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Fiction: Smoke and mirrors (Part 1)

There are two main things you need to become a successful blogger or influencer or content creator- whatever they call themselves- in South Africa: good looks and money to buy fancy clothes.

I am, let’s say, above average and skinny. I have been told my grey eyes and light freckles is what sets me apart. When I compare myself to insta-celebrities, I fit in their league on looks alone.

The problem though is I have barely enough money to add a flake to the R3.50 ice cream cone I treat myself to once a week let alone buy trendy clothing.

Those so-expensive-it-costs-more-than-my-rent clothing is often punted as the ‘capital’ you invest in your ‘blog business’ before the big endorsement deals and paid posts roll in.

In other words, in the blogging space, you need money and privilege to make money and have more privilege.

This is what I got from scrolling Instagram using my landlord’s Wifi, when I came across a blogger who posted how she left her day job because she was making enough money as an influencer.

I scrolled through her feed and saw pictures of her in different outfits and pictures of expensive food and picturesque landscapes.

She spoke about being “authentic” and getting “the right aesthetic” and how blogging is actually a real job.

My jaw dropped when she disclosed that from one endorsement deal she made a full year’s salary of her previous job. I need that kind of money. Actually, I need any kind of money. Even if it’s a quarter of what that Blonditheblog was making, my life could change- literally.

I stared at every picture on her perfect Instagram feed for hours until something occurred to me.  If she can earn money from putting pretty things on the internet, I could try my luck too. The worst thing that could happen was no one would find me pretty or appealing to follow and life would continue as normal. But that is not an option. I have to try atleast.

So I crouch next to my window where the Wifi is the strongest and decide to change my Instagram name.

From Maria Martin I become MeanMaria. I don’t know why. I am probably the least meanest person I know but my friends at work often say I look mean in pictures- but “hot mean”.

MeanMaria. I liked it.

On to the next thing: what should my bio look like. I noticed that social media profile bios can make or break a person.

Nobody wants to see a real description of your life. Imagine if I said: Divorced, only have a Matric certificate and I work in retail.

I learnt one thing about the superficial world of social media; fake it until you make it. And that’s exactly what I need to do. So I carefully typed MeanMaria’s profile.

Blogger. Influencer. My Louboutins are my only pets. I will wrestle you for avocado.

Here’s the truth: I have never seen a Louboutin in real life. Hell, I only learnt what a Louboutin was a few weeks ago. But I realised that’s the shoe of ambition. It is a simple of sexy success. Louboutins spell:  I don’t work nine to five yet I have loads of money and therefore I can spend more than most peoples bond installments on one pair of shoe.

I have three pairs of shoes which I classify as such: home shoes, which are stuck together with glue, work shoes that get wiped and polished once a week and weekend sandals which come out on high days and holidays.

To sum it up, I will not be posting any pictures of my shoe collection because in reality my shoe collection is a few dusty old pairs of shoes cramped up under my bed.

So with the bio sorted out, I need to start thinking about what my online personality would be like. Actually, what MeanMaria’s profile would look like- because this was not me. This is me living vicariously through a character I just made up. Don’t all bloggers do that? I mean surely they can’t have such perfect lives?!

Step three to becoming an Instagram sensation: upload the perfect profile picture (for now).
I trawled over my picture gallery on my phone until I found a picture one of my colleagues at work sent me of me which she took after doing my makeup from her makeup counter.

I work as a sales assistant in Edge, a big department store in Sandton City. In other words, I help rich people spend my monthly budget on earrings.

During down time, the makeup consultants beg me to sit in their chairs to do my makeup because apparently my face is perfect for their portfolio to showcase their work to clients.

As I upload the picture, which makes me look like a ‘instagram baddie’, an idea pops in my mind.

This blogging ‘thing’ could work if I could get the Else and Moreen to do my make up and take pictures of me to use for my Instagram and in turn they can use the pictures for their portfolios.

Genius!

The next day I arrive and I volunteered myself sheepishly to Moreen who wants to try a smokey eye look on me. Apparently, it is a different smokey look she tried on me last week.

