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Up close & personal with Lumko Johnson: Life, Career, Depression & Casual Anonymous sex.

The Umthatha born thespian is invading spaces, cementing himself and tearing down stereotypes through conversation, content and art. | Directed & Photographed by Lawrence Manyapelo | Report by Kay Khanye

You may be familiar with the cheerful Lumko Johnson as a queer talk-show radio host on YFM, a former YoTV child star, an actor… but Lumko is swiftly becoming one of South Africa’s sought after young creative; changing the narrative of what it truly means to be a four-dimensional content creator.

Rising to prominence through his acting roles as a bodacious gay character on Mzansi Magic’s Inkaba, Johnson has his heart on living his truth and serving optimum excellence. A seasoned performer, producer and now Yfm Radio host… The Umthatha born thespian is invading spaces, cementing himself and tearing down stereotypes through conversation, content, and art!

In a very bare and rare interview that literally left our producers scrambling for battery chargers, Johnson blows the lid on his methods, growing pains of a slow rise to recognition and the pink elephant in the room that all of us know and befriend, casual anonymous sex.

Having begun your career as a teen talk show host, what did you wish was different at the time about the television industry in South Africa?

“When you’re doing daytime TV for a youth market under 16 there’s an expectation of you to portray the role of an under 16-year person old even outside the television show. My wish at the time was that the South African viewer was inclined to understand that we were not 16 forever. The show was created as a representation for your children and those people exist outside the character of a host, they have separate lives with family, homes and all other aspects that come with being a human being.”

We can’t drink water or mind our business… do you have a husband we don’t know about?

“Hilarious! No, I do not have a husband but I do aspire to have a husband or at the very least have someone I can live with and spend a life with.”

Has your sexuality affected opportunities for you in any way?

“Funny enough, in the entertainment industry, my sexuality has had the opposite effect on my career than what you might expect. I’ve been awarded more opportunities especially because I am gay. Coming out on television as a mainstream flamboyant gay man has earned me certain opportunities that fit the kind of person I am, in no way has it actively hindered opportunities. I am yet to experience a job loss because of my sexuality.”

The last interview we had was 3 years ago, you were still acting and pursuing your studies. Where are you now?

“I took a bit of a break from acting, I went through a depressive phase for two years. I was very dissatisfied with my achievements and where I was in my career. The acting part became hugely centered around the depression. I did not work for two years; I stopped going to castings, I stopped taking acting briefs because the work just all seemed the same, I felt like I was failing the audience by portraying the same characters over and over… I was unhappy and judging myself for that. I took a step back and understood that people go through different journeys and different processes. I had to actually experience that moment of withdrawal, without giving up, in order for things to change.”

You have an Honours degree in drama and film. Having achieved all that you have achieved as a performer, Do you think your professional life would’ve taken a different course if you didn’t have a degree?

“I think about that a lot… does it matter that I went to drama school? Does it matter that I can write a thesis on different plays in the world? When you’re sitting in casting with someone with a larger following than you, or an influencer, it really doesn’t matter because we work in a field that is talent-based.  You can survive on talent alone. You may get formal training however I do not see the necessity of it being a 4-year degree, you can meet an acting coach for four sessions. You can get training at the market theatre for 3 months and still be an incredible performer. It is what is it, we are not doctors or engineers; your credibility comes from what you can deliver in front of the cameras in a 10-minute audition. Whether you hold a national degree in film or come with no formal training, what matters most is do you look the part and can you give the production what they are looking for?”

So don’t you feel like you wasted your time pursuing a degree instead of social currency?

“The core of my depression stemmed from that question and feeling like I wasted 4 years of my life studying for qualification only to struggle to find work. Meanwhile, the people that are getting booked and getting jobs are influencers with thousands of followers, who struggle to deliver dialogue or equivalence in performance. You have to play the game, the game is social media, your currency is your visibility and the numbers you can generate on social media and if you can pair that with talent or skill, compliments!”

Social currency, what do you know about it?

“Your value is the number of people who follow you on social media, who you know and the number of people who recognize your face or name on a piece of paper. Little irrelevant pieces of information which might often seem unimportant inform your reach and access in the creative field. There is weight and value given to social currency and it is not something we should debate or be angry about.”

Has having a qualification given you an advantage in any way in the industry in your career?

“No, having a qualification has had absolutely no contributions to my career except if I wanted to be a lecturer then I suppose my honors degree would come into play however other than that I have never been asked for my qualification at an audition. Acquiring it I suppose just informs the decisions you make about a character and the choices you make for a character.”

Ever times in your life when it felt like shit just hit the fan, poo all over the place?

“Very much so, I spent 18 months battling intense anxiety and depression. There were days I felt like I was going to see another, where I thought this is it.”

Are we taking depression as a serious issue as creatives in South Africa?

“I think with our generation depression seems like a trend or something cool to go through for creatives. You are often seen as better informed or are more of a genius after going through a dark phase. I think our current generation’s depression is formed by the fact that we come from a lineage of a country that has inherited everything for the first time and we were the first generation who were the experiment of what the new South Africa is, we were the test babies of what our healthcare system should be, education systems, economy… and what are our opportunities as that generation should be. As a result, I think all these advancements created an expectation of timed success based on the people around you.”

What has been the biggest influence on your creative process right now?

