Smoke & Mirrors
Written by Qaanitah Hunter and edited by Benazir Cassim
It’s 12am on the 25th of June 2019. I am damn tired. I am not yet home. Why am I still not home? Because I went to a brand launch party six hours ago, expecting that the Uber home will cost R58. Uber, may its algorithms be damned, is now surging and my trip home will cost me an estimated R120.
Not much, right?.
Well, it’s a whole R48,80 more than I have in my bank account.
My plan at 10pm was to wait for 12am in the hope my paycheque from a client would reflect in my account by then. But 12 minutes after midnight and it looks like I will only see the money in the morning. If I ever do.
Hmm... Plan B is to request a cash option in Uber and then when I get home, just make a run for it. That sounds plausible for all of four seconds, until I realise that I am a tiny creature wearing six-centimetre heels that are for sure cutting into my feet bones. (Are feet bones a thing?)
So, your judgey self is thinking, why doesn’t she call a friend?
Let’s be honest for a second. I have 125 000 Instagram friends yet I can’t call a single one of them for a favour. It’s called being a millennial.
It’s also called being a ‘successful’ fashion and lifestyle blogger, and also means nobody knows I am broke, and that I came to this party with a borrowed dress worth more than three times my rent and a total of R71,20 to my name.
Okay, let me start from the beginning. I am in Melrose Arch, the part of Johannesburg that acts like the rest of the city doesn’t exist — the part of Johannesburg where Europeans feel at home. It’s where white privilege can be ordered on a menu.
You get the point.
I am part of a group of influencers/social media people/socialites/people who suck up for free things, who were invited to a fun party to launch a new skincare range.
When it comes to brand launches, this launch of ZameR face products is the event of the week. There’s like real-life celebrities here — not just the famous-for-being-famous types.
Dj Axer brought his baby mama with and his estranged wife brought her new toyboy as a plus one. Drama!
The event was going so well, I even got four selfies with celebrities. Okay, TBH, one person was just Insta-famous. But still, it’s a blast.
My goodie bag from the event has tons of makeup (false lashes to die for) and I managed to sneak like a million macarons and snacks into it for teatime tomorrow with my flatmates. Those skinny models were not going to eat it anyway.
It was influencer heaven.
Now, in blogger or influencer world, there are levels.
Level one: Just started out. Posts a million pictures a day. Has a small following. PR companies have just recognised them because they would post all day for a packet of chips if offered. We were all there at some point, I guess.
Level two: These girls have like over 10 000 followers but are still not getting enough paid gigs. It’s an expensive hobby with a few perks.
Level three: Influencers who just started making real money and believe in a few months they will be as rich as Kylie Jenner. Girl, it ain’t going to happen. Although they are all posting pictures of laxative tea so they can pay the bills.
Level four: This is where I am at. I have over 100 000 followers. I get a ton of free things. I get invited to more events than I can possibly attend, and I make a decent amount of money. And by decent, it’s not nearly enough to properly live on. Most people on this level either come from generational wealth, have rich partners or have maxed out their credit cards.
Level five: These people have made it. They are on a ‘celebrity’ level in South Africa. They get paid to be at events. They don’t have to post lies about laxative tea, they just make their own to sell. Comparatively, level five influencers in South Africa are far, far behind your blogger/vlogger types in the US and UK. But let’s blame it on apartheid and move on.
Getting to a level four influencer was no walk in the park. It was a jungle run! An episode of Survivor, if you like.
It’s been five years of posting content consistently with very few resources to get to this level. And still, with 125 000 followers, I am still stone-cold broke at the end of the month.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not me complaining. To be broke only on the 24th of the month is miles ahead of where I was when I started my blog, Maariah Means, in 2015. I remember that day every time I am broke. It was the middle of winter, and I had to start over in my life.
I was a 21-year-old divorcee with no post-matric qualification and I suddenly had to find a way to live.
Thankfully, my pretty features helped me flatter my way into a basic retail job at Sandton City. Just kidding. It wasn’t that easy. The heartbreak of my divorce was nowhere near the stress that came with surviving afterwards..
My divorce story is actually a boring tale. A week after I wrote my last grade 12 exam, an aunt called my mum to say she has a guy for me to meet. In small-town brown world, this meant she found a potential husband for me.