In the pass I would kick and scream before allowing her to do my makeup, today I am suspiciously over enthusiastic. .

“Maybe we can get Sally to do my hair too?”

“Look at you! Sally can do you hair and I am going to get some clothes from the back… lets just hope stupid BossLady doesn’t come in this morning,” Moreen says.

It’s quickly turning into a photo shoot at work and it was just what I needed to launch my page.

Sally yanks my hair and I scream as she tries to get the perfect beach wave. Basically that means spending lots of time curling your hair only to brush out the curls to get a ‘I was born this way with perfectly crafted soft bouncy curls’ natural look.

“Look at you! You smoking Goddess,” Sally says as she sprays a bit of hair spray on to my roots.

Between Moreen on my face and Sally on my hair I feel almost like a Kardashian. Although I cannot understand how they withstand this every single day of their lives.

“OMG! Who is this?! Now I believe it when people say you can buy beauty!”

“Oh shush man… This is all you. I just did a good paint job and Sally gave your lovely mane some TLC. I can’t believe that even though you have such great hair you come to work with your hair in a bun like a primary school principle. Girl, there are people paying thousands for a weave like that!”

As Moreen and Sally fuss over me in comes Ron, who until now I only knew him as the gay guy who styles mannequins for a living.

“JEEZ! Mar, you look like a super model! You need to dress like this everyday”.

“Ja, tell her Ron! We are going to have a photo shoot now so I can show my freelance clients what I can do. It helps that she is so damn gorgeous too,” Moreen says.

Then Ron has a bright idea; why don’t we call his crush from the camera store across the aisle to help us take professional pictures.

Dylan, who is the sweetest nerdiest guy alive, is ever too willing to oblige- anything to be close to Ron.

So while we prepare for this impromptu photo shoot, the two guys flirted relentlessly.

Sally has a client so Moreen and I scurry through to the luxury brand section of Edge to find the perfect outfits.

Obviously we gravitate to the more expensive cloths which even if we combined our salaries would never be able to afford.

Once the clothes is picked out, Ron, who took over the shoot as director, barked instructions in his fabulous accent while the rest of us comply like lost sheep.

I have never done anything remotely like this before in my life let alone at work, during work hours.

We had to ask the security guard to be on standby and alert us if there was any customers that needed help or if management was in sight.

The last thing we need is any manager walking in on us having a photo shoot with store clothes and during work hours.

Retail managers are the worst slave drivers you can find. They will never understand if we tell them that there were no customers anyways.

“Right Mar, we are going to do five looks today. Two evening wear, two sports lux and one pretty girl. I am happy with the outfits and your make up and hair. I just have a problem with your accessories. Sally, you go and find me bags and subtle jewellery to match. Dylan, honey, we need these pictures to tell a story…”

Everyone scoots off while Dylan’s face transforms from pale white to bright red.

I have a pit in my stomach. You know that feeling of excitement and dread at the same time?!

First up is a stunning evening dress matched with a pair of pearl earrings from the jewellery department and a sequined clutch bag. Ron insists that I wear the highest pair of heels I have ever seen in my life.

“You go big or you go home. And honey, you don’t have any of this at home”.

Ron is so extra sometimes!

Moreen and Sally relax in their roles as if they worked on a big photoshoot before. They are taking this fake photo shoot too seriously as Sally combs my hair between shots. Sally said she always dreamt of being a hair stylist to celebrities and so I understand her enthusiasm for the fake photo shoot.

I explain to Ron that I don’t want to smile in any shots and would much rather appear mean. He loved the idea and I didn’t explain further that actually I was self conscious about my teeth.

Also, the straight face look matchs well with my “MeanMaria” persona that I imagine would become a huge success one day.

“Okay, I think we done. Now let’s get back to work before the horrible bosses fire us all,” Ron says quickly and we all scurry to hide the evidence of us spending an hour of work time on a photo shoot.

“Thanks guys for making me feel like a super star. And thank you Dylan”.

“It is only a pleasure. You are made for the camera. I will edit the pictures today if there aren’t any customers and send them to you later’.

