Actress and illustrator Julia Anastasopoulos, 34, is the woman behind internet sensation SuzelleDIY. She chats to Leigh Hermon about finding her confidence, marrying her business partner, and her latest project…
Julia Anastasopoulos Interview Photo Gallery
Before Julia captured the hearts of so many South Africans with her largerthan-life YouTube character, Suzelle, she studied drama at the University of Cape Town. In addition to acting in TV commercials and on stage, Julia is also a talented artist who has worked as a designer and illustrator of children’s books. Her love for DIY provided plenty of inspiration for her most notable work, SuzelleDIY, a quirky DIY web series, which to date has more than 124 000 subscribers and over 23 million views on YouTube. Earlier this year Julia and her husband Ari Kruger partnered with web-streaming company Showmax to bring a ‘mockumentary’ to South African audiences called Tali’s Wedding Diary. Julia and Ari co-own a video-production company, Sketchbook Studios, and they live in Oranjezicht.
I’ve always wanted to fix and build things myself. As a kid, I was forever fascinated with how things worked and would spend my weekends getting stuck into craft projects. Whether I was painting and drawing with my mom or playing in the garden with my sisters, I was always creating something. My mom taught us how to sew and we used to make the best dress-up costumes. As an adult, DIY has become a huge part of my life. I remember making a kitchen counter-top out of an old door when I was at university and feeling so chuffed with the final product. I find it really empowering to be able to fix things myself, rather than having to get someone else to do it for me.
My mom was my hero when I was growing up. She was an art teacher and I wanted nothing more than to grow up to be just like her. She’s an incredible artist and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from her over the years. Between her and my dad, they encouraged and nurtured my creative spirit, and that of my sisters. Today, they have three daughters who all work in a creative industry. My eldest sister, Angela, is an interior designer, while my younger sister, Stephanie, is a fashion stylist – in fact, while we were filming our Showmax web series, Tali’s Wedding Diary, she was instrumental in transforming me into Tali every day for five weeks.
Much of our childhood was peppered with Greek traditions. My grandparents are from Greece and my dad was good about passing this heritage on to us. Our house was always full of Greek food and we often visited our family in Greece. I have to be honest: probably the best part about being Greek is being able to break plates – we even got to do this at my wedding!
I’ve always had the full support of my parents, even after I told them I was thinking of studying drama or fine art. They never tried to persuade me to choose a more ‘sensible’ degree, and they gave me the freedom to make my own life decisions. In the end I chose drama and I’m glad that I did. Besides learning about performing on stage, it taught me about confidence and finding my own voice, which I’m eternally grateful for. I also got to meet a new group of interesting and dynamic people who influenced my creativity as a young adult.
As an actress, finding work is never easy. Out of a necessity of having to pay the bills, I focused on my other passion: drawing. I moved into illustration and design and even collaborated with Emily Child to illustrate the children’s book Jeff and George (Penguin), which is about an unusual friendship between a boy and a tiny springbok. I also contributed art to the MyCiTi bus stations around Cape Town – I created stacks of simple line drawings of different cityscapes that I combined into one large mural for the Civic Centre and Thibault Square stations.
The character of Suzelle has been with me since high school, and she’s become a public figure in her own right. Gina Collins, who plays Marianne, and I have been best friends since Grade 9 and we spent hours creating hilarious characters, and then acting them out. Each character has developed into a person of their own; we always knew that Suzelle was a glamorous Afrikaans woman, and today she’s grown into a multi-layered character. Gina and I have been able to grow Suzelle’s world to be more than just a fun DIY show – Suzelle has friends, a job as a presenter of her own TV show, and she even gives running commentary on the likes of Taylor Swift…
YouTube is an amazing tool when you have next-to-no resources. Ari and I started out filming shorts of Suzelle when Instagram launched its video feature back in 2014. People seemed to like her, so we uploaded longer videos to YouTube. To be honest, we weren’t really sure what we were doing, but we had a feeling people wanted comic relief, and there’s something about Suzelle that draws the audience in. As the number of views started to rise, we realised we needed to spend some time researching the ins and outs of YouTube, rather than just posting clips and hoping for the best. Initially the DIY ideas were my own, but as the show has grown, we’ve had to put a team together who are constantly on the lookout for new and exciting ideas for Suzelle. We’ve done everything from making a garden palletswing to Christmas crackers – no project is too big… or ridiculous!