It was a family friend of her sister-in-law who was looking for a “pretty and innocent girl”. No, this was not in 1969.
Anyways, when I was in high school, studying at university was never an option for me because we could never afford it. It was not something I envisioned because even if I did get a bursary, I would still have to move to Joburg to study and my mother’s librarian salary was never going to afford that. It was never on the cards. I was going to find a job, or work in the library with my mum. Those were my options.
So, when my aunt suggested I get married, it seemed like the natural course of things. For my mother, she was just glad that her greatest fear (me getting pregnant in high school) didn’t come true, so getting a real, decent proposal for marriage without a bun in the oven was a relief!
My mother was 17 when she was knocked up with me by some guy she was in school with. He never stuck around, and her family pulled her out of school because an unwanted teenage pregnancy was a life sentence back then. I suppose not much has changed since then.
My mum was forced to find work and managed to get a job at the local library, first as an assistant and later as a manager — she still works there. The library let her take me along to work when she didn’t have anyone to look after me, and my mum told me later in my life that people thought she was my nanny because of my light skin and eyes.
Apparently, I look like my biological father, Jaco, whom I have never met, and I don’t think I would ever meet. I mean if he wanted to see his daughter, he had 20-plus years to reach out. About two years after I was born, my mother married her childhood best friend and neighbour, Zayn.
Now, their story is crazy. The stuff Bollywood is made of, if you ask me. Zayn is about three years older than my mother and he remembers loving her from the time he was 10 years old. I’ve never seen a love like that in my life. They played together as kids, walked to school together and my mother would do all of Zayn’s homework even though she was two grades below him.
Then my mother fell pregnant and Jaco refused to step up.
My mother told me the story a million and a half times of how when she went into labour at 2am, and when Zayn saw her family leave for the hospital, he stole his father’s car to follow her there.
Imagine having the love of your life to give birth to a child that is not yours. That’s some next-level love. I don’t think that kind of love still exists, TBH. While I call Zayn by his name, he is the only father I know in our small and simple family. My mother worked in the library from Monday to Saturday. Zayn worked as a mechanic from Monday to Friday for an insurance panel beater company and fixed cars at home on weekends. It was a routine-filled, uncomplicated life.
I think it also had to do with the fact that we don’t have a big extended family because my grandparents passed on when I was quite young, and my mum has just one sister. We never had a relationship with Zayn’s family because they disowned him when he decided to marry my mother. I told you — Bollywood. This was also something we never spoke about and I can’t remember him ever complaining or talking about his side of the family.
By the time I finished school, my mother was just relieved that I hadn’t followed in her footsteps of getting knocked up by some random guy. She didn’t object to me being introduced to Ozayr. I was 18 years old, I had never had a boyfriend and I was confused about what I wanted to do with my life; so I agreed to it.
He wasn’t strikingly handsome, but he wasn’t bad to look at either. He seemed stable and mature. Although there was this nagging feeling in my gut the first time I met him at my aunt’s house — when you have a strange lingering feeling, but you can’t put your finger on what it is or where it’s coming from.
Ozayr was 25 years old and worked in his family business in Johannesburg. He seemed half-decent. Once he proposed, I got caught up in the euphoria of it all. In no time I was married and moved to Lenasia where I would get into a routine of waking up, making his breakfast, packing his lunch, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, cooking supper and then watching Bollywood series until he got back home from work. I was on autopilot. This was my life and I got on with it.
Even with that level of mediocrity, we didn’t have a volatile marriage. When I look back now, I just remember my marriage being an endless routine with very few surprises.
Until it was not.
I will never forget that day. We were driving to Ozayr’s granny’s house about a month after our two-year wedding anniversary. Ozayr turned and looked at me in the car with a strange look in his eyes.
“Do you love me?” he asked seriously, with his frown deepening and his fingers tapping the steering wheel.
“‘Yeah. Of course,” I responded with a slight stammer in my voice, unsure where the conversation was going.
“I love someone else,” he blurted out. I was so startled, I thought I heard wrong. That is the last thing you expect your husband of two years to say to you on a routine drive to his granny’s house.
It took me so long to register and fully comprehend the meaning behind what he just said that I sat in silence for the rest of the trip.
You know that state of shock and confusion where, even though you want to make sense of the situation, your mind can’t wrap itself around what just happened?