“Dylan, honey, it will be done today,” Ron insists sweetly. He has a sickly sweet yet firm tone when he wants something done and as I have seen since joining Edge, everyone listens to Ron.

The rest of the day is spent at my jewellery station, making a few good sales. All the girls at work are convinced that I am better at selling jewellery to men for their wives or partners as a gift because “men can’t say no to a hot girl”.

Whatever! I am just after a salary bonus at the end of the year. I have plans for that money and it will only come if I improve jewellery sales at our store.

The day moves along quickly and thankfully, home time comes around sooner than I thought. Sometimes the mid afternoon can drag on with a few time wasters coming in the store to find out the price of every item even though it is clearly marked.

As I make my way out the store, I get an email from Dylan with the attached pictures.

I don’t open the email immediately, instead I grab my bag and tag out. I begin the walk to the Sandton taxi rank and stand in the winding queue to catch a minibus taxi to Alexandra township.

The Alex taxis pass Marlboro where I live so I jump off on the main road and take a 10 minute walk home everyday.

It is not as bad a commute compared to others who have to take two or three taxis home everyday. I am just grateful I am not living in the South of Johannesburg where it takes 2 and a half hours to get home.

I could use the Gautrain but it would cost more and even with my measly salary, I try to save 10 percent every month to hopefully buy a car soon.

I am used to it, because besides the time I was briefly married, we never really had a car.

It is just funny to see the reaction of some unfamiliar commuters from Alex who try to figure out why a “Mlungu” was taking a taxi.

I look white because my dad, whom I never met, is a white man from Nelspruit who basically had a good time with my very naïve and rebellious Indian mother and then set off when she fell pregnant with me.

I don’t know where my father is and never bothered finding him. The only father I know is Zain, a grubby kind man my mother married shortly after given birth to me. They grew up together and apparently always loved my deeply rebellious loud mouthed mother.

Zain, the most hardworking man I know, took me in without any questions and raised me like his own.

My mother and Zain never had kids of their own and they never ever spoke about it.

We were a lovely little family, me, my mother and Zain. And even though money was never in excess in our home, there was always a sense of warmth and love.

Our home was quiet and gentle compared to some of our neighbours’ lives.

Zain fixed cars for a living while my mother worked at a nearby library in Nelspruit. She still works at the library with the same enthusiasm she had for the last 24 years.

I remember spending every Saturday mornings in the library as a child because there was no one to look after me.

I would start my Saturday’s by doing the whole week’s homework in advance. That was a non negotiable for my mother. She never had time to sit with me in the evenings so I had to be ahead of my class schedule. For that, I was every teacher’s dream student.

Once my homework was done, I would pick out a book to read and only once I completed the book was I allowed access to the multimedia room to join the other kids from the area to watch a cartoon.

As I got older, the tradition didn’t end- Although I would read thicker novels instead of watching cartoons.

In my teens, the library introduced computers with internet and I would spend hours when the computers were unoccupied.

Eventually, in grade 11 I joined my mother in the library as a part time clerk while she was the manager.

I remember making R50 a Saturday to stamp and check in books and I saved every penny.

My thriftiness comes from Zain who instilled in me the importance of not living on credit and living a modest life while always saving for a rainy day. No matter how little you have, he would say, you rather save it than eat it.

Our lives were very simple and very aloof from family. I never ever questioned it until I got married- a few months after I completed high school.

It was only then I realised that Zain, my mum and I actually led very calm and aloof lives. I would go to school, Zain and my mother would go to work. After school I would go to Islamic classes and then we would have dinner together in the evening. I would sit with my homework while my mother and Zain would do paperwork for Zain’s mechanic business. We would watch a bit of TV and go to bed. On Saturdays my mom and I would go to the library and in the afternoons we would go into town to buy a bit of groceries.

Sundays were mostly boring because my mother and Zain would sleep in till lunch time and I would usually read books I borrowed from the library a day before.

I never knew any other life. I had friends at school but it was never anything more.
This was our normal and I didn’t know any different.

