“Socialite is an elitist tag that is based on a prestigious education, a prominent family name, high-brow breeding and the wealth to justify the acceptance into a list of ‘so rich they have to be tolerated’…” – Oyunga Pala.
This article forces me to take a side. To have an opinion on the success of two women; Vera and Huddah and others like them, to unpack the means of their success and fit it into the neatly labelled boxes of good or bad.
It is difficult to take a side because on one hand, they manipulated the objectification of their bodies to their advantage before establishing themselves as savvy entrepreneurs. Once dismissed as simple socialites, they’ve built up their names into powerful brands that work well for them, and that every other brand wants to work with. They both have over a million followers on Instagram, many being adoring young fans who look up to Vera and Huddah as tastemakers – influencing their personal choices and spending habits.
On the other hand, they had to become caricatures in order to succeed. To amalgamate the complexity of their existence and reduce it into a sentence; “A woman who goes half-naked to attract all the rich boys in town,” as Bridget Achieng succinctly put it her BBC Africa Eye interview, when asked to define the term socialite.
The birth of the Kenyan Socialite
When nude pictures of Vera Sidika and Huddah Monroe were ‘leaked’ by Buoart Studios back in 2014, Kenyans went up in arms. It was a hot topic on social media at the time, sparking discussions on society’s tattered moral fabric. Endless calls to protect our young women from such insidious and blatant displays of sexuality rang from radio stations to church pulpits.
Fuelled by ceaseless tabloid coverage, the era of the Kenyan socialite was born. However, these weren’t your super-wealthy elites in the mould of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, rather young girls from humble backgrounds trying to build themselves into affluence.
Overnight, Vera and Huddah, who were previously unknown, became household names. They devoured the fame greedily, appearing on TV talk shows, organising club appearances and instigating social media feuds to berate their haters. Controversy was the name of the game, and they were the MVPs.
To name this new crop of celebrities, the word socialite was repurposed to describe a woman who is considered good looking, religiously documents their glossy Instagram lifestyle, and generates enough drama and nudity to sustain a six-figure pay check.
In Kenya, the world of socialites is in a continuous state of change. The traits required for classification of those in its group are malleable, and words and their definitions can be altered to find nomenclature fitting of the subject under the spotlight.
Slay queen – good or bad?
Take for example the phrase ‘slay queen’, a term of endearment often used in the show, Ru Paul’s drag race to encourage individuals to be the best versions of themselves. The phrase permeated pop culture when Beyoncé used it as a refrain in her single Formation.
Locally, a slay queen is used disparagingly to describe any woman who takes effort in her appearance and is assumed to rely on men for sustenance.
An eager audience and many young girls drawn in by the promise of the jet-setting, champagne lifestyle of Vera and Huddah created Nairobi Diaries, a reality show modelled around USA’s The Real Housewives reality series. The weekly show, which used to air on K24, has been used as a career launch pad by aspiring socialites.
To portray Vera Sidika and Huddah Monroe humanely requires us to go beyond the veneer of righteousness, and also to put aside any attempts to sanitise their chosen route to success. Instead, we should drive conversation towards an objective analysis of the socio-economic factors that fuel demand for a socialite career.
Any discussion that divorces the socialite narrative from the wider structural challenges of society is pointless. We need to examine a reality where 14.7 million Kenyans live on less than Ksh 6,000 monthly, and unemployment rates soar despite an increasing number of graduates.
We need to peer into this ugly reality and change it by any means necessary, until we leave behind only dignified avenues of income for young women.