People! People have a heavy influence on my creative output. I recently discovered air Bnb, now I have a thing where I book myself into different air BnBs and locations just so I could be around different people and see how they experience life and react to certain things that stimulate them.  My creative process exits outside of four walls, I actively have to go out and engage with people, which is weird because I have social anxiety.

Has fame affected your opportunities with men?

“Absolutely, especially when it comes to casual anonymous sex, in South Africa. I can’t go to a nude bar for instance because when someone recognizes me the first thing they ask is what the hell am I doing there… while I’m simply there to achieve an orgasm.”

So casual sex…is that a thing for you?

When I’m single? Absolutely yes, and I think it’s something we should all explore and enjoy, especially in South Africa where we can legally be ourselves.”

What is the most difficult part about your sexuality?

I was raised Xhosa and masculinity in my tribe is a huge deal because you get initiated into manhood, so when you’re gay it adds tricky tensions to that conversation. Are you still a man if you sleep with other men? This is something I’ve had to navigate around because I did want to go to the mountains.”

An effeminate Lumko went to the mountain? With all the other boys?

“…and having an effeminate boy as part of the new imitates really wasn’t that much of a challenge or struggle for me because there were other boys who were from similar schools I was from. They were exposed to other effeminate boys. If anything I think I got preferential treatment because I was this soft boy who was not like the rest, I was protected.”

Black queer love, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your experiences?

“Enjoy the ten minutes you will get and keep it moving if it ends. I used to dwell, hold on, beg and do things for people who did not want to be with me; I’m doing a lot less of that. Love is seasonal, enjoy the present because everything has a beginning and an end.”

Do you still have hope in black queer love that last longer 10 minutes?

“In trying to cultivate a spirit of hope for myself, I do have hope in long-standing queer love. I’ve had to acknowledge and confront the reasons why certain relationships of mine did not work out.”

Are you in love?

“I like someone but I don’t think I’m going to be with this person.”

Describe an ideal lover for Lumko, he might be reading this interview.

“He must have a job, or the very least be pursuing something that is going to earn him some form of income. I love a good laugh so he must make me laugh. I’m not fixed on shallow preferences, as long as you have big dreams I will be here for you with open arms honey.”

Do you think black queer men know what they want?

“No.  However, I think the older you get, and the more experiences you go through; that changes… When I was 21 I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew what I didn’t want. Now at 30, I am closer to knowing what I want.”

Marriage and having a family is that something you want for yourself?

“I want a wedding, I’m not sure if I want the whole marriage, I don’t know if I want to spend forever with someone. I have also taught myself to take risks and change my mind if I want to.”

Have your twenties taught you anything about your body, sex and skin comfort?

“A lot of lessons I learned in my 20s were about actual sex. In order to enjoy sex, you have to be comfortable with your body if you’re not confident in the company of someone you’re engaging with sexually you’re not going to enjoy it. I had to develop and cultivate a relationship with my body with the idea of other bodies around me. I actually got to enjoy sex in my late 20s”

Given a chance to relive your twenties, what would you do differently?
“I would attend my graduation. I didn’t attend my graduation. I brag about this all the time because I was on set with John Kani. News broke that I missed my graduation, and I was told by the production that they would have canceled the shoot had they knew.”

Is the dating pool really drying in your 30s?

“A little dry and difficult! For me the older I get I find that I attract much younger guys and maybe I have had to accept that as reality. I am still navigating myself around it, I still want guys my age to hit on me but I also don’t care because if we have chemistry honestly that is all that matters.”

You are rich. Take me through your state of wealth.

“I’ve always considered myself rich, very few times it had to do with money. For me wealth is great health, wealth is good friends, good opportunities and access. I’m rich, and I consider myself rich… I grew up rich because I grew up with a lot of resources that many people did not have – not all of them were money.

What do you love most about life right now?

“I love the fact that I’m rich.”

What are your most treasured friendships?

My most treasured friendships are people who have come and gone, I treasure friendships where we can go for months without seeing each but still catch up like we saw each yesterday when seeing each other again, I am very close to a fellow actor friend of mine Muzi Mthembu, he is definitely one of my most treasured friendships.

What are some of your tagged friendships?

“Hahaha! there will be no naming and shaming happening today.”

Your friends, do you have a large group of friends or just a few close friends?

“I have several groups of friends because I don’t think you get the same thing from all your friends. There are friends you can share all your shenanigans with, friends you are prim and proper with, friends you go to all the glam events with and there are friends you can hang-out with when you’re broke so I don’t have one group of friends or one best friend – I’ve got several friends and I think it helps my personality and just how versatile I’d like to be as a person to be around those groups of friends.”

What can we expect from you in 2020?

“My hopes for new year are to grow at Yfm. Quote Unquote is finally happening in 2020, whichever way it’s happening it definitely must happen. There’s something happening with me internally with myself right now where I have stopped overthinking and caring so much. I still have goals, I try to plan and organise my work but at the same time I have to let the universe take charge without wanting to be in control every time so I believe that there’s a lot of things coming my way in 2020 because of my ‘let your will be done’ attitude.”

Final words for 2019?

“It has been a better year than in 2018. I spent the whole year in an attitude of gratitude, I’ve also spent the year writing angry letters to God. To conclude this year would say I have had amazing support from my family, I have had great friends and opportunities and there are things I managed to do this year and I am glad I did them.

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