I never really thought about what I would be when I grew up until in my last year of high school a career guidance teacher from the department of education paid us a visit. She was shocked that the brightest girl in the class had no idea what she wanted to study. Studying seemed too far out of reach… there was no way Zain and my mother could afford expensive university fees.

I thought that perhaps I could work in the library for a year and then decide what to do next year.

But that never worked out. I was 17 and fresh from writing my matric finals, my mother and I were invited for a wedding in Nelspruit. It was her cousin’s daughter’s wedding in the civic centre. We were never close but they took an effort to invite us so we obliged.

I decided to wear the dress my mother sewed for me to wear to my matric farewell but use some of my library money savings to buy a new pair of shoes and some earrings.

I remember going into town with R150 and returned with a sandal, a pair of earrings and a pretty clutch bag I found at a second hand shop.

My mother got Zain to drive us with one of his clients cars to the wedding. When I got there, I was shocked at the extravagance of the wedding and my mother nudged me and joked “if I knew it was this fancy I would have at least worn a better dress”. She was wearing the best dress she had and could never afford anything better even if she wanted to. I remember that moment so clearly.

As Indian weddings go, I sat next to my mother who chatted to every third person walking by while I sat mindlessly and ate my food.

That was until my mother nudged me in the ribs and I looked up and saw a lady wearing a dress one size too small for her.

‘Maria, this is Aunty Shireen. She is mummy’s second cousin from Jo’burg. Make salaam’.

‘Assalamulaikum, nice to meet you,’ I said to the smiling woman.

‘Oh Bibi! What a pretty daughter you have. Shew! So pretty. So nice to meet you’.

The lady chatted a bit and scurried a way to a nearby table. We enjoyed dessert and just as we were about to leave Aunty Shireen and a youngish boy rock up at our table again.

‘Maaaaariaaaa,’ she squealed while adjusting her dress from between her stomach rolls, ‘meet my nephew Imran’.

I had no idea why she wanted me to meet her nephew but I smiled briefly and greeted him.

‘You know he is 25 years old… how old are you?’

‘18. I am 18 years old’.

‘Oh perfect age! You know Imran here is looking for a girl and I said I must introduce him to you. Listen you two go outside and speak while I speak to my cousin here… Bibi! What you say?”

I stood there awkwardly while Imran led the way to the parking lot. It turned out he was from Jo’burg and was looking for a girl to marry and his aunty thought I would be a perfect match.

‘But today was the first time I ever met her. How does she know that?’ I asked.

He laughed and said it was an Indian thing.

I can’t remember exactly what happened next but I knew it wasn’t long until Imran was visiting us at home every weekend and would call every other night.

Every time he came to Nelsrpuit we would go to Riverside Mall and he would spoil me with things I didn’t think I needed.

Two months in and we agreed to get married. He was the kindest, sweetest person to me and treated me very well. I thought it was the natural thing to do; marry him and start my own home.

My mother and Zain were really happy for me and they had no reason not to.

We could not afford a wedding so we agreed to a Walima only which is a function the boy’s family hosts in Islamic and Indian culture.

That whole period seems like a blur now. I can remember my early days after my wedding in honeymoon in Durban and then staying at Imran’s mother’s home in Lenasia extension 1.

I had a happy and blissful first year of marriage, staying at home while Imran ran his father’s shop.

We would go back to Nelspruit once a month but never stayed with my mother. We stayed with Imran’s family and visited my mother and Zain briefly.

To say I was unhappy would be a lie. I enjoyed my life. I liked the security of not having financial constraints.

We never really spoke about having kids and Imran was hell bent on chasing his millionaire dream. He worked all day every day to “make us millionaires”. He left early and came home late. I quickly got used to it and never questioned it.

He often went on business trip on weekends and would come back with many gifts for me. It was a routine that I adapted to and learnt to live with.

I was so naïve that I did not notice anything peculiar in our relationship until one day he sat me down and confessed to having an affair.

And just like that my life turned on its head. It was like life was waiting for almost 20 years to give me my first solid slap. It has been two years and I am still nursing my life wounds.

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