Gerry Elsdon, like anyone else, has had her knocks. However, nothing keeps this bubbly South African celebrity beauty permanently down. When she was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), she not only fought and survived it, but today she is using her public profile to champion awareness of this illness, as the spokesperson for the World Health Organisation’s South African Stop TB campaign. On a recent official visit to Paris, Regina Jere-Malanda interviewed this formidable African woman and was left with no doubts as to why Gerry is also dubbed a popular motivational speaker despite her youth.
NAW: Welcome to New African Woman, Gerry, and thank you for agreeing to speak to us. Give us a little background about yourself; we know you have roots in the South African liberation struggle. Bearing in mind the current political situation in your country, where do you stand politically?
Gerry: I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, known as the Mother City. I am the youngest of five children, Mom was a single mother for the most part, she had no formal education and brought us up working three jobs. Due to political unrest in South Africa in the early ’80s, my middle sister was forced to leave the country under a veil of secrecy; it was not until I got involved in politics a few years later that I discovered why she had “moved” to London. She was, in fact, in exile. I was determined to make a better life for myself than the government of the time was prepared to give our people. After high school and college, I started work with the African National Congress. I called people like President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma “uncle”. We were more than comrades in a political movement, we were family, so, considering what has transpired in the last few months, I feel like a child whose parents are going through a divorce, but no one has bothered to consult or even speak to them.
Q: Do you think the current political climate in South Africa and Africa at large is favourable to women and youth? Why is that women still bear the brunt of the continent’s hardship and yet they remain the most resilient?
A: Interesting question! Until recently, South Africa had a woman in the role of deputy president, she was not a token placement. Phumzile Mlambo Ncquka was a great role model and a powerhouse within government, and [the now-former] President Thabo Mbeki had one of the most representative cabinets on the continent-it made a significant difference to how and with whom we did business, and set up social structures in South Africa. I believe it was a strong motivator for change on our continent. But these were only the first few steps, I certainly would not call it strides, considering the oppression women had faced on the continent of Africa.
As Africans, we are all familiar with the saying “You strike a woman, you strike a rock”. It is as true today as it was when our women marched to our political capital of Pretoria in August 1954 to protest against the use of passbooks (basically a permit to move around our towns and cities), and their second-class-citizen status. Women are the lifeblood of the African family and in many cases the sole provider for their offspring. In order for the African family to be sustained, women are not allowed to drop the ball; it’s a matter of survival. I was personally brought up not to rely on a man to improve my life or provide for me, but to work hard, be self-sufficient and proud of my personal achievements first, and then of those achieved by my husband and me. I asked my mother later in life why she taught her daughters to be so … “harsh”. Her response was, “it brings fewer tears”. In South Africa, the majority of small- and medium-size businesses being registered are by women.
Q: In terms of work, what are you concentrating on at the moment, and which organisations are you involved with?
A: I have a few projects on the go. I am the host of a live Christian talk show called Event Horizon on our satellite channel, broadcasting to 18 African countries. I own a PR/event company, Cinnamon Communications. Last year I launched the Gerri E Signature Collection range of jewellery, which are enhanced with Swarovski crystal and fine metals, because a girl needs fine accessories, don’t you think?
I have just taken over the editorship of South Africa’s first Wealth Publication, an interesting new challenge for me. I am the patron of a children’s home in the township of Soweto, called Othandweni Children’s Home, where we house 80 children from the ages of 0 to 18, and give them the best opportunities to grow and develop into the best people they could be. I was an Aids ambassador for our government for a while and have, this year, become a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation on the issue of TB in Southern Africa, having suffered from the disease myself in the past.
Q: Part of your charity work is to highlight and publicise the plight of those affected by TB and HIV/Aids. Because you contacted and survived TB yourself, does your personal account motivate others to have hope and to look to the future?
A: Yes,. I think my giving sufferers of TB a voice and a face has assisted in lifting the veil on this illness. The stigma attached to people living with HIV and TB is part of the reason we are not winning the battle. In fact, I believe it’s time for warfare. We can no longer be ashamed or afraid to speak and act. TB is killing people all over the world, it knows no borders, it does not discriminate and is 100% curable. I am of the opinion that the same degree of activism I put into doing my part for us to realise democracy for South Africa has a place in the fight against TB.
Q: What do you tell other sufferers? What is your message of hope?
A: The real message is that, with compliance to treatment, you eradicate all traces of the disease from your body. You will experience longevity, a sense of achievement and a better quality of life. Adherence to treatment is not just about you getting better but, in fact, you safeguard society. It is said that one sufferer may infect 20 people they come into contact with so, by seeking help and knowing your status, you could help others.
