Kuli Roberts was real, she was raw, but she was not perfect — that's why we loved her

11 February 2022 - 08:00
By Andre Neveling
Former Heat SA editor Andre Neveling and Kuli spent many great moments together.
Image: Supplied/Andre Neveling Former Heat SA editor Andre Neveling and Kuli spent many great moments together.

The SA entertainment scene is no stranger to untimely losses, but the passing of showbiz stalwart Kuli Roberts came as a painful shock to many industry colleagues, followers, fans, friends and even haters this week.

Who was Kuli Roberts? Only one of the coolest, loudest and, often, scariest personalities in SA media.

She started as a journalist, like me, but her personality shined so bright, it was only a matter of time before she herself became the subject matter.

While growing up in Durban and watching the rise of Mzansi’s celebrity scene in the early 2000s in the press, I was always intrigued by Kuli’s feisty personality and wild red-carpet antics on TV.

So when I finally arrived in Johannesburg as a budding journalist, I tried my best to keep cool when actress Pam Andrews introduced me to her at a braai in 2006. The connection was instant and effortless, and I was initially puzzled by why this fabulous, feisty and famous black goddess would even bother with a shy, straight-off-the-bus white guy like me.

She was real, she kept it real, but she wasn’t perfect, and I appreciated that about her — no matter how raw.

Andre and Kuli had a lot of fun together.
Image: Supplied / Andre Neveling Andre and Kuli had a lot of fun together.

While many journalists want to be famous themselves, fame found Kuli (her sister Hlubi Mboya was a famous soapie actress, so there must be something in the genes).

But no matter how big her star became, she remained loyal to her publishing roots and was proud of her work, particularly her now-defunct Sunday World column and the stories she broke.

And her versatility from behind the camera to the front was brilliant to watch.

Kuli would happily hitch a ride alongside journalists on the media bus to cover flashy events, but, after a quick costume change, also be the star of the red carpet. There she would rub shoulders with A-listers and pose away for the photographers and camera crews.

And of course, in typical Kuli fashion, she’d be back on the media bus the next morning with a blinding hangover and post-party gossip.

By the time I became the editor of the now-defunct Heat magazine, Kuli was a celebrity in her own right, but she always remained fiercely loyal to me. When there was a scandal or a story to be told, Kuli would always answer her phone and often gave me scandalous exclusives.

I thrived on tabloid gossip, and so did she, and together we made juicy headlines (her tell-all feuds with the likes of Bassie Khumalo and Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu being my favourites).

We loved to gossip so much. Kuli would often feed me stories of her fellow celebs that I would follow up and cover. She was a star but a journalist at heart.

However, the best thing about Kuli was undoubtedly her honesty, bravery and don’t-give-a-f*** attitude.

The best thing about Kuli was undoubtedly her honesty, bravery and don’t-give-a-f*** attitude

It often felt like there was nothing she would not say or do to entertain or shock. She would literally run after celebrities on the red carpet for an answer if she needed to. I wanted to be like her — she always seemed so free just saying it like it was.

But it was this trait that often also made her wildly unpopular with other celebs.

During a celebrity reality TV shoot in Zanzibar in 2009, after a rollercoaster week of drama, Kuli caused even more chaos when she told up-and-coming comedian Trevor Noah that he was acting like a diva.

It didn’t make her popular with Trevor and the cool guys, but she didn’t care.

Then in 2012, during the Comedy Central Roast of Steve Hofmeyr, a war of words broke out between Kuli and Trevor on stage when he told her: “McSlutty, I’m glad you’re sober enough to join us.”

During the live show, the now world-famous comedian called Kuli a nymphomaniac, a cocaine junkie and an alcoholic, and made multiple references to her privates.

She laughed onstage while the cameras were rolling, but I remember her showing up distraught at the after-party. She later told City Press she felt “abused”.

Celebrity haters aside, Kuli’s ability to shock and entertain was like no other, and fans loved her for it. In a world that seems to be changing by the day, there are many things the old Kuli probably would never get away with today.

She’d tell anyone who’d listen that she was attracted to “old, ugly white men” (I saw them with my own eyes), once full-on made out with gay me at a party because someone dared her, and would randomly carry a giant brick of Sunlight soap around with her when she travelled because she said it was the only thing that made her “black skin shine”.

Kuli didn’t need the Sunlight to shine, though, because she was already a star.

Whether you loved her or hated her, she was just so damn entertaining. Her untimely passing is a devastating loss to SA’s media industry.

In a world full of woke, we could’ve done with more Kuli Roberts.

• Andre Neveling is the former editor of Heat SA and Kuli's friend and co-commentator on Vuzu TV. He is now working in Hong Kong.