change in this decade?

Completely evolved. So I’m from the old school, we used to fax press releases to people. I’m old.

I also remember that.

So, one at a time, you sent to this newspaper, you then create another letterhead. So I’m from that generation where it was one at a time. Now you, I’ve got a media list of 3,000 media, where that’s impossible. So obviously it’s all email, and I think it’s very different from then, where it was hard work. You had to be diligent and make sure you send to the right person with the right fax number. These days you press one button and 3,000 people receive the email at the same time. So the face of PR has completely changed.

Ja.

And obviously if you don’t keep up with the now, you’re gonna get left behind.

But it is also dangerous.

Completely.

That thing about being public and everything you type is out there in the world.

Completely. It is.

I wish more people would be aware of that.

A little more careful about what you say. I think that it does have its pros and cons and I think the thing about being self-employed and running your own company and building your own empire is that you can be available for your clients at all times. So it’s a little harder when you’re an employee, but the face of PR requires that you are available to your clients 24 hours a day. Cause anything can happen if you represent a brand. You have to be on call.

You did work for one agency? More than one agency?

I worked for, I worked for a few agencies but I did spend a large part of my corporate career working for an agency, I worked on a few alcohol brands, but it did, it gave me, it gave me the experience of working in a corporate, and it also gave me, I paid my dues. I got my contacts, it, it, the safety of the salary was great, getting that pay check at the end of the month. But it also meant, it left room for growth, cause there was only so much I could grow in the agency. And it was a smaller agency versus a big corporation. So at one point I said let, let me try do this on my own. And here we are. Nine years later.

What was that like? You know, letting go of the salary, and now you have to pay your own salary. Well, you have to generate your own salary.

It’s obviously really, really scary. I had considered it for a few years before I had actually done it. I think with the recession that was happening from 20, 2007 and 8, there were no raises and I didn’t see myself growing in the, in the business other than becoming, you know, a director of the company, maybe one day the owner. But why not start your own thing? So it was very scary, and I think it’s about taking that leap. Running your own business is obviously not for everybody, so I thought what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll fail, I can try again, or I can go back to corporate. But it doesn’t mean my life ends. So I gave it a try. And it worked. It worked out.

So face your fears.

Face your fears, head on. Cause what’s the worst that can actually happen? You know. Just try get a job again, go back into the work force.

And what has been the most challenging thing?

Jeez. Keeping clients is, is very difficult.

Ja.

I think the face of the industry, people do change jobs. So you have a year contract with somebody and then the client changes or there’s a new marketing director, or the brand changes direction and they don’t need PR anymore. So it’s like any other business. It’s, it’s the evolution of business that you deal with every day.

And what do you say to your clients, what must they be aware of because of the changes and the, the, the very public nature of…everything?

Our business? Yes. I think I have a variety of clients, so the ones I’m more concerned about are the artists who tweet as they think. And it’s very immediate. And the consequences could be dire, so with them I’m a lot more firmer, and I’m like this is how it works, be careful, everything is immediate, so be a little bit more careful. I think brands it’s a little bit more easier to explain to them, because they’re obviously protecting a bigger brand, a corporate brand, which then is very careful about what they put out. So that’s more controlled. It’s the ones that are crazy, like the artists, that you need to, you know, keep, keep locked down.

And if someone offered you a big salary and a corner office now?

Not a chance. I’ve, I’ve been offered that many times over the past 9 years and I’d never look back. I work at my own hours, at my own pace, and I get to see my kids growing up. And that’s what’s the most important.

Do you work from home? Is your office at your home?

I do work from home, I have a, an office upstairs in my house. I do completely run it differently from my household, so when I’m in there I’m in work mode, and I do switch off from being the mum downstairs.

And lately, one of your latest projects is as ambassador and pro-bono PR for the Special Olympics.

Yes. Correct.

How did that happen? How did you get interested?

So the CEO, her name’s Ancilla Smith, she’s, she had been chasing me for two years to get involved. And I was just so busy, my business was finally making some sort of profit, that’s about 4 years ago. So I was running, I was constantly running, I was busy looking for new work, securing clients, and she, I gave her a bit of a run-around. And when she finally got me to sit down with her, I was in awe of this organisation called the Special Olympics, cause, what, I didn’t know what it was, cause I know about the Paralympics and obviously know about the Olympics, but what is the Special, what’s special about it? And she, she educated me, that it’s…

What is the answer to that?

So the Special Olympics is, it’s a, it’s a leg of the Olympics for people with learning disabilities, so people with Down Syndrome, ADD, ADHD, so everybody who’s, has a learning disability, and I hate the word disability, but it’s how I’d best describe it.

