In September of 2018, I went to Johannesburg at the tail end of a press tour, traveling solely for work. We went from London to Paris and then to South Africa—and that turned out to be the highlight of my whole year.
As soon as we landed in Johannesburg, I felt all this energy. The sunshine looked different, the air smelled different—it felt like another reality. Being there on behalf of BET’s The Bobby Brown Story while promoting my role as Whitney Houston, I will say my experience was likely more grand than if I were to travel there on my own, because I got a taste of the type of star treatment someone like Whitney would likely receive. I explored the town with network execs, had a security detail, and received five-star treatment. We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, where we were escorted to our rooms on golf carts that took the scenic route through the property’s beautiful, hilly landscape. As soon as l opened the door to my suite, I felt so special taking in the sunken living room, giant marble baths, and, most of all, the stunning view right outside the windows.
We were there to do press, so I got my makeup done professionally in this beautiful space, got dressed in a long, white linen gown, and then went onto the veranda with my costar, Woody McClain, for a photo shoot. You know how your phone has a feature called “Memories,” where it puts photos into a timeline and gives it a theme? Well, I had some shots of us dressed to the nines on this veranda and later discovered that the phone had stored them as “Wedding Day.” I guess it didn’t know how else to fit this spectacular place into my regular life.
That night at the hotel restaurant, I asked them to recommend something a bit different, since I’m an adventurous eater. They were like, “Ostrich, have you tried it?” Nope! Didn’t even know you could catch one! We had ostrich, a 72-hour-aged steak, extra-large prawns, and a salad as big as half the table. Everything had incredible flavor, and it was all so colorful.
The second day, after attending Comic Con Africa—which is truly about celebrating African artists—we went to Soweto, the famous township and site of so much historical struggle. First we visited Mandela House, a tiny brick house where Nelson Mandela lived at the time of his arrest. The bullet holes and burn marks on the exterior gave a sense of what his struggle against apartheid meant, but I also got a sense of home and community there. We had lunch at Sakhumzi, on Vilakazi Street, where I had tripe for the first time, and after that we strolled through the marketplace, which was so vibrant, with almost a carnival vibe. We found some beautiful jewelry, like this large neck piece that mimics that tribal practice of placing rings around a woman’s neck to elongate it. My makeup artist and I bought one each, and I also bought this cute little one-piece sleeveless jumpsuit.
After this it was time to go home, but before we left for the airport, we all paused to share a moment together—just to sit in that space of gratitude, happiness, and joy, because it truly was a special experience for each of us. For me personally, growing up in Cincinnati, it felt like I was exposed to Black people, white people, and not much in between. Then when I moved to D.C. I discovered more of a melting pot, by way of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants. But to get the opportunity to board a plane, go experience a culture up close, and take in the spirit, energy, smells, and sounds of a place like Johannesburg, was simply magical. I hope to return one day.
Gabrielle Dennis stars in The Big Door Prize, now streaming on Apple TV+.