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How I got Bert le Clos to sing for me

Last Friday I spent more than R4 500 of my own money to get four seconds of swimming star Chad le Clos’s father Bert le Clos singing for this video. I phoned Bert, booked a flight to Durban, went down the next day, hired a car, drove to Pinetown, missed my turn, found Bert, got the footage and flew back the next day.

Bert and me

Here we are singing together. (I can’t sing. Don’t judge me. Ok, judge me, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

It started, as these things often do, with something completely different. Back in November, I came up with an idea for a festive season campaign for a client, and that involved coming up with Christmas cards that people could share on Facebook.

I was looking for ways to make the Christmas card fun, something that South Africans would enjoy. I thought about how all the lyrics we sing have almost nothing to do with the way we actually experience Christmas. Sleigh bells and snow in a land of shisa nyama and sunblock? It makes no sense.

I rewrote the lyrics to Jingle Bells and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, but the one that had the most potential was this:

On the 12th day of Christmas, my tjerrie gave to me
12 taxis hooting
11 vuvuzelas
10 Springboks leaping
9 ladies twerking
8 outjies braaing
7 Chads a-swimming
6 potjies cooking
5 Krugerrands
4 dolly birds
3 kraal hens
2 hadedas
And an ostrich in a thorn tree.

In the mean time, the campaign changed quite substantially, and the Christmas song was the part that the client liked the most. I thought it would be fun to get various people to actually sing this song, and pay them in the form of donations to charity. So I ended filming as many people as I possibly could, all singing this ridiculous song. Here’s the best version, sung by David Bullard. Here’s the version with Barney the dinosaur’s much scarier South African cousin. And a version with shoulder twerk, which should be a thing.

The plan was to edit a video featuring different people singing a different verse. One day I woke up and thought: what if I could get Bert le Clos to sing the line about Chad? After becoming an accidental sensation at the 2012 Olympics, Bert is one of those iconic South African dads. He’d be perfect, I thought.

But how to get him to sing for me? He didn’t know me from a bar of soap, and he lived in Durban, and his son is an icon, so he probably gets loads of requests.

It turned out to be a combination of knowing people who know people, and chutzpah, and a mild dose of insanity. I took a deep breath – I have a phobia about phoning – and dialed. “You’re making me blush!” Bert said. He agreed to film a few seconds of footage and send it to me.

A couple of days later, I got an audio note of Bert saying the line from Christine. But I needed video. Then Madiba died and the campaign was on hold. Nice idea, but there was no way we could run it now.

And then it was back on. I couldn’t use the audio note in the video. The most practical way to get the footage I needed would be to go down to Durban to film it myself on my iPhone, but that would be completely crazy, because there was no budget or time for it.

I thought about all the Twitter friends I’ve been wanting to meet in Durban. About the woman who lives in Pietermaritzburg and won one of my paintings when she came closest to guessing the number of lipsticks I own (354 at last count). Sending a painting by post is a bit of a nightmare, and the easiest way to get it to her would be to give it to her personally.

So that was it. I phoned Bert, arranged to meet him the next day and booked the tickets. In a sign that the universe is capable of benevolence, I got upgraded to business class, where I ended up sitting next to the very posh-sounding student daughter of this Nigerian pastor who is based in Durban. (When she said her parents were missionaries, I misunderstood her – I imagined them working with the downtrodden – but gradually it dawned on me that a man with his own TV channel wasn’t that sort of missionary.)

Life is different on the other side of the curtain.

Once I landed, I phoned Bert, who kindly provided me with directions to Pinetown. I drove through, and walked into the Le Clos household. Bert greeted me warmly, then introduced me to his wife and Chad’s British manager. We discussed the fake interpreter and my piece on Thought Leader getting tweeted by Anderson Cooper – I was really excited about that.

Bert, in case you’re wondering, is a mensch. He’s exactly the way he was on TV when Chad beat Michael Phelps. Hilariously loud, not entirely politically correct, and a thoroughly decent person. The Le Clos family lives in the same house, though they could probably afford to move to a much more swish address. “Why should we move?” he said.

I handed him the Christmas card with the lyrics. We went outside to do the filming. After three takes, I got my footage. We sang together. I persuaded Gerry, his wife, to sing along with him. He told me that he makes a big Christmas lunch and once his family has finished eating, he takes the rest to feed the homeless. “I don’t do it for them,” he said. “I do it for me.” I persuaded him to say it to camera; you can watch it here.

Was it worth it? Given that I don’t draw a salary from my own agency because I don’t want to burden it while my partners and I get it up and running, and I have no intention of claiming it back, doing this was madness. Sheer madness.

But what the hell. Sometimes you’ve just got to throw caution to the wind and do the mad stuff. Because sometimes it’s the most ridiculous things that make the most sense. And that song wouldn’t have been the same without Bert singing about seven Chads a-swimming.