That was me when my husband admitted to me that he was in love with someone else. Life went on at normal at his granny’s house and I dutifully dished out the food and washed the dishes like the good daughter-in-law I was.
That evening, on the way back from his granny’s house, we took a long drive home where he let out all his deep, dark secrets. It turned out that Ozayr was in love with a girl he met in the one year he went to university, but he couldn’t marry her because of a religious difference.
When his parents found out, they forced him to drop out of university and join the family business, hoping he would forget about this girl who, to them, was not a suitable partner for him. But he kept seeing her secretly for five years until one day he went to his parents and told them he wanted to marry her. That was about three months before he was introduced to me.
His parents thought that forcing him to marry a pretty and innocent girl from a small town would make him get over this girl. What a bloody cliché!
Well predictably, they were wrong and apparently three months after we got married, they started seeing each other again. I had no clue. If he hadn’t told me I probably would have never found out. I was young and naïve. I did my wifely chores with a smile and very rarely complained.
I tried for months after that to think back to any signs I may have missed or clues that I had ignored. I couldn’t think of anything besides the fact that I always found it strange that his mother would sometimes shout at him in a hushed tone in the kitchen, but I never got close enough to find out what it was about.
When we got home that night, he told me that he could no longer live a lie and no matter how much he cared for me, his heart belonged to that girl. Up until that point, divorce didn’t even cross my mind. I thought he would apologise and promise to love me for the rest of our lives.
I was very quickly slapped with reality. “I think we need a divorce.”
The next two weeks after those words were a blurred haze of loud arguments between Ozayr and his mother. On the other side, my mother was so distraught she was barely rational. Zayn was threatening to beat up Ozayr. It was a mess.
As much as I needed time to deal with what just happened, I also needed to sort out my life. What do I do now? My mother was devastated for me but agreed with me when I said I would rather stay in Joburg and find a job.
There was nothing for me in Nelspruit. I mean I was a 20-year-old divorcee; how could I go home to sponge off my mother who earns a pittance? That didn’t sound right. I started sending my CV around and thankfully, the economy was performing a whole lot better then than it is now. I managed to get a job at a fashion retailer, Icon, in their handbag department.
Ozayr’s mother helped me find a place to rent and helped me with my deposit, and that was as far as her kindness extended. Once I moved out it was like I never existed to that family. She is yet to reach out to check how I am doing
I didn’t hate Ozayr as much as I did his mother after the divorce, for knowing her son was in love with someone else but deciding to force him to marry me. And when things blew over, she didn’t care.
When I think about it, I still marvel at how I managed to just get up and start a new life. At the time, I was earning R5 500, from which R3 000 went to rent and utilities in a granny flat and R600 to transport to work, leaving me with R1 900 to live on every month.
The irony of life is that I now earn five times what I earned then, yet I am still just as broke as the end of the month.
I am half falling asleep at this party, yet I can’t afford the ride home.
It’s time to come up with a contingency lie so I switch off my phone and go to one of the PR girls who organised the party. “Honey, is it possible to call me an Uber home, my phone died,” I say.
“Oh, that’s awful. Good thing there’s a portable charger in the goodie bag,” she says without hesitation.
Dammit. These PR girls are annoying. My phone is fully charged. Can’t she just get the Uber! So I make small talk with a bunch of other bloggers as I try to think of a plan. If it was earlier, I would’ve taken a taxi but it’s midnight and there is no public transport at this time of the night.
I head to the loo, and as I walk in I see the hijabi blogger who asked me for a picture earlier. Firdaus is a hijabi influencer who is really killing the Instagram scene right now, and even walked in SA Fashion Week last year. She’s there with her cousin Ayesha who is a lawyer and just came along for fun. I had seen Firdaus before, but this was the first time I actually connected with her. She and her cousin seem to be genuinely nice girls, which is mostly rare. Brand events are filled with so much fickleness, it hurts my brain.
“Are you leaving now?” Firdaus asks.
“I am planning to, but my Uber won’t work,” I lie.
“We can drop you off?” Ayesha offers.
I am five seconds away from breaking out in a “GLORY BE TO THE Almighty” in DJ Khalid style. EXHALE! Shew!
“Are you sure? I stay in Rosebank.”
“Oh, that’s not far from here,” Firdaus says.