It’s really differently-abled.

They’re special abilities, or different abilities. But we offer them a platform, and it’s a global organisation that was started years ago by John F. Kennedy’s sister, and she started this organisation. It’s 50 years, well 51 this year, it’s been running, it gives these people…

Why did she start it? Was one of her kids…

No, I think in the family they, they had had people with special needs. So she started it. And her brother helped her voice her passion. And it grew, and then it grew globally, and it’s grown in Africa, and we bring home the most medals, gold medals, in compared to the other counterparts, our other Olympic counterparts. But a lot of people don’t know about it. So I jumped on board as a volunteer, it’s become my biggest passion, I love it. We’re actually going to the Olympics this year in March. We’re taking out 71 athletes to compete.

Why does it mean so much to you?

I just, I think everyone just, there’s a cause that speaks to them, and I could be for women abuse, I could be for so many different things, and it just, it called me. It called to me. And I think it was very close to my heart when I fell pregnant at 40, 12 months ago, 13 months ago, well, plus 9 months, but when I fell pregnant it was a reality that I was 40, I could have a kid with Down Syndrome, what would I do? And it put me in the position to think about that. And it, it meant a lot to me. So, it talks to me every day. And I’m honoured to be a part of the organisation. And I’m getting all my celeb friends to come on board too. And we’ll chat after this.

Okay. Plans? Are you a planner, or do you see a door open and you walk through?

I’m a bit of both. I think I’ve mastered this PR game, so I wanna try new things. I wanna venture into speaking and sharing my story and talking more to young people. I’ve always had a fear, I’m very good one on one, but I’m not good in a group or, so I wanna conquer that fear, but not just to conquer the fear, but to chat to younger girls, share my story, tell them where I’ve come from, and make them realize that dreams do come true if you work hard and you pay your dues.

Do you think that is what they need to hear?

I think millennials get lost along the way thinking everything, obviously instant gratification, it’s not a secret, they know that a lot themselves. But paying your dues just gives you a longer, a, longevity in the industry, versus, let me grab as much as I can now cause I, I’ll get to the next thing next week. So I wanna share my story and talk about it more. I wanna focus a lot on my blogging, cause it’s where the future is, everyone’s online, talking about it. I’ve done a lot of mummy blogging, which has been really awesome, which means I get a lot of freebies for my kids, which is great, it’s always great. But PR will always be there, cause it’s something I know with my, I can do with my eyes closed. Yes.

And talking about family and so forth, I want to go back to your history a little bit first. You went through a, a divorce about, what, five, six years ago?

Six years ago.

It’s never easy.

Not at all.

What did you learn out of that, out of that process?

I think to be humble about it. To be understanding. Nothing really bad happened, we just woke up one day and said this is not working out for us, we were not great for each other, we were both good people, but not good for each other. So we decided, you know, let’s part ways.

There’s also an honesty in there, hey?

There was honesty in it, and we had a little boy.

Be honest with yourself.

Be honest with yourself.

Ja.

And I think it was a, it had a lot to do with my parents, who, like parents they stick to, through things, the previous generation, or my parents. And I’ve been through a divorce with some of my friends, like with their parents being divorced, and a lot of parents, like the older generation, stuck together for the sake of the kids. And I’m fortunate enough to say, let’s talk about it, let’s be honest with each other if it’s working out. And my husband at the time was very understanding. So, we parted ways, he was very supportive with my son, and here we are, six years down the line, and we, we’re good friends. But I thank him because he led me to my soul mate, so.

How did you meet? You and Mark Mac?

So, Mark, Mark, we met in the industry. He’s also very involved in entertainment, we have a lot of mutual friends. So I always saw him on the scene when we went out, but I had never met him, and a mutual friend introduced us, shortly after we separated. And he had also been going through a really rough marriage and a rough point in his, in his marriage, so we spoke about it and we were just friends in the beginning, and along the line we fell for each other. He’s really not my type. I always say that. He’s, he’s definitely not my type, but then I realized I might not have a type, so. Along the line we fell for each other and we’ve been…

What made you decide that, that he was actually, in spite of not being your type…

You know what, outside of his looks, and his, the outside, the shell, he’s, he’s everything I ever wanted in a man, he’s honest, he’s understanding, he’s so giving, he’s so compromising. He was good for me. So, where I failed in the previous relationship, he made sense. And he loved my son, I think apart from everything I’ve just said, he loved my son as his own. And that takes a lot for a, a man to love a man child. It’s different when you have a daughter, it’s easy for a man to like someone’s daughter, but a boy, it’s a little bit difficult. So, he loved my son and my son loved him. So my son is blessed to have two daddies.

