The name Jani Allan is synonymous with sometimes diametrically opposite reactions: admiration, controversy, contempt. Allan was South Africa’s first real celebrity columnist. She covered an entertainment and lifestyle beat for the Sunday Times in the 1980s, known for witty, caustic, sharp, pieces about celebrities, the rich and famous, and prominent politicians. At the height of her fame in 1987, a Sunday Times poll on “the most admired person in South Africa”, put her first.
As a darling of the media, Allan’s downfall was a spectacular one. A series of exclusive interviews with the late AWB leader Eugène Terre’Blanche resulted in speculation that Allan was in love with the right-winger. Few will forget the description of Terre’Blanche’s “blowtorch blue eyes” and “rich, earth brown voice” in her first article on him. In her book, Allan says she was “blissfully unaware” that the interview would be a watershed moment. Follow up features on Terre’Blanche only fuelled the rumours, and when Allan was photographed with the AWB leader, while police pounced on him for allegedly trying to deface a monument, fact becomes stranger than fiction. Allan believes this was a set-up by the Apartheid government to discredit Terre’Blanche, with herself (unwittingly) cast as the fall-girl.
Allan receives death threats. A bomb goes off outside her flat. She’s sent to London for her own safety, but is fired not long, afterwards, having become a liability for the paper and she relocates to the UK. Her unsuccessful but high profile 1992 libel lawsuit against Britain’s Channel 4, for insinuating she had an affair with Terre’Blanche, put her in the global spotlight.
Who can forget the most (in)famous image attached to Allan’s name: that of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s hole-ridden, green underpants? This picture was painted by Allan’s former friend, Linda Shaw, who claimed she saw the two having sex. Allan provides a damning account of how the case was handled in court.
Allan was back in South Africa and the limelight between 1996 and 2001, presenting a popular late night show on Cape Talk. Another controversial interview got her fired and then, for all intents and purposes, she faded into near obscurity, her tarnished name used as an example of what happens when the journalist becomes the story.
Now, more than a decade later, Allan is back in South Africa, with her memoir, Jani Confidential, a tell-all to “set the record straight”. The book is a fascinating read, providing insight into events that provided fodder for Sunday lunches and glitzy parties for years to come. Allan examines her childhood, her rise to fame, her insecurities around men (despite her reputation as the temptress), her fall from grace, and descent into a less-than-glamorous life as a waitress in a foreign country.
Allan is not what I expected. She arrives for our studio interview dressed all in black, her lips red, like on the cover of her book. She’s very slim, and seems almost fragile as she overwhelms me with a kiss on each cheek. Her voice is soft, waifish, not in keeping with the image of the glamourous airhead, and strangely accented.
Why write this book now, so long after the fact? “When we tell a story we exercise a kind of control over our lives”, she writes in the book. During our interview, Allan says she didn’t realise anyone would be interested in her story (really?).
In Jani Confidential, Allan turns her astonishing ability to parody her subjects, on herself and those who have played prominent roles in her life. Her writing is as acerbic as ever, her descriptions rich, witty and brilliant. “Woe clung to him like Gladwrap”, she writes of former radio DJ, Stan Katz. Those who helped destroy her, she describes as “the assassins of Caesar, taking their opportunity to wield the knife”. Linda’s laugh “was like blood gargling from a cut throat”, her giant tote-bag carried around “like an elephant’s scrotum”.
It’s not for nothing that both the title of the book and cover evoke the poster of the film, LA Confidential, in which Kim Basinger is shown as the femme fatale, her lips red, her blonde locks falling over her shoulders. During our interview, Allan says the visual parallel is incidental. “It’s a meme of what people think I am”, she tells me. Jani Confidential’s cover is a black and white portrait of the author, the only colour her deep red lips.
Despite the yoke it put around her neck, she doesn’t regret the Terre’Blanche interviews. “I don’t regret the way I described him. It was the way I perceived him. I was painting a verbal portrait. And I do have this capacity for self-mocking”. And she wouldn’t change anything if she could go back. “I wouldn’t have a book to right would I?”
Allan hopes the book will illustrate the phenomenon of “slut-shaming”. “I have been slut-shamed. I’ve been called a whore. I’ve been called Terre’Blanche’s ‘brood-mare’. I’ve been almost shamed to death”. She would ask journalists to be aware of dehumanising the person they are “slut-shaming”, of realising there is a living, breathing, person, who can suffer at the hands of someone else’s pen. “I think if the book has any message, it’s for us to become a kinder society”, she explains.
I ask whether this is something she thinks she should have considered when writing her own columns. “Of course!” she exclaims. “I lie awake thinking ‘I should never have said that’. But in my feeble defence, it was never… I was never… Perhaps I was an imp of Satan not a devil”.
Allan doesn’t know what comes next, whether she’ll return to her waitressing job in small-town USA, or move back here. Perhaps someone will offer her a new column, or another shot at radio? She does have quite a number of ‘groupies’ in South Africa, I point out, making her laugh. And then she turns philosophical. “I have no idea what lies ahead. I’ve had offers. But at this stage, I’d like to say God made the earth round, so that you can’t see too far down the road”.
THE FULL INTERVIEW
Jani Confidential is published by Jacana.