Jani Allan returned to South Africa this week. In the country to talk about her autobiography, Jani Confidential, she nearly didn’t get on to the plane at JFK, terrified of facing the country where her spectacular fall from grace is the stuff of legend. Glenda Nevill reports.
“I said to my friend, who is a cross dresser by night and a mortgage broker by day, who took me to JFK, I said to him it was the worst idea I’d ever had. Writing the book was the worst idea. I don’t interact a lot. At home I’m a ‘pom mom’,” she said, referring to her beloved Pomeranian dogs.
It might be 25 years since the Eugene Terre’blanche scandal rocked her world, and led to a highly publicised court case in the British High Court in London. Allan sued Channel 4 for libel over the documentary, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife. Allan says she can’t believe people are still interested in the story after all these years (“I was talking to students at the University of Johannesburg and I said ‘I have underwear older than you’.”) but judging from the reaction to her book, and to her arrival back in South Africa, they most certainly are.
Allan was interviewed by Cape Argus and Weekend Argus books editor, Vivien Horler, at a fundraiser for The Big Issue magazine in Cape Town on Monday night. Held at 6 Spin Street, the ‘Intimate Evening with Jani Allan’, with MC Siv Ngesi at the helm, gave the audience a glimpse of the woman 25 years on, and also of the cutting humour and self mockery that made her a star at the Sunday Times back in the 1980s. Before launching into more serious questions, Horler asked who would play ET if a movie were to be made. “Mel Gibson,” she answered, fast as a flash. “That’s for sure.”
As Horler said, Allan was voted ‘South Africa’s most admired person’ in 1987. “You drove a Ferrari, and were regarded as South Africa’s top columnist,” said Horler. Then, in 1988, Sunday Times editor, the late Tertius Myburgh, asked Allan to interview Eugene Terre’blanche, the leader of the white right group, the AWB. And that was Allan’s Rubicon
Horler quoted the now famous extract from that column: “ET doesn’t walk into a room, he takes occupation of it. To be honest, he’s a hunk, far more attractive than his telegenic image. Could it be people have the wrong image of him? I have to remind myself to breathe. I’m impaled by the blue flame of his blowtorch eyes.”
Do you regret that line, Horler asked? “No, it was a great line,” said Allan, and pointed out that Channel 4’s lawyer in the High Court trial, George Carmen, used it too. “He said, ‘Miss Allan you wrote you were impaled on his blowtorch eyes’ and I said ‘yes, much in the same way I’m being impaled on yours now’,” she said, to gales of laughter from the audience.
“I do have to say I’ve always written with a self-mocking kind of edge and I do mock myself probably as a precaution so that I do it before other people do,” she said.
Horler asked at which point, after the famous interview was published, did Allan realise she was “in the shit”.
“I think when the front wheel of my Lancia had come off and I had just collected the car and I didn’t know, but it was subsequently proven, I was under surveillance by three different intelligence agencies. I did go to Tertius Myburgh but he said I’d been watching too many movies,” Allan replied.
Allan shared a house with fellow Sunday Times journalist, Linda Shaw, now one of South Africa’s most well read astrologers. Shaw was a witness in the court case. Her infamous statement about seeing Terre’blanche’s bottom in green holey underpants through the keyhole of the door to Allan’s bedroom resulted in several lashings from Allan. Shaw is not spared in Jani Confidential either. Allan says she needed a “turnstile” at her bedroom door, and that her “mating calls set off the neighbourhood dogs off…”
“It’s true,” says Allan now.
Shaw, in turn, wrote of Allan, “The heavily painted image serves to cover her innate shyness and fear of crowds. She often fails to arrive at functions because her courage has deserted her at the last minute. Her super bitch image has been fabricated for her own protection.”
Is this true, Horler asked? “Yes, I think that is pretty much true. I nearly didn’t get on the flight…”
In the ’80s you had such a glitzy life, why did you feel you needed to hide? Horler asked.
“It wasn’t about me. It was about the persona the Sunday Times had created. Not me,” Allan replied.
So who were you?
“For that you need to read the book.”
Allan said that in retrospect, she would never have sued Channel 4, claiming she’d been given bad advice. She lost, with the case hinging on whether or not she had an affair with Terre’blanche. She says she lost on a technicality, but landed up with an order to pay Channel 4 a million pounds.
“As I came out the court a reporter said to me, ‘Do you have a million pounds?’ So I said, ‘not on me… ‘”
Did you ever have a million pounds?
‘I’m overly interested in handbags….”
Did you ever pay Channel 4’s costs?
‘This is Helen Zille’s response to questions she doesn’t want to answer…” and she lifted her face, nose in the air, and looked away to howls from guests.
Allan says news of Terre’blanche’s violent death didn’t affect her.
“Obviously no human being, no creature, nobody, nothing should be terminated with such extreme prejudice but no, I can’t say it affected me… He was an interview topic”.
Asked whether she would like to revive her journalism career, Allan said she thought another book was in order. “It would be lovely to write something else other than ‘one fillet SOS extra bitch’. Sauce on the side…”
Horler questioned Allan on how she thought the ET drama would have played out if the world had social media at the time. “I am astonished people still talk about this as it was a quarter of a century ago. Maybe you can answer why people are so interested? The thing is I became the poster child for slut shaming. [It was published on Daily Maverick, the best publication in South Africa now, Allan says.] And I think slut shaming has become more prominent with social media. There is no social responsibility. Like when I wrote a story about Oscar Pistorius – I just dashed it off on my way to work – these little flaky ‘Pistorians’ were slagging me off like ‘you were Terre’blanche’s whore… The internet is a paradise for trolls who can spew their bile without being responsible. I think a lot of press tread lightly when they shouldn’t and they tread too heavily when they shouldn’t.”
Allan has been waitressing in a restaurant in Lambertville, New Jersey, since she fled to the US 12 years ago. Her life had fallen apart in South Africa after the court case and a short-lived career on Cape Talk. Her flat was bombed, and her journalism career moribund. Waitressing was the only job she could get without a green card. She used the name ‘Juliette’ – her mother’s pet name for her – as she “didn’t want people to Google me”. She says she’s proud of the work as it’s “physically demanding” and “teaches you humility, which is good. And boy, am I humble…”
She says she is a born again Christian, the result of a “long dry patch”.
“I was so annoyed with Lord. I asked how he could make me wait on tables when I have more degrees than a thermometer. Then miraculous thing happened. I know couldn’t have written the book, found the energy, if it wasn’t for the Lord.”
Her next book, she says, will be a book on the insanity of the restaurant business.
Any regrets? You’re so linked with ET? “In your mind, not mine. He was just one chapter in the book.”
IMAGE: Shonah Gallichan