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TERRY PHETO

It appears loyal viewers in Africa are keeping the hard-pressed soap operas of the United States alive. As part of the deal, African actress Terry Pheto has gone from Johannesburg to Hollywood.

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It was a beginning dogged by poverty, but inspired by dreams. Actress Terry Pheto’s family was too poor to own a television set and she grew up paying 10 cents a day to sit on the floor to watch TV with her neighbors. Now, she sits in Hollywood and makes a fortune from appearing onscreen in the soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful.

So was it by sheer luck that Pheto was chosen in a country full of accomplished and perhaps more experienced actresses? Vukile Madlala, the publicity manager at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s SABC1, explains how it all started: “Since we are the channel that carries The Bold and the Beautiful as one of our longest-running soapies, the producers of the soap came down with a handful of their actors for a South African tour. It was during that trip that they discussed with us the possibility of developing an African character. They asked us to nominate a few actresses, and Terry Pheto was one of the actresses we put forward.”

It would seem that this move by the American producers was a calculated one. Madlala points out that The Bold and the Beautiful is still among the top five rated shows on SABC1. Simply put, viewers are still hooked—even after many years of watching the storyline unfold.

A look at general viewership trends reveals that while the craze over reality television is crushing the soap opera in the US, Africans are still tuning in—and in large numbers, compensating for the loss of viewers and income on home turf.

All of these factors have conspired to take a woman from Boipatong in the Vaal Triangle, near Johannesburg, to Hollywood. It has been a long journey.

Pheto has certainly come a long way from being the child whose family didn’t own a television. She had to drop out of college during the second year of an IT diploma, because there was no money for tuition, and joined a community theatre group.

It was a long apprenticeship that bore fruit in 2008. She found fame after being cast in the 2006 Best Foreign Film, the South African Oscar-winning movie, Tsotsi. Then, Pheto was selected as the face of international cosmetic giant L’Oréal Paris, following in the footsteps of Jane Fonda, Halle Berry, Beyoncé Knowles, Freida Pinto and Cheryl Cole.

Now, Pheto is playing the role of Dr Malaika Maponya in The Bold and the Beautiful.

“It was amazing playing a South African on one of the world’s most famous American soaps,” she says. “I didn’t have to learn a new accent, I didn’t have to venture too much into the unknown—all I had to do was make sure I knew my lines by the time I arrived on set because the level of professionalism there is unlike anything I have ever seen before.

“The production is like an incredibly well-oiled machine that runs with amazing precision. There’s simply no room for error or tardiness. You get only one take, and there is an expectation that you must get it right the first time,” she explains.

With the type of opportunities that she’s had at her disposal so far, Pheto would most certainly be forgiven for packing her bags and relocating to the United States permanently in pursuit of her own Charlize Theron fantasy tale. She already travels back and forth for classes and workshops. She has great connections and relationships with the South African community making it big in Hollywood—the likes of Gavin Hood, creator and director of Tsotsi, the very same guy who took a great gamble by putting Pheto and a few other community theatre actors in front of the camera for the first time.

But as I engage her on her current and future plans, it is pretty clear that the African continent features front and centre in her plans.

Growing her resumé as an actress is also top of mind for Pheto. She has recently been one of the main stars in a local movie called How to Steal R2 million, where she played the character of Olive—a feisty township girl who will do whatever it takes, even crime, to survive.

“I am currently reading scripts and attending castings. In our local film industry, you are lucky to do two movies a year. So I am constantly in search of my next big movie project,” says the lady whose portfolio includes roles in movies such as Catch a Fire and Goodbye Bafana, in which she played Zindzi Mandela.

Pheto also has ambitions of making it behind the camera. “A while ago, I got awarded a scholarship to study filmmaking and directing at the New York Film academy. And as soon as I can identify a gap in my schedule, I will be enrolling in that course,” she says.

She would love to collaborate with the stars and directors in Nollywood, the highly successful Nigerian movie circuit. “I admire how the Nigerians delight in their own culture and how they love telling their own stories. With the kind of viewership numbers they attract, and our sense of quality in production as South Africans, we can do really big things together,” she says with a smile.

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