And you now have an extra, extra son.

I did, I inherited a 15, well he’s 15 now, but when I inherited him he was a little younger. Ja.

How does one do that?

It’s, it’s a huge difference.

A teenage boy is difficult enough even if it’s your blood.

I’m blessed that he’s a good kid. He’s honest, he’s not really into crazy things that other teenagers are. So blessed.

That also says something about his father.

It does. It says a lot about the parents who raised him. But a very good kid. We, we’re getting through the school thing, I mean he’s not getting the A’s that we hope he is, but it’s, it’s a journey. But we’re blessed that he’s, he’s not crazy into girls, he really doesn’t even like his mobile phone. We’re encouraging him to play with his, his phone. But he’s just a good kid who stays at home. It’s obviously changed the dynamic in the household. My son now has an older brother, which is a blessing, because he can learn so much from him. So.

And has it changed you, did you have to, I almost wanna say become more adult, more quickly?

Definitely. I mean, we spoke earlier and, like, I could walk around the house in my undies cause it was my birth son, that’s completely changed, so there’s been a huge shift in the way we present ourselves as parents. I think it is, it’s very hard to love somebody else’s child, so that’s a reality. I mean, my husband really loved my son very quickly. For me it was a, it was a huge change to love another child as much as I love my own. And you can’t weigh the different kinds of love. It’s an adjustment.

Ja, but he was also much older.

He was a lot older. I think when I met his dad…

Way beyond the cute stage.

Well when I met him he was at the cute stage and I was kind of the crush. And I think when his daddy and I got together it was a bit awkward for him because I was the older woman that he had a crush on, his daddy’s friend, so that was a bit weird, but we’ve passed that stage and, it’s a huge adjustment. And it’s about, it’s about you as a person, how you take it. I loved it, I embraced it, cause we actually asked his mum, can he come and stay with us. And that was, it was great for him.

And advice, to, there’s so many people, women and men, find themselves in this situation. What’s the one thing that you should keep in mind?

I love blended families. I’m all about family, so with me it just worked out. I think it takes, it takes, it’s, it takes a lot from a person, but it can only be good for the family, so.

Commitment. I’m in here, I want to be here, I’m going to make this work.

Commitment, yes. We’re gonna make it work.

Ja.

We all come with baggage and, bad term to use, but, my kids are not baggage. My husband embraced my child and I embraced his, and actually we’re a stronger family because of it.

And your little girl?

Oh my god, she’s so naughty. So when I met my husband, I was already like late thirties, so we had agreed no kids. And then the universe said no, they need a girl to, to show them life. And I fell pregnant just before I turned 40 and I had a beautiful baby girl, I was hoping for a boy so we would have three boys, and I had a little girl. And it’s such a blessing. It’s completely different, or, different from anything I ever expected, but I love it.

Have they, have, has she changed you, do you think?

Completely changed me!

Really?

I now have to get up early every morning. My first-born was very calm, the teenager’s calm, and this one is crazy. She wants to wake up at the, at sunrise, and talk to you. And she’s a very good sleeper, but she likes to get up early. But she’s completely changed me, I think having a, a kid at 40, it’s a, it’s a big deal. I don’t have the energy I did at 34 or 35. It’s a huge adjustment, but ja, she’s given me a new, a new, spur to life, so, love it.

You and Mark are both busy people, out there in the very public world. How do you, in practical terms, how does one keep the connection going?

The connection between the two of us?

Ja.

I think a lot of the stuff we put on social media is, we put out what we want people to see.

Ja, of course.

So we do keep a lot of it private. And I think what we show the public is very different from what happens at home. It’s the social media life, you want people to see the best of the best, so we do have problems at home, our relationship’s not perfect, but we do work, we work at it all the time. And I think we’re really close, and that’s what keeps the connection between us constant.

You know the, the world of social media is really your, where you are, where you work. Words of advice for especially youngsters maybe, starting out, setting up a Twitter account for the first time?

Yes, well it’s Instagram.

Or Instagram.

Instagram. I think the world of Instagram is very curated, so people want to see the best of what you have. As much as they want to see authentic, most, most of the world just wanna see your best, your Louis Vuitton…

Only pretty-authentic.

