By Matilda Douglas-Henry

Zindzi Okenyo can do anything, with a resume that would make you feel both in awe of her amazing talent, and a little bit jealous. As an actress, she has one of the most sought-after jobs of any Australian growing up in the nineties as a presenter on Play School. She’s also had a variety of eclectic, meaty roles in contemporary theatre productions across the country – most recently in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced, which began its run in August at the Melbourne Theatre Company, and snagged a five-star review from The Age.

As a musician, under the moniker Okenyo, she has toured with Urthboy and L-FRESH the LION, and supported Santigold when she came to Australia. After watching a few videos of Zindzi performing live, it is so easy to see why you would want to share a stage with her.  With her colourful clothes and electric presence, I would assume that she makes the whole audience before her melt into a puddle of glittery adoration. Her catchy single, 10 Feet Tall, has circuited the airwaves, and has a calming and sunny accompanying music video full of babes that I highly recommend you check out ASAP.

I first came across Zindzi in 2013, when I went to see the play Girl in Tan Boots at Griffin Theatre. My mum and I had gone to support a dear family friend, who was playing the lead. When Zindzi appeared, I felt like I was witnessing something untouchable and extraordinary; yet paradoxically, too, I was comfortable and at home, as if I’d known her forever. It takes a lot to make an unassuming audience member feel all that, but believe me – Zindzi has got it.

Need I say more as to why Zindzi is Heaps Gay’s Crush of the Week? I was lucky enough to have a chat to her about the importance of family, onscreen diversity and which Play School toy has the most charm.

Congratulations on being Heaps Gay’s Crush of the Week! What do you think is your most crushable quality?

First of all, thank you! Second of all, how on earth do I answer this!? That I do mean Craig David and Destiny’s Child harmonies? And am a pretty good cook.

We need to talk about the fact that you are a presenter on Play School. Is it as amazing as it looks? Which of the toys has the best personality? 

It is a wonderful job. It’s definitely technical and you have to be quite precise and prepared but once that’s taken care of in rehearsals, it’s super fun. The crew is amazing and everyone knows they are part of something iconic and important so we all take good care of the show. Jemima is definitely the best. She’s really tough and the writers always have her doing adventurous stuff and being really brace. She wore a sequinned jumpsuit to The Logies, so. I am also coming to love Diddle the Cat because (I’m not sure if anyone else plays her like this) but I make her quite sassy and mysterious. She’s happier playing her fiddle than jumping in mud puddles and will let you know what she thinks of your dirty clothes.

 Screen Australia recently did a report about diversity in television, and the results were pretty disappointing. How do you – as a queer woman of colour – navigate the straight, whitewashed world that is portrayed on Australian screens?

I’ve been very fortunate to work a lot in theatre and with a variety of versatile roles both in ‘white’ ‘straight’ stories, and also in terrific black roles. On the other hand, after ten years of being in the industry, I’ve only in the past few years started to get sporadic television auditions, and with little success. I’m not going to straight-up blame this on the colour of my skin, but indeed there is a huge lack of diversity on our screens. It is slowly changing and we have to be vocal and also patient. I’m obviously black (and proud of it) and I’ve always been transparent about being queer because I think that is a very important thing to do to help visibility and perhaps to encourage others to do so. That’s not saying I’ve struggled with it, I have, but I pride myself on trying to constantly be real with myself. If I’m scared about something, I’ll try my best to overcome it.

 I check out your Instagram quite a bit, and can’t help but notice that you and your girlfriend Kate are very adorable. As far as my social media sleuthing would take me, I gather that Kate is also a performer. What do you think are the benefits of being in a mutually creative relationship?

She is adorable and she is a performer! Both being creative means we get to directly learn from each other, and can shortcut when talking about art because our brains are both constantly thinking in that way. She has an extraordinary ability to access truth immediately and not be afraid of it. When I see her work I always see a fully fledged human being and I learn from her. We met doing a show a couple of years ago and she was playing a woman who lived in a tree with a bird on her head and I still believed that woman had a whole history! Meanwhile, I was playing a fish and a pig so, you know, she saw me at my best.

 You also have an incredible cat, Lunar. I don’t really have any questions about her, but thought I’d let you know that she is my dream cat. 

Speaking of truth, YOU ARE RIGHT. She is a dream cat. Her name is Lunar FlatFace Okenyo and I don’t know what I’d do without her! The flatness. The two dimensions. I really love her. She has the ability to turn cat haters into cat lovers. Powerful stuff.

One last question that indicates how much disturbing knowledge I have of your personal life – you seem to have a really close relationship with your mum and sister. How important is it, as a queer performer, to have a supportive family network?

Thank you for being you, ya big creep! Jokes aside, you don’t have to creep far to see a picture of my family members. We are a super close and fiercely loyal family. I feel extremely buoyed by their love and support. It is so important to have support from family in a job like this, because a lot of pressure is put on the individual to muster up constant self love and optimism. I grew up in a family that nurtured those qualities, so it’s what constantly gets me through.

 Who is your crush of the week? 

Sarah Paulson!


Catch more of Zindzi’s music at her Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/okenyomusic

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