We’re sitting in a backstage dressing room at a rehearsal theatre in Pretoria. It’s small, modest, but clean and Nataniël has made a point of closing the adjoining bathroom door when we walked in, ensuring that the loo is out of sight. I’m sitting on a low chair, while he’s perched on a barstool looming over me.

In the flesh, he looks how I expected him to, simply not as airbrushed as his publicity photos and album covers. But he is strangely expressionless; his facial muscles barely move except to open and close his mouth. I never see him smile in the entire interview – even when he’s being funny (and that’s often). The rest of him – his voice, his hands – are full of energy and passion. He loves to talk, and to talk about himself. Thanks to the fact that he’s such an engaging, self deprecating and clever speaker, I don’t mind at all. His speaking voice is just like I remember it from television – a muddled raspy drawl – which is in sharp contrast to his astonishingly clear singing. It’s something that he acknowledges. “I’ve never been able to figure that out,” he says with a shrug.

Nataniël has been performing for almost twenty years. He’s had his own television talk show (not a success – he had to speak), released 13 albums, staged more than 40 original theatre productions and has published 10 books. He also started a lifestyle product range called Kaalkop (bald-head). He’s literally a one man industry who’s often sown distress among the public thanks to his dark and eccentric image – from painting his face in exotic patterns to wearing outfits that look rather like gothic dresses. But when they hear him sing, even the most conservative ‘tannie’ from the Free State gets weak at the knees.

I’d been told that the interview would be granted on condition that I wasn’t to ask any personal questions, and the image I’ve always had of him led me to believe that he might be aloof and somewhat arrogant, but Nataniël is surprisingly open about himself. Like his two voices, the image and the person can sometimes be difficult to reconcile. The starting off point is the new production of his show, The Moses Machine, in which he performs with the rather impressive looking Dihan Slabbert and Kyle Grant.

What was the genesis of the new show? What makes it different?

All my shows are the same! I sing and I tell stories and I’ll do that until I’m dead. For me it’s a background on which I present my new songs. There’s a lot of gospel vibes going, there’s a lot of hectic rock stuff…

So what’s it about?

It’s about the system of what people believe. These days, people need convenience. Religion is too much work for people. Suddenly everybody’s spiritual. That’s bullshit. It means nothing. All the prophets of the bible have been replaced by cool easy fashionable convenient stuff and American movie stars. And I’m her biggest fan, but people have replaced church with Oprah. I’m not judging it, I’m just saying, “this is what’s happening”.

You’re making a critique about our celebrity culture, but you’re a celebrity yourself…

I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I don’t think that there’s a single celebrity in South Africa. I mean I don’t ever go out – I don’t even go my own opening nights – but I’ve been to Fashion Week and it’s the same old tired people. To be a celebrity you have billions of Rands and you have a choice of different mansions and you have a publicist and five poodles. That’s a celebrity. It’s not this lot running around here…

Why did you decide to include Dihan Slabbert and Kyle Grant in the show?

Dihan has got one of the most breathtaking voices I’ve heard in my life. And also Kyle. Kyle is like ten years old but he’s got a raw mature voice. It’s mind-blowing. And then they’re pretty. I mean it’s not like we want to scare the people when they come in the door. I’m the dog on the stage, so if you want to be in my show you must be pretty…

“I’m the most normal person I know.”

They’ve already made quite an impression on people in those publicity pics…

I’ve met so many gorgeous people in my life and they’re just corpses. But they [Dihan and Kyle] can sing and they’re not aware of the fact that they’re pretty.

Do they function as backup singers?

Everybody is equal in the show. It’s like a troupe, like a group of gypsies. Everybody is involved in every song. They sing solo, they sing with me. When we sing together it’s a group. I hate backup singers. Both of them are much more accomplished singers than I am.

This is one of your longer runs – you seem to prefer very short runs.

I get so bored! On opening night I think, “what the hell am I going to do for the next three weeks?” How people sit on the West End and sing in Phantom for ten years, God knows. I’d die.

How hard do you need to work to make a living in South Africa as a performer? How do you live your life?

I make more money than anybody I know. But that’s because I know how to run my business. Kaalkop’s got more than 40 people [employed], I’ve got three best-selling books out, I write for magazines… I know how to generate money. Money loves me because it doesn’t stay with me. I spend it. I travel overseas, I shop, I buy really expensive clothes. I live well. I don’t have a boat, I don’t do cocaine and I don’t go on holiday. I live minimalist, but my couch costs enough. It’s a gorgeous couch but it’s the only thing in the room. So I live really simple, but I like quality. I’ve got friends and I’ve got eleven godchildren and I don’t have a love life. And I don’t intend to. It’s the dullest thing ever. So I’m a 300 hundred year old nun with eleven god-children and four dogs…

You have a reputation for being eccentric. Do you feel you are, and is it something you cultivate?

I live the simplest life! There’s nothing weird. I live a natural life. I gym everyday, then I work and I go to a show and then I drink tea, watch Oprah and then sleep. I think it’s because of the fact that I’m completely honest and I have no ability to lie or to keep my mouth shut. People call me and say, “Won’t you be on our talk show?”, and I say, “Are you nuts? You’ve got the worst lighting in the world”! I avoid that whole polite thing of let me check my dates. Just tell them their lights are shit! I’m the most normal person I know. I’m also the only person I know that’s the same everyday. I’m not a mood swinger. I’m the same every day of every year, until I’m dead.

Your work has always had a very arresting visual aesthetic. Where did this sense of ‘the image’ come from?

If I was pretty I wouldn’t have done it. I can’t stand my face. So I paint the fucker so that I have the guts to walk on stage. You can’t make people pay to see this… [gestures at his face] You have to give them something, so I fix it. It’s as simple as that. You’re basically re-constructing yourself with paint. I go to the shops with the biggest sunglasses so that people don’t throw up when they see what I really look like. I don’t need treatment for it – I know what I’m good at, but my face, I don’t like it. I hated it when I was three months old and I still hate it. So I paint it. It’s a very simple thing. And I’m going to paint it until I’m dead.

And even though you’re not comfortable with yourself, you still became a performer?

But It’s the most private thing in the world! It’

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