“I appreciate it, thank you,” I say.
“My brother is picking us up in about five minutes,” says Ayesha.
I feel like crap, but I don’t have a choice. As I said, Uber can be an ass when it wants to. Actually, my bank balance is the real problem here.
I walk outside with Ayesha and Firdaus just as a black Audi pulls up. We climb in, and I don’t take notice of Ayesha’s brother until he turns around to introduce himself to me.
“Hi, I’m Adil,” he says.
“Assalamualaikum,” I offer, and he gets that embarrassed look on his face because he clearly didn’t realise I was a Muslim girl.
It happens all the time, I am used to it. Most people don’t know I am a Muslim until they get to know me. Maariah can also be Mariah, as in Mariah Carey. Also, my weird white and Indian genes and my green eyes confuse a lot of people. But if I am honest with myself, I really don’t wear my religion on my sleeve.
“This is the blogger I was telling you about. Her name is Maariah,” Firdaus tells her cousin.
Adil is dressed in a formal white shirt and black slacks, which clearly say he was at work until midnight on a Friday. Nobody goes out with friends dressed like that unless you are a 58-year-old professor. Or some weird luncheon-going guy.
“Are you coming from work now?” Ayesha asks Adil.
“Yeah... I have a ton of deadlines to meet. How was the party?”
“Great! I’m starving though. Those canapés were not filling at all,” Firdaus says.
I’m starving too.
“Those celebs eat two pieces of riceless sushi and act like they’re all full,” Ayesha jokes — and she’s not wrong.
“Do you guys want to stop and get pizza?” Adil offers.
“Yes! Maariah, are you in a rush to get home?”
“No, not at all. I’m chilled,” I said.
We pull up at Ansies 24-hour pizza, which is about five minutes from the party venue. At this point, I am praying that my money is reflecting in my account. Adil pulls out a chair next to me while Firdaus and Ayesha pull out the other two chairs.
I try to insist that I am not hungry, but they won’t buy it. We were at the event from 6pm to midnight, I had to be starving. Of course, my stomach was digesting itself but if they want to split the bill, I’m screwed. My account is still empty.
“I can’t be eating carbs so late. Okay, I will have a small slice with you guys and a glass of water,” I say. I’ve been broke enough times to know how to make this work.
Adil orders two large margherita pizzas and drinks for us. Thankfully, he pays for it before we can suggest splitting the bill. I am grateful for simple mercies. A simple cheesy pizza goes down so well, especially when you’re starving, so even though I protested and insisted that I would only have a small slice of pizza, I am soon on slice three.
Adil doesn’t say much while we chat about the party, fashion week and all things influencer. He does seem interested though, because he sits quietly and pays attention to the conversation. On appearance alone, you can see that this guy is a quintessential professional. His slacks are neatly pressed. His white shirt is still crisp and his Apple Watch is neatly on his right hand.
He’s kinda cute. Okay, there, I said it. He’s not overly buff but not skinny. Like Ashton Kutcher. But not shaggy-hair Ashton Kutcher. Ashton Kutcher when he married Mila Kunis. I can’t even remember when was the last time I found a guy attractive in real life. I don’t even know when last I was around a ‘real’ guy.
I mean I do Insta-stalk guys. Whatever. There was definitely something about this guy.
THIS IS SO WEIRD.
Once the pizza is done, they drop me off at the house I share with two other girls. My one flatmate is Nabila, who is also my manager. She knows hustle like no one else does.
We met about two years ago, when she was still working for a PR company, and she was looking to do a collab with me. She is the only one who knew for a long time that I worked retail and most of my shoots were done using clothes from the store I worked for and my makeup was done by my colleagues who worked in the makeup department.
That’s how I started blogging. It was a quiet day at Icon on a random Tuesday morning in 2015 and Molly, who worked at the makeup counter, asked if she could do my makeup for her portfolio. She did an incredible smokey eye and nude lip which made me feel like a million bucks.
When Molly posted the first lot of pictures, her Instagram exploded with people requesting to book her for makeup after hours. Then it became almost a daily routine where she would do my makeup while the store was still empty, and I would pose for pictures. I didn’t have a public social media presence at the time but Molly and the other girls at Icon convinced me that I needed to become a blogger. I was literally living on R1 900 a month and could barely afford data.
