Raising a glass to Esther Mahlangu and all women of spirit


It’s been a crazy few weeks, filled with travels and work and moments when I’m filled with imposter syndrome and think: “I’m just a little lass from the slums of Byker. How the hell am I so lucky to be experiencing this?”

Mind you, I think anyone meeting South African artist Esther Mahlangu will think the same.

Esther is one of those people who fill you with awe. I was invited to an art class led by her by (Belvedere)Red Vodka – she’s designed a special edition bottle for them to help raise funds for the fight against Aids.

The class was at the South African embassy in London, in a grand room filled with wood panelling and posh paintings – and this little old lady sitting in a tall, hardbacked chair, wearing gold bands, traditional tribal costume and a big, big smile.

She looked as if the room had been created just for her.


Esther belongs to the Ndbele people and wears their native dress to protect their heritage. The gold rings around her wrists and legs are wedding presents from her husband, while the ones around her neck were from her parents. (She told me it’s a nightmare getting through airport security with them as she won’t take them off!)

She learnt to paint from the women of her family, who use the technique to paint houses. Now I’ve painted a few rooms in my time, but they pale (literally, I like lilacs and soft creams) to the bright geometric designs of Esther’s work.

Plus she uses a chicken feather to paint with. I mean – what???? For a start, you have to strip most of the feather with your nails, leaving only a small brush at the top. It took me two broken nails until I got the hang of it. They still haven’t grown back.

Obviously, with broken nails, my artistic skill was hindered somewhat. That and the fact it is incredibly hard to paint with a soft, bendy chicken feather. While Esther set to with short, careful strokes, the rest of us went to it with gusto, trying to create masterpieces. Some of them were good, I admit. Mine wouldn’t even qualify for the “never mind, she tried” section of the Take Hart gallery, however.

You can see it here – they’re supposed to be strong, geometric, parallel lines and no, I hadn’t even had a vodka cocktail at that point. Oh, I’m second from right in the front row. Next to the other girl in black trousers and a black turtleneck.


“Are you also off to the Milk Tray event later?” she asked. I wasn’t.

Esther, meanwhile, had worked on a small cornerpiece, which was already looking like a work of art. When I went across to admire it, I realised I had paint all over my hands – and my trousers. Oh well, I was nearly as colourful as she was.

But it wasn’t just her skill with a chicken feather that impressed. This is a woman who lost her husband, three of her children and many friends to Aids and at the age of 82, is determined to continue fighting it. No sitting in a rocking chair for her.

I remember the adverts of the 1980s, those big icebergs of doom warning about HIV and Aids and the leaflets that were sent to every home. They were scary times.

Now, thankfully, we have such a different attitude towards it, thanks to changing attitudes towards sex and modern medicines. I knew a doctor in Spain who treated HIV+ patients and told me the main problem he had was persuading other medics that these were people who could live to a ripe old age and so should receive the same treatments as others – he’d had to fight to get one patient on the heart transplant list.

Meeting Esther was an eye-opener to a world that this isn’t the same for everyone in the world and that we still need to fight, just as much as we did in the 1980s.

She also made me think about growing old. Here she is, in her 80s, travelling halfway across the world to do something that she loves for a cause she’s passionate about.

When Mr 50 Sense and I returned from living in Spain, we met an elderly woman on the train waiting for a hip transplant. She was off to visit friends in Manchester for Christmas.

“I’ve travelled all over the world,” she told us. “I’m damned if I’m going to sit in the house now just because I need a new hip. What sort of life is that?”

She and Esther grew up in totally different world, but are kindred spirits. It was a spirit that I vowed to follow, but seemed to lose a little over the last couple of years. Now I’m counting down to 50, I can feel it stirring again – and it feels so good.

So, I encourage you to buy a bottle of voddie – it’s really nice!!! – and raise a glass to women of spirit all over the world.

If you need a little push, here’s what we drank. I think I’ll try the drink before the painting next time…



1.5oz/45ml Belvedere Vodka
1oz /30ml Bitter aperitif
2 orange wedges
A sprig of rosemary

Spritz glass, filled with ice, topped with equal parts of sparkling water and tonic water.

(BELVEDERE)RED Martini (my favourite)


2oz/60ml Belvedere Vodka
1/3oz/10ml sweet vermouth
1/6oz/5ml maraschino liqueur
2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters

Stir with ice until very cold, and garnish with an orange zest.

Thank you so much to (Belvedere) for the invite. The limited edition bottle of (Belvedere)Red is available at major Sainsbury’s stores (£38) and belvederevodka.com/red (£35.95). For every bottle you give (or keep), Belvedere donates 50% of the profits to the Global Fund, the leading financier supporting HIV/AIDs in Africa.


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