In this excerpt, published with permission from Penguin Random House, Tumi talks about finding your own definition of beauty.
Whenever people told my mother that I looked like her, she would say, with a smile on her face,
‘What? This monkey look like me? Never.’
She was quite blunt when she did not approve of one of my ‘looks’.
When I was dating Mike, I barely wore make-up because he hated make-up, and Mama would say, ‘But you look plain. He just doesn’t want other guys looking at you. Just apply a little liner and lipstick at least.’
Mama liked a well-put-together woman almost as much as she loved an educated one.
When I shaved my head, she said, ‘A woman is her hair,’ forgetting that she herself had rocked a brush cut in her youth.
She knew what clothes she looked great in, and she was very particular about her appearance.
She couldn’t understand how a pretty girl like me (according to her) was not interested in beauty.
She also could not understand my obsession with trousers.
She would say, ‘I gave you beautiful legs, why do you like to hide them?’
My saving grace, she’d say, was that I was a beautiful girl. That made me feel good, and I’d forgive her for trying to make me a girly girl.
When I refused to take fashion advice from her, she claimed, ‘They used to call me the walking catalogue, remember that.’
Despite all these exchanges, Mama never shamed me.
She was just trying to convince me that if I put in a little extra effort, I could be a real head-turner.
She knew me well, though, and knew that how I looked was right at the bottom of my list of priorities.
In an interview for the cover of a local magazine, a journalist candidly said, ‘You are overweight and aren’t the typical pretty girl we see in the industry; what do you attribute your success to?’
I was momentarily gutted.
I thought she was, in effect, saying that I did not belong in the industry. All because of my looks.
I think it was the matter-of-fact way she said it that stung, as though it was an obvious fact that I was well aware of.
But she was right.
I probably defy the odds because I do not speak with a private-school or Model C accent, I am not conventionally pretty and I am anything but thin.
In that moment with this journalist, though, I remembered the confidence of the cockroach.
A cockroach does not belong in your house or on your table, but there it is, creeping along, in no real rush to get out of your way.
Even when it knows its time is nearly up as showers of insecticide envelop it, it stands there, defiant.
I guess that is me in the entertainment industry.
I have employed the cockroach tactic my whole career, stepping into experimental spaces and trusting that God has me, and that I have this X-factor thing I cannot explain.
Nobody, at any point, has ever made me feel like I fit in.
That element of discomfort, like being allowed into the room but not offered a chair, keeps me on my toes.
I have never been skinny. And ever since my first-born, I have always been overweight.
My weight, though, was never front-of-mind for me.
I had a joke or two about my body, but that was textbook self-effacing comedy before I went on the attack and took everyone else out – you know, lull them into thinking you’re the target, then turn the gun on them.
Even then it was more about celebrating how comfortable I was in my own skin rather than it being an apology for how I looked.
I celebrate that I look like African prosperity, not Third World poverty.
When it came to race relations, black people accused me of being too friendly with the whites.
My aunt even teased me once and said I was a ‘witbroodjie’ (slice of white bread), like my grandmother, who was always treated well by white people in the Free State when she was still a domestic worker. She was a cute, well-mannered woman who spoke fluent Afrikaans.
My mom, too, had been called witbroodjie, for being a perceived favourite at home.
How ironic, then, that whites would find me too ‘Black Consciousness’.
I did not fit in with anyone, so I carved myself a little niche where people who liked something different could enjoy me.
I have never been overly aware of those who don’t like me, because they are not my focus.
The buttered side of the bread is where the love lives.
I committed to a weight-loss programme in 2016 after my Discovery Vitality test results indicated that I was more than ten years older in health than my actual age.
I was shocked. I found it unacceptable that I was rushing to my grave because I wasn’t taking care of my health.
The signs that it was time for a change were there too. I once collapsed in the middle of a rehearsal. I was on high stilts, and someone caught me halfway to the floor. (Yes, on stilts. I have so many tricks up my sleeve, man; it’s part of my industry longevity.)
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#Dearbody: Hey you sexy thang. Yes you, my curvaceous one-of-a-kind vessel. I may say disparaging things about you at times, but I really do love you and I promise to adorn you like the sacred temple you are to this fierce soul. I celebrate your beauty and your resilience. Tumi This year I was a part of Marie Claire's New Naked campaign, and I wrote this letter to my self. Share your own letter starting with #DearBody and tag @marieclairesa ??
The doctor said I had the symptoms of someone on the verge of heart failure.
Something shifted in me. I was already in therapy, which helped, and this was the extra impetus I needed to kick me into action.
I needed to stay alive for my babies. Plus, my life insurance would have sucked for Mpho; it really wasn’t going to get him to St. Tropez.
I was overworked, undernourished and not prioritising my health. I changed my eating habits.
I stuck to a regime and started melting away. When I got through phase one of my weight loss, the press were all over it.
I did not understand the big deal.
Had people really been that fixated on my weight?
What I missed about being overweight was reading about my work in newspapers rather than frivolous articles on how to lose weight, why I’d lost weight or how lovely I looked.
Previously, they had written about how Mpho and I were making it work as a couple in the industry, or getting to know the woman behind the work.
But I soon began to buy into the weight-loss hype, and thought that perhaps I was finally being accepted as South African performance royalty.
I could stop abusing Craig Jacobs and Brenda Khambule, who had been making me red-carpet ready and worthy for so long.
They are the fashion brother and sister the universe sent me, and they were kind to my pocket as well, but I reckoned that the days of not having other designers look my way would end.
Maybe now that I looked like a celebrity, I would start being dressed like one.
Thank goodness that feeling lasted all of one moment. The attention eventually became intrusive.
My physical body was overshadowing my body of work. What a waste of nearly a decade of crafting and building a name!
So I stopped focusing on my body and got back to crafting. I have since gained some of that weight back (although nothing like before).
I realised that a lot of what I do is very personal, from the decision to take on projects that are a gamble, to going on this weight-loss regime.
I cannot judge people for what they want to get out of this industry, but I know I am too intelligent and talented to chase trends and social pages.
That is not what makes me money or brings me fulfilment.
However, the entertainment industry thrives on building and breaking.
I have met and spoken to so many young women who say they look up to me for remaining true to myself no matter how big I get.
It feels like I do them an injustice if the message I then send is that you must inevitably bend to the will of those who do not even have your best interests at heart, and try to look like them.