Reeva Steenkamp was my homegirl. Which is slightly different from her being my friend. (We were friends too, but that came later.) She was a special kind of human being, one that shone so brightly.
First of all, we were from PE. People from Port Elizabeth share a sense of heritage, a flat, working-class accent, and an unpretentious worldview. PE is such an isolated outpost, stuck away on the bottom right-hand corner of Africa. The culture is one part small-town insecurity, two parts “fuck you” and three parts naïve, wide-eyed fascination at the rest of the big, wide world.
Us former PE residents like to tell ourselves the Bay “breeds quality people for export” to paraphrase something from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
So when we come across each other in the big wide world of the Johannesburg fashion and media scene, there’s often a knowing wink shared and a twinkle in the eye that says, “Howzit, PE homie” as much as “How crazy is this place!”
I shared those winks with Reeva Steenkamp, from the moment our paths crossed at an FHM model casting somewhere around 2008. I’d left the PE local newspaper and was then editor of the magazine.
Reeva had been an aspiring teen model when we met previously. I might have been judging her at a “Faces of the future”-type model search in PE. In the end her break came when she was selected to represent Avon cosmetics.
After school, I lost track of her. By the time our paths crossed again in the casting room, she’d apparently studied law, and was running a fresh produce business with her then-boyfriend.
Thrilled to see her, we weren’t able to cast her that time. Though her personality sparkled like the night sky, she was carrying a bit of extra weight. Still sexy, though. She was a contender, but we didn’t choose her for that particular calendar.
The next year, she was back, and in shape. She must have lost 10-15kg at least, which is significant in the superficial world of bikini modelling. I don’t think she made that calendar either. Something about too many blondes, or too pale. Like I say, it’s a superficial world.
Undeterred, she came back the following year. And then. Then! That was the charm. She had trained herself to flawless super-fitness, was tanned and taut, but what set her apart was the attitude – that same knowing wink. She knew what this game was all about, and she was willing to play it. To train up, be flirtatious on video, bring that indefinable sexiness in the eyes, strike the awkward poses.
So there she was. On the calendar shoot for Bazaruto Island, Mozambique, where it was immediately clear she was one of the most beautiful models on the island. Her TV interviews were smart and sassy, striking just the right balance between one-of-the-guys humour and sassy coquettishness.
She didn’t make the calendar cover, but we made a mental note to get her on the FHM cover as soon as possible.
That eventually happened in December 2011, where we shot at a hotel pool on the roof of Joburg. Reeva nailed it, and was fun to work with, if a little nervous about her first cover shoot.
We were impressed, and there was this vibe of, “Wow, this girl deserves to be more famous!”
Photo: FHM cover shoot, December 2011.
Gradually that started to happen. She started appearing in more magazines, on the social pages of the newspapers, always with that knowing wink. There was the odd TV appearance. I heard she was going to be on some reality TV show…
Our paths diverged again, and I started following her appearances in the media, charting her course to inevitable stardom, proudly thinking, “There’s my homegirl. She’s going to make it.”
When she showed up in the socials on the arm of South African sporting icon Oscar Pistorius, I was equally proud and impressed at the Blade Runner’s taste in awards-show companions.
We followed each other on Twitter and Facebook, where her wicked, almost scatological sense of humour came into its own. Geez, she could be funny.
We bumped into each other one last time at a hip eatery in Morningside, Johannesburg last year. She was lunching with friends. It had been several months since we worked together, and her star was ascendant. But she came over and we caught up properly. My wife and I had a baby on the way, and she was generous in her good wishes.
Reeva had the look of a superstar in the making, someone on the cusp of bigger things. Whatever the next level is in the realm of celebrity modelling and TV, she was going to be there.
My homie from the Bay.
Today her name is known worldwide. In a few hours, I’ve spoken to the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times and the Sunday Independent, all wanting to know, “What was Reeva like?”
Tragically, it’s in the wake of her shooting at the home of her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius.
I tell them she was amazing. Charismatic, vivacious, intelligent, hilarious as well as beautiful, with a deep, masculine voice, permanent smile lines round the corners of her lips and a naughty sparkle in her eye.
She was going places.
The circumstances of the shooting are unknown and will only conclusively come to light later.
As for the tragedy’s greater implications for South African society, it’s another gun killing. Another woman dead. Another hero’s name tarnished. The pics of my fellow PE expat are being flashed across TV screens planet-wide. And you’re forced to muse on how, you know, she really was quite stunning. She deserved to be more famous.
It’s another heartbreaking South African story. “It’s a cruel, crazy beautiful world,” as Johnny Clegg once put it. Make it a cruel, crazy, beautiful country. DM
Hagen Engler is a writer, journalist, poet and blogger at hagenshouse.com. He rose from small-town obscurity in Port Elizabeth to attain big-city anonymity in Johannesburg. En route he edited men's magazine FHM, where he admired bikinis, lit his farts and streaked around Randburg professionally. Today he types furtively in a darkened room, trying to look busy and avoid nappy duty.