One day I connected to my landlord’s WiFi and decided to start my Instagram page, make it public and post pictures that were taken at Icon.
It took me a few weeks to wrap my head around this blogging thing, especially since it wasn’t such a big deal in 2015 as it is now. I would post a makeup look every day and would get Molly to break down all the products she used.
People absolutely loved it because she gave a step-by-step process on how to achieve the different looks she had done for me. I can’t remember how I started doing photoshoots with dresses from the evening wear section of the store but suddenly, my following grew exponentially.
From like 1000 followers, I remember getting to about 6000 in a month. For me, those shoots were a good distraction. I didn’t have a life. I woke up at 6am, ate a bowl of oats and a banana for breakfast, took a walk to the main road to catch a minibus taxi to Sandton City and then started my workday at 7:30.
I would only be home by 7pm, eat a basic dinner — which most of the time was canned tuna — and I would pass out. I worked six days a week and Sundays were spent cleaning my flat and preparing for the week. My life was dull and uneventful. I rarely went out because, frankly, I just couldn’t afford it.
From the R1 900 I had to live on, I gave my mother R400 a month to make their lives easier. My mother and Zayn live very simple lives, and since Zayn had an accident at work where a car engine fell on his leg, he hasn’t been able to work as much as he used to. R400 was not much but it made a difference to their lives.
At least now I can contribute quite substantially and pay for a decent medical aid for them. I have literally had days I would sit in the taxi and my mind would drift off thinking how I needed to work hard to help my mom and Zayn ease their burden. My mom is relatively young, but she is so used to her life at the library that she would never leave.
I think that’s what pushed me to give absolutely 100% of my energy to creating Maariah Means with no budget. I did endless research, stalked famous international bloggers and content creators, and came up with a strategy for that time.
My first call of action was registering Maariah Means on a domain and getting a blog up and running. At first, I emailed a ton of companies for quotes, but they charged ridiculous fees so instead, one Saturday I went to a coffee shop after work, used their WiFi and watched 10 YouTube tutorials on how to build my own site.
It took me weeks of trying until I was fully happy with the layout and graphics. I used a free site to make a logo and made sure all my social media pages were in sync. Again, it helped that I stalked like fifty international fashion bloggers and mirrored the way they were doing things. My bio was a basic quote because we didn’t know about ‘influencer life’ and ‘wanderlust’ back then.
“Don’t innovate to compete, innovate to change the rules of the game,” it read, and I still believe in it. It made me sound all mysterious and interesting when I was just a girl who would pray, that she didn’t have to sit in the front passenger seat of the minibus taxi and had to count the money.
Taxi drivers in Johannesburg are ruthless. They will make you count the money of all 20 passengers and if the fare is short, they make it your fault, as if they pay you to be their assistants.
The worst is when someone pays for an R11 trip with a R200 note. You can feel the scorn of the rest of the passengers while it’s your problem to figure out how much change to give him before he jumps out at some random robot.
Minibus taxis in Joburg are an adventure and a half. When I first started taking them, I used to be catcalled every day then eventually commuters got used to the ‘Mlungu girl’. I can’t say I miss taking taxis. Although I still don’t own a car, I can afford to Uber now and I don’t have a daily commute like I used to.
Moving to Rosebank also helped a ton because I can just walk to the mall if I need to do errands or even go to meetings. And because three of us are sharing the space, the rent is completely affordable.
Granted, it’s really a two-bedroom house and my bedroom is actually the sunroom — I don’t care, I get to stay in Rosebank for under R3 000 a month.
When Firdaus and Ayesha dropped me off, we exchanged numbers promising to keep in touch. I can’t keep count how many times bloggers say that to each other, but this time it seemed different.
I have to make an effort with Firdaus. She has a damn loyal following. We could even collab on content. TBH, I need to get into that hijabi space. Those followers are loyal as hell.
And if it means seeing her fine cousin again, I’m in.
Her cousin Ayesha, obviously. What were you thinking?
@MaariahMeans: Hi guys. I had the most amazing evening at ZameR skincare launch. You honies know how much I love my skincare and these products are AMAZING. I am so excited for you guys to try it out. The event was so much fun and I met the coolest people! Thank you @ZameR for having me.
This is fiction
No, really. It is fiction. All characters are made up.