15 Celebrities You Didn’t Realize Were From South Africa
Contrary to what we learned at the 2010 World Cup, Shakira is not actually South African. But there are famous people who are. Whether they claim their South African heritage or it was just a place where they were born, South Africa can still call them its own. And as you’ll see, the Rainbow Nation has produced some pretty impressive people. Here are 15 celebrities you didn’t realize were from South Africa.
This is an updated version of an article that was published Oct. 6, 2014.
Although Steve Nash moved to Canada when he was 18 months old, he was born in Johannesburg to a Welsh mother and an English father. He didn’t start playing basketball until he was 12 or 13 (like all good Canadians, he focused more on hockey) but told his mother that one day he would play in the NBA and would be a star. Pretty good prediction, given that played for the Lakers until this year — he has since retired — and is a two-time NBA MVP and an eight-time NBA All-Star.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province) and lived there until age 3 when he moved to England after his father’s death. He’s best known for authoring the epic “Lord of the Rings” series written between 1937 and 1949. Tolkien addressed societal issues in other works, expressing opposition to Stalinism, socialism, and his disgust of racism. He even wrote a fairly well-read piece about racism in South Africa.
Charlize Theron is one of the few people on this list who actually grew up in South Africa (her first language is Afrikaans). Born in Benoni in then-Transvaal Province, she grew up on her parents’ farm outside Johannesburg. At 13, she was sent to boarding school and began studying at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg until she moved to Los Angeles at 19 to join the movie business.
Born in Johannesburg, Dave Matthews moved back and forth between New York and England from age 2 to 10, but returned to Johannesburg with his family. After graduating from high school in 1985, he was conscripted into the South African military but left the country to avoid service. A Quaker, he considered himself a pacifist and unable to fight. Fun fact: Matthews worked for IBM for a short time before he joined the music world and became the rocker we all know and love today.
We’ll go back a little to a time when the measure of celebrity wasn’t based upon US Weekly magazine covers. Glynis Johns won a Tony award for creating the character of Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” on Broadway. She is especially remembered for playing Winifred Banks, the suffragette mother in “Mary Poppins.” She received an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1960 film “The Sundowners.” Born and raised in Pretoria to British parents, Johns became the first person ever to croon the lyrics to the famous song “Send in the Clowns.”
The famous 1980s rock band “Yes” had Trevor Rabin in the front as guitarist, songwriter, bass guitarist, and keyboardist. Rabin was born in Johannesburg to British parents. His father was the lead violinist for the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Yes did not achieve huge success until Rabin joined. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was written by Rabin and became a smash hit and a timeless classic rock sensation.
A “wild child” of Hollywood, Phillips had an on-again-off-again film career. She seemed as American as cheeseburgers, but Phillips split most of her childhood between New York, California and South Africa, on account of her South African model mother Genevieve Waite. Her dad was John Phillips, singer with the Mamas and the Papas band. From 2010 to 2014 she played the Lucy Carlyle on the TV series, “Raising Hope.”
Richard E. Grant
Recognize this guy? He’s been spotted in films including “Gosford Park,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and TV shows such as “Downton Abbey” and “Girls.” He was born in Swaziland, and his father was minister of education before the former British colony was emancipated in 1968. His mother was of German-South African origin. Grant studied drama at the University of Cape Town, and became successful in film and theater in London, especially after his breakthrough role in the bizarre British comedy, “Withnail and I.” Otherwise,
In the movie “Schindler’s List,” there is the subplot where the evil Nazi general played by Ralph Fiennes obsesses over his Jewish maid. The maid was Embeth Davidtz’s breakout role into serious cinema. She is wildly talented and has played prominent roles in more than 40 films including “Matilda,” “Junebug,” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and TV shows “Californication,” and “Mad Men.” She was born in Indiana to South African parents who moved back to the country so her father could teach at Potchefstroom University. She earned an English degree at Rhodes University.
Although she was born in New York City, Miller had a South African-born model mother, so she gets South African status even though she is widely considered British American. An actress, model and fashion designer, she spent a considerable amount of time in South while filming “The Girl” in Cape Town.
“The Big Easy,” or Ernest “Ernie” Els grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was one of the top golfers in the world. He had 65 career victories including two U.S. Open victories in 1994 and 1997. Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, he is one of only six golfers to win both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship twice. Els has a charitable foundation that helps low-income kids in South Africa learn to play golf.
Known for her role as Alison DiLaurentis on “Pretty Little Liars,” Sasha Pieterse, 19, was born in Johannesburg before moving to the U.S. She became the came the youngest actress on the CW Network show. She began acting at age 6. Pieterse worked on a country music album and has released several singles. Apparently they start ’em young over in Joburg.
Orlando Bloom…sort of
OK, so this one gets a bit tricky. During Orlando Bloom’s childhood, he was told that his father was Harry Saul Bloom — a Jewish South African-born anti-apartheid novelist. Nine years after Harry’s death, Orlando learned at age 13 that his biological father was actually Colin Stone, a family friend, who became Orlando’s legal guardian. So he can be considered South African for 13 years at least.
Dean Geyer was relatively unknown to American audiences until he landed the role as Brody Weston on the fourth season of “Glee,” an American musical comedy-drama TV series that aired from 2009, to 2015. Before that, he finished third place on “Australian Idol” and briefly had a band named Third Edge. Geyer calls Johannesburg home, although he moved to Australia when he was young. He wrote a song entitled “Change” about that move.
Remember the movie “The Mummy” when the spirit of that really buff guy turned into a mummy and gross little scarabs ran in and out of his mouth? That South African actor Arnold Vosloo. He took his place in action-film history with that role, and its sequel,”The Mummy Returns.” Vosloo first made a name for himself in the Pretoria theater scene, winning awards for playing Hamlet and Don Juan. He has also been featured in South African cinema including the hit film “Forgiveness.” Other roles include “Blood Diamond” and “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra.”
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