Prettier things. So as much as we say we want authentic and all of that, people want to see the best and they want to see you doing well. So if you’re constantly at the same stage, you do lose followers, you do lose likes. People want to see you succeed. Really, at the end of the day. So, put your best foot forward, if you need to be authentic and you’re paid to do it, that’s a different story. We try and put a real, the real us forward, the best of what we can offer, but it’s not, it’s not always the case, sometimes you have to put your prettiest picture, that was 3 months old that you’re posting today. It’s not always real.

And one also has to protect your children.

Yes, so my, both kids are on social media, just because they’re both kiddie influencers. My son’s got a private profile and that’s by his choice, he’s old enough to understand a bit more about what social media is, and we’ve chosen to make his private, just because we’ve had a few instances where weirdos came up to my mom at a mall saying, “hey Musa”, and it freaked her out, and we realized, you know what it’s not really safe, and there were all these kids being kidnapped last year, there was the rise of kids being kidnapped, really, so it’s private. My daughter, we really post delayed posts, so nothing in real time, and also it’s very curated, so we’ll do photo shoots, we’ll post her up. She does get sponsored by quite a few brands, so we have to post stuff up about the brands that she uses. But ja, very curated content.

Ja, so you have to constantly be aware of that kind of balance.

Yes.

That, in one way, it is part of your professional life…

Ja, it’s true.

The whole family’s professional life, but on the other hand, there has to be a, a private, a private life.

Definitely. Ja, definitely. We have to protect the kids. And I think ’til they get to an age where they understand, I mean he’s only 7.

And where they can make their own real, informed decisions.

He’s 7. I don’t think he really understands it, but he, I mean they talk about it at school. He knows what’s Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. He knows it’s putting up pictures of himself and he’ll always say, mom, I made this cookie, take a picture of it, and he made it in school. And I’ll take the picture, but not necessarily put it up, because, you know, it’s not a good look for the, for his profile. But we, we do find a balance in doing it.

And your personal space? You said you work on top of your living space.

My house, yes. Home is home, it’s my very special place. We protect that energy, so not everybody’s, like, invited or welcome at our home, we keep that very family-orientated. And it’s the one safe space, because we’re both out in the world so much, Mark and I, we keep home very private. So we, we love having people over, but we do protect our space. Home is important.

And what, where have you chosen to live? I don’t mean specifically, but is it suburb, is it more city centre, apartment, city living?

Yes, so, I’ve always been a city girl. I live in an estate a few minutes from here, so Sandton central. But it just makes sense for work, all my clients are very centrally based. I am a city girl, so I’ll, maybe in my 80s I’ll move to the farm, but for now it works for me, cause I’m so entrenched in the market of entertainment, we have to be very central. It just works, I don’t wanna travel late at night, home, for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and I had lived in Centurion and it was beautiful, but I prefer to be where my clients are. So I live in a safe estate, my kids can ride outside. We don’t really know the neighbours like we did growing up, so you can’t really go and borrow sugar. But that’s just how it is in, in the suburbs, in the north. So.

And what, what made you choose this space? Do you go for trees, or for light, or for space?

I love the safety of it, or the perception of safety, cause I want my kids to not live in a bubble, I want them to have a little bit of what I had and obviously when I grew up in, say the 80s, the 70s, it was a lot different. We, we could walk around, walk to the shop. I want them to get a bit of that. It’s not a reality everywhere, and I think the safety of living in a, an estate, gives them a bit of, a, more of a sense of reality. So they can walk down the road to their friend’s house, they can walk to school. It’s, it’s a, it’s more of a reality for them.

And how do you, with working in the same space, my husband and I both work from home, so I understand the problem.

Oh my gosh. Lady after my own heart.

Yes, you work in your pyjamas often, but you have to actually make a kind of difference, because you can’t let it bleed into everything.

It’s true. So my husband and I both work from home. So I think we get up and we shower, and it’s a real job. So we work it as corporate, it’s not every day, so we get up, we drop the kids at school, his boy’s in a different direction, my boy’s in a, well, our boys are in different directions, and then we meet back home. And we work in our different spaces, it’s a real job, you take it seriously. There are the odd days when you have your pyjamas on and you have the freedom to do that, but I think you need to respect what you do as well. So we do do that, you take it as a serious job. At five o’clock we start looking at our watches, because the nanny has to leave at 5:30 and she lives in the yard in our cottage. But we take it as a serious, as a serious job. But it doesn’t end at 5, cause all we do is take our laptop and go downstairs and work, so. Ja.

Well thank you for finding time for, to spend with us.

Thanks for having me.

It’s lovely.

Thanks for having me. Honoured, thank you.

All of the very best to you as well, hambani kahle, go well, bye-bye.