Coming 2 America’s Nomzamo Mbatha “Cross-pollinates” African and American Cultures

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Self portrait courtesy of Nomzamo Mbatha

Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film Coming to America is much more than just a cult classic—and while it is definitely a very American take on the African diaspora, its impact has been felt around the globe.

In the 1988 film, Murphy plays Akeem, the prince of a fictional wealthy African nation called Zamunda, who travels to New York to find a bride. A sequel, Coming 2 America, will be released on Amazon Prime in March. Murphy returns as Prince Akeem, but there's a twist: his long-lost son Lavelle has been living in Queens with no knowledge of his royal ancestry, so Akeem travels to Queens to bring him back to the African continent and prepare him for princehood. He arrives and Akeem presents a wife (Teyana Taylor) for his son, but it's the royal barber, played by South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha, who catches Lavelle's eye.

With over three million followers on Instagram, Mbatha is already a global sensation. Known for her roles in South African films and television shows, Coming 2 America will likely be her introduction to American audiences. But Mbatha’s work exists outside the realm of entertainment—she was also the first South African to represent Neutrogena, serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, and will release a collection with Puma South Africa this year. Calling in from Los Angeles, where she's lived for the past two years, Mbatha tells her own "coming to America" story and reveals the best beauty tip she's ever received in her Beauty Notes interview.

Did you move to Los Angeles to film Coming 2 America?

No. I felt like I had done a lot of stuff in South Africa and the plan has always been to make the move to this side of the world. It was crazy because I was doing so well there, and I was at the peak of my career. People wondered, why would you want to move and start over just to be nobody? But I came to L.A. I had an apartment set up and was doing auditions. That was a huge adjustment because back home I'm used to being called in, like, 'Hey, this is your job. Are you available?' Coming into Hollywood, it's a different ball game altogether. You're starting from scratch. But I've always been a little nomad.

Was the Coming 2 America audition a regular audition, then? Or were you called in for the part?

It was an audition—but there were some big auditions I had gone for and gotten callbacks and which fell through, so I was at my wit's end. I was ready to go back home. I was like, 'This is not working for me. I'm done trying for this American dream.' I was in Abu Dhabi at the time on a work trip for the United Nations. My agent called me and said I needed to fly in L.A. for an opportunity, and that sending a tape probably wouldn't be enough. He told me it was for Coming 2 America and I was like, 'I'm not doing that, I've spent so much time on other auditions and I didn't get them.' But I canceled my flight to South Africa, where I was supposed to host the South African Music Awards, drove to Abu Dhabi, flew to L.A., and rushed to the audition. Then I immediately packed my bags and flew back to South Africa to host the awards show. It was very stressful, but believing in the dream worked out for me.

The Coming to America franchise is a big deal for Black people in both the African and North American continents. You're well known in South Africa and other parts of the globe, but how do you feel about this film being your introduction to a lot of Americans?

I'm so nervous, but I'm so excited. This film is a cross-pollination and it's timely. It's what we need as the diaspora, and to be at the center of it has a lot of gravitas. Heavy is the head, right? [Laughs.] We've seen so many projects that bring us together as a community, and so many movements. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement said, no man is an island, no Black person is an island. Paris stood up, London stood up, South Africa stood up—because we come together as a global community.

In addition to your work with the U.N. and your upcoming Puma collection, you've also appeared in campaigns for L'Oréal Paris Hair and Neutrogena. You have a pretty large global presence and a lot of people are watching you all the time. How do you approach your beauty routine?

I deal with a lot of beauty stuff in terms of what I engage with on social media—especially when it comes to Neutrogena—and I have always thought everything that exudes from women is skin deep. A lot of people always want to know: who does my hair? How do I get my skin clear? It's always about a holistic approach. We go through that period as women where we look in the mirror and you're concentrating on all the awful things instead of just being grateful of a body that functions. Be grateful for your health.

What's the best beauty advice you've ever received?

When I first entered the industry, I was one of the Black girls who didn't believe in sunscreen. I was shooting my first magazine cover and the makeup artist on set asked me if I used sunscreen. I said, 'No, I think it makes us look gray and I don't think it works for Black people.' He said, 'Listen, you're in your early twenties, get on sunscreen.' And I have never, ever looked back. He said, 'Even on a gloomy day, there are rays that we can't see. Put your sunscreen on.' That was the first lesson that jolted me.

Do you have any beauty regrets?

That same makeup artist told me to never do anything to my eyebrows. So from that point on I was like, I'm not trimming them! There was a period in the early 2000s where we were trimming them and doing an awful job at it. There's also the age old advice, 'Don't go to bed with your makeup on,' but unfortunately some of us have 17-hour working days and I'm ashamed to say this but I have had moments where I'm like, 'Sorry, pillow!' [Laughs.]

Who is your beauty icon?

Winnie Mandela. Her beauty was so risk-taking to me, and she aged so gracefully. When I talk about iconic beauties, she was it for me. I remember meeting her for the first time and it jolted me out of my skin. Also, there's, Garcelle Beauvais who I've just recently met on the set of Coming 2 America. She walked into the trailer while I was getting my hair done. I was like, 'What the fuck? Oh my god! You're so beautiful.' She was so graceful about it too, she was like, 'Oh you're so sweet and kind, thank you.' Out of the younger stars, I'd say Yara Shahidi. There's something very authentically beautiful about her. And those cheekbones! Gorgeous.

How do you practice self-care?

Steaming my face. It was a chore in the beginning, but your skin really needs that hydration. I do a lot of exfoliating, a lot of serums. And water! Water, water, water. I can never stress it enough. I also switch off my phone, put it on flight mode or switch off the Wi-Fi. I detox from social media, from the screen. We do a lot of consuming, and take in so much, but we never put it to the side and let that weight down.

You're very active on social media—many of your posts are about the work you do as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. How did you start working with them?

It's probably one of the most fulfilling hats that I wear. As a young kid in South Africa, I used to be invited by government to participate in certain things that needed the youth, so I've always been very active in that space. I was already doing a lot of philanthropic work back home because I always thought I would end up at UNAIDS or UNICEF. It's not the easiest because you're speaking up for something that's not glamorous. How do you support people who are forcibly displaced because of war or conflict, how do you support people who are stateless? The returns of that is watching people rebuild, and meeting people on the African content who have nothing but offer you so much when you meet them in refugee camps. The most emotional I've ever been was when I had to fly to South Sudan, which is the most remote refugee camp in the world. It's still a war-torn country. I sit in rooms that have the one percent of the one percent and tell them about the work we're doing, and ask for money so that we can raise millions of euros to build schools and hospitals.

How did you come up with the name for your Puma collection?

There are so many different cultures within South Africa. I'm from the Zulu culture, where your surname has a lineage of clan names that follow it; you're able to trace back to your original origins. I always tell this story because I understand why a film like Black Panther made so much sense for the Black American experience. You get to have an imagination of a place, a connection, like an umbilical cord. For us, we have the name lineage. Mbatha is from the Shandu tribe, which is what I named my collection. It's an homage to my maternal grandmother, who I believe is my guardian angel. She's the light at my feet and continues to guide me in my career and life. She passed away when my mother was 13 years old, and I feel like there's a connection somehow between me and her. Her name will echo through this huge opportunity, which has happened for the first time in Africa. Puma said okay, we'll put your name on clothing and it's a global collection. I feel really blessed to be able to be a visual and tangible representation of a dream realized. I think what that could do for every Black girl on the continent is really special.

Related: Eddie Murphy on the Worst Advice He’s Received

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