Q: The issue of health as a human right is one that is not seriously championed in Africa and enough is not being done in terms of health policies and investment in health infrastructure. What do you think should be done? Health is surely a cornerstone to economic development and Africa is lagging behind. What can we do?
A: This is such a complicated issue and so frustrating for activists such as myself! The finances are being made available by governments, organisations and pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Company, who have a strong social commitment to the betterment of the lives of people living with TB. They do not do this for profit, but my frustration is that we are not yet “singing with one voice”. Yes, we all want to win the battle, but it feels as though there are so many armies, fighting one common enemy on so many fronts, that we are unable to consolidate our successes or even see which territories we have conquered. Every organisation spending their funds as they believe best, PR campaigns with myriad messages, people asking “which one is right?”–the only way to fight TB is together.
Q: You are a very inspirational woman. what motivates you?
A: My motivation comes from gaining a better understanding of God’s purpose for my life and being obedient toGod. In doing so, I experience great prosperity and joy. I have been found worthy of the blessings in my life and I believe I have a responsibility to make a difference in the lives of others. I love being able to express my creativity and I love people, and when I can do both in the areas of my work or giving, I find fulfilment. Life is as good as you make it, I choose to live a good life. I get more out of being available to others in need than they can ever realise. I often joke that I give because I am selfish, not because I am selfless!
Q: You are very keen on inspiring the future generation through what you do. Is that a tough mountain to climb? How have you overcome the hurdles you have had to encounter?
A: Hurdles? What hurdles? Of course I have trying times, but the art of optimism is that all those times are easily forgotten, I count only the things that go right and study those that did not to improve of them, and make them life lessons. It’s not hard to be an inspiration to young people or a role model to them if you are honest about your strengths and know your shortcomings, remind yourself and others that you are just human, and help them discover their true potential.
Q: You look gorgeous and always do. How do you manage to look so good with your busy schedule?
A: Thank you very much. I have no idea how to answer this question. I am not very focused on the physical and, in fact, when I look at my schedules, I freak out most about the dress code. But, if I had to answer, I could say I attempt to maintain my own sense of style and sanity when it comes to my fashion and grooming regime. I am not a fashion victim, I prefer classic cuts, I wear what suits my body and I don’t like to dress down. My husband says I “Gerry-fy” everything. I don’t take alcohol or sugared soft drinks, water is my beverage of choice, I have never inhaled on a cigarette and I meditate and pray. I have only had one facial in my life and did not particularly enjoy it, so I keep my body pure from the inside.
Q: We African women are increasingly receiving flak that we are becoming too Westernised in our style and beauty. What do you say to such criticism? what is your description of beauty? Should Africa have its own identity in terms of beauty and fashion?
A: I will have to give one of those “eye of the beholder” responses to this. I AM AN AFRICAN. My entire being, my culture, my heritage and how l perceive life is as an African woman. And because the blood that flows through my veins is that of an African, I do not feel, do not believe, I have to prove my sense of culture to anyone. It is embedded in my value system and ingrained in my soul and engraved on my heart. Having African art in my home, or a fabric draped across my body, does not make me any less so. African women are amongst the most beautiful in the world, the textures of our hair and shades of our skins intrigue the world, we are so individualistic that no one should be prescriptive as to how we express our beauty.
Q: Tell us a little about your jewellery-designing venture. What is it, and why jewellery? Would you venture further into broader fashion design in the future?
A: I started the jewellery after meeting Helmut Swarovski at lunch in South Africa, I had been the face of Swarovski in South Africa and thought I’d try my hand at it, and I have fallen in love with the business. It is not easy, particularly in the economic situation, but I am enjoying it. I am currently discussing opportunities in the cosmetic industry back home, but I sometimes have that “another celeb, another fragrance” feeling, so we’ll see where it goes.
Q: You always look immaculate. Can you share with us your beauty secrets? What are every African woman’s do’s and don’ts in fashion and beauty?
A: So much about what looks and feels beautiful is about self-esteem and a sense of self-pride, I believe. Having a good body image does a lot for a great outfit. I have said, “A man without good self-esteem can make an Armani suit look like a flea-market special”. The same can be said about beauty; you don’t lose weight by talking negatively about it, but by doing something about it. And the people you and I believe to be oh-so-beautiful have their own issues which you and I could not even imagine. Believe yourself beautiful, validate yourself, laugh a lot–it works.