I love that I get to see my husband at work every day. We were friends and had collaborated together for years before we started dating. About five years ago, we went out and something just clicked as we realised how much we had in common. From our humour to our taste in music, we are so in sync. Of course, there are times when we’re not always so quick to finish each other’s sentences. Ari is usually more analytical when it comes to decisions, whereas I have an emotional response so there are certainly instances when we don’t agree. Working with your spouse might not be ideal for everyone, but I love that we start and finish our days together. We’ll wake up and whoever is in the kitchen first makes the coffee. Then we jump into the car we share and head off to work. At the end of the day, it can be hard to leave the office behind, but we’re good at making our arrangement work for us.
Together Ari and I have grown from making short YouTube videos, to having our own fully-equipped production company. Ari started Sketchbook Studios in 2004 when he was doing 3-D animation work. We were both thinking of starting a whole new company when SuzelleDIY started taking off, but the name of Ari’s company just suited what we were doing so perfectly. We may have started out making short SuzelleDIY videos, but today we’re at the point where we’re running our own studio and producing all kinds of projects, from music videos and TV series to movies and other branded content. We’ve been able to employ a team of people who’ve become our second family, and now we’re looking forward to growing and taking on so much more in the future.
We took a lot of inspiration from our own wedding to create Tali’s Wedding Diary. In-between meetings with caterers, florists and venue managers, Ari and I realised just how much comedic material there was in getting ready for the big day. Instead of finalising our guest list, we started developing a ‘mockumentary’ that follows Tali and her fiancé Darren [portrayed by Anton Taylor] as they’re organising their wedding. She’s a spoilt princess from Joburg who has a dog named Marc Jacobs and can’t resist posting a perfect pout on Instagram. Initially, we thought to take the same route as SuzelleDIY and post it on YouTube, but decided to try our luck and show the pilot episode to Showmax. They loved it and commissioned us to do an entire series of eight episodes.
I can’t see myself hanging up Suzelle’s bun anytime soon. I never wanted us to take too long a break from the YouTube channel while we were working on Tali’s Wedding Diary. So we made sure that we’d banked enough Suzelle content that we could release it while working on Tali. There’s still so much I want to do with Suzelle, like develop her story into a feature-length film. I also get to express so much of my creativity through her and I don’t want that to end, so Suzelle’s not going away anytime soon.
After a long day on set, there’s nothing better than stepping into the shower. The first thing I do when I get home is wash off Suzelle. I pull out all the hair clips, wipe off the layers of make-up, and wash out the can of hairspray that keeps the bun in place. Once I’m done, I pull on my comfy pants and spread out on the couch for an evening of TV. I’m often watching MasterChef Australia and I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones, to the point that I’ll rewatch all the seasons before the final one comes out next year.
Spending time with family during the holidays is what really counts. Christmas for my family is an intimate affair. We don’t take Christmas lunch too seriously, so we’ll choose a fun food theme. One year we cooked French-inspired dishes and last year we had a Mexican theme. My nieces and nephews do get spoilt, but for us grown-ups we’ll have our own Secret Santa. Everyone picks a name out of a hat, and that way you can spend some time thinking about what one person really wants for Christmas.
WANT TO START A DIY PROJECT THIS WEEKEND? HERE ARE JULIA’S TOP TIPS
JUST GO FOR IT
If you ever feel a hint of doubt creeping in, ignore it and just get started. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies and we stop ourselves from doing something because we think it’s going to be a disaster. But if you don’t take a chance, you’ll never know if it’ll work out or not.
If there’s one thing we always need at the studios, its cable ties. We go through packets of them each week. Every DIY-er, no matter their level, should also have a cordless drill and glue gun.
IT’S OK TO MAKE MISTAKES
Sometimes a DIY project doesn’t always go to plan. One time on SuzelleDIY we tried to refurbish an old couch by painting directly onto the fabric. It made for a great episode, but the paint job didn’t last long before it started peeling off. Now the couch looks really scruffy. At least we know what not to do in the future!
ALWAYS BE PREPARED
It sounds obvious, but make a list of everything you need before you start. Feeling inspired is the easy part, but you’ll find your motivation slip when you get halfway through a project and realise you’re missing some materials or a specific tool.
ADD A PERSONAL TOUCH TO THE FESTIVE SEASON
Show your loved ones that you put some time and thought into their gift by making your own. You don’t need to make anything complicated, either – it could be as simple as a dozen cupcakes. And, if you’ve already bought a gift, why not create your own wrapping paper?
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