The genial rock star

The anti-apartheid icon attracted stars from all over the world, but cut through all the glitz and glamour with trademark charm and humility, reports Justine Gerardy

A MINISKIRT-clad Geri Halliwell clutching his arm and the rest of the Spice Girls cuddling him for the picture, Nelson Mandela stood grinning.

“These are my heroines,” the South African president said when he met what was then the world’s hottest pop band in 1997. “I don’t want to be emotional, but it’s one of the greatest moments in my life.”

If nothing else, the photo opportunity proved that even a revered global statesman can be a sucker for a bit of celebrity froth. Once freed from decades spent in apartheid jails, Mandela’s star-pulling power was legendary.

Feted by the world’s biggest names in entertainment, sport, and politics, his own star often shone brighter than those in his company.

A telling cartoon early in his term as South Africa’s first black president depicts Mandela next to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth during a state visit to London.

“The next bloody tourist who asks who’s the little old lady with Mandela...” remarks a policeman in the 1996 sketch by South African cartoonist Zapiro.

Celebrity fascination with Mandela dates back to his 27 years of imprisonment, when outdated photographs were the only public images that the world had of him.

Songs such as ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Bring Him Back Home’ climbed the 1980s charts, and a 70th birthday tribute was broadcast to hundreds of millions of people around the world in 1988.

After his release in 1990, the appeal of the man fondly known by his clan name Madiba only grew.

Free of the stuffiness usually bred into politicians, Mandela was equally at home bantering with celebrities or tackling issues on the global stage.

With an ability both to inspire and delight, his calls for tolerance were blended with a penchant for breaking into a gleeful shuffling dance in public and wearing colourful shirts.

Few stars were immune to the “Madiba magic” and a photo opportunity with one of the world’s most recognisable personalities was seen as an essential part of a stop in South Africa.

His rock star-like 85th birthday drew guests ranging from U2 frontman Bono to actor Robert de Niro, who were invited alongside his cook and gardener.

Another close friend was US television chat queen Oprah Winfrey, who played messenger for then senator Barack Obama, and who built a girls’ school after an idea kindled over tea at Mandela’s rural home.

Yet when faced with over-emotional admirers, Mandela also knew how to gently turn on the charm.

“I love you so much,” said Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, born in South Africa.

“I love you too, you know,” was Mandela’s simple reply.

Canadian singer Celine Dion even named one of her twin boys Nelson after meeting him — an occasion she prepared for by taking a history course.

A skilful fundraiser and campaigner, Mandela drew global pop stars from Beyonce to the late Amy Winehouse to perform for his Aids efforts.

In 2004, aged 85, he told the world “don’t call me, I’ll call you” while announcing that he was stepping out of the public eye.

Growing increasingly frail, his last star-studded mega-bash was a 90th birthday concert in London in 2008.

Mandela made his final scene-stealing public appearance at South Africa’s 2010 World Cup final, won by Spain.

At home, he was known in many hearts and minds as “father” or “grandfather” and the famous sometimes spoke of him with kindred intimacy.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell reportedly called him her “honorary grandfather”.

Former US president Bill Clinton described him as “a ferociously loyal friend”.

Yet while happily taking to the world’s stages, Mandela was also known to be self-deprecating about his own fame.

In 2000, Winfrey told of him arriving at her studio and asking the producer: “What is the subject of today’s show?”

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