Actress and entrepreneur Vanessa Haywood-Sandes happily traded Hollywood for Hout Bay – she chats to Leigh Hermon about being a new mom, making a big career switch, and why we all need some me-time
I n 2009, Vanessa, now 39, was catapulted into the limelight after appearing in District 9, the Oscarnominated sci-fi hit flick directed by Neill Blomkamp. Yet many may not know that, before her Hollywood success, Vanessa grew up barefoot on a farm in Mpumalanga, and she studied business management and marketing in Joburg. Today she now runs a digitalmarketing start-up from her Hout Bay home, which she shares with her husband, ultra-distance runner Ryan Sandes, 35, and their son Max, one.
I’ve lived in Joburg and Los Angeles, but I’ll always be a farm girl at heart.
I grew up on a farm in Mpumalanga and spent just about every day barefoot and covered in mud until I was 12. My parents instilled a love for the outdoors in me and my sisters from an early age: on weekends we’d go on a hike to a nearby waterfall and skinny dip in the natural pools, before walking along dirt roads back home. My parents have since moved to Polokwane and when I get the chance, I love spending a long weekend with them.
Vanessa Haywood İnterview Photo Gallery
I’m the eldest of three sisters and we didn’t get on.
It’s hard to believe it now, but we weren’t close as kids. When I left school, Kim was only 11 and Robyn was four. While I was studying, it always felt like we were living on different planets, unable to understand what each other was going through because of the age gap. Thankfully, we have grown much closer over the years – I’m always telling all my friends about Kim’s [Schulze] successes at 5fm, as well as how close Robyn is to finishing her nursing degree. When I’m in Joburg for work or to visit our parents, I’ll always make time to see both of them to catch up.
All three of us made a career switch halfway through our studies.
Looking back I think my parents spent a fortune on us while we all figured out what we wanted to do after school. I had dreams of being a chiropractor and went to Technikon Natal before switching to marketing and business management. Kim started out studying industrial engineering and moved to journalism, while Robyn thought she would enjoy biological sciences, but then she followed in our mom’s footsteps to become a nurse. It’s a lot to ask an 18 year old to decide exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives; we were all so lucky our parents were supportive in letting us find our way.
It’s really important to explore every opportunity while you figure out what you truly want to do.
I started out doing some modelling while I studied; it was great, because whatever I earned from a job went into paying off my student loan and I was able to buy my first car. Once I’d graduated, I went into modelling full-time and found myself chasing summer around the world. As a model, Cape Town is the place to be in summer, so I’d spend about eight months of the year there before travelling to Europe to work during their warmer weather.
We recently celebrated Max’s first birthday, but I can’t believe where the time’s gone.
It’s unbelievable to think he started out as an embryo inside of me that Ryan and I created together, and now he’s this chubby child who’s taken over our lives in the best possible way.
Falling pregnant wasn’t easy and we looked into fertility treatments.
Even though I was in my late thirties by then, I don’t think my age had anything to do with it. I was under a lot of emotional stress when Ryan and I first started trying: my mom had just been diagnosed with cancer for a second time and I thought I was going to lose her. It wasn’t long after we got the news about her remission that I was able to tell Ryan and our family that I was finally expecting a baby.
I was shattered for the first few months after having Max.
We didn’t have a nanny to help us in the beginning because I didn’t feel comfortable with anyone looking after him other than family. I got very little sleep and as a result a dark cloud started to follow me around – it grew into this all-consuming force and I felt completely overwhelmed. I so desperately wanted to sleep that I’d fantasise about being in a minor car crash just so that I could spend a night or two in hospital in peace. Then I’d feel terribly guilty for even thinking such a thing and the cycle would continue. I’m glad I accepted that I needed help quite early on and my doctor diagnosed me with postnatal depression. With the help of medication I was able to get on top of it, but I realised how I was neglecting myself. As moms we take on more than we can handle; I needed to take better care of myself so that I could be there for my child. I’ve also become a little more relaxed about having a nanny and have since hired someone to help me out on Saturdays. I’m looking to hire her for a couple more days a week as I start getting back into work.
I’m so thankful to mommy bloggers for being honest about parenting.
On social media, many mothers paint a picture of a perfect home, but those Instagram snaps are far from the truth. I’ve experienced everything from a painful blocked milk duct, to late nights where both Max and I have been in tears trying to get him to sleep. No child is perfect and neither are their parents – the sooner we admit that to ourselves, the better off we’ll all be.
Ryan and I never had a daily routine – until Max came along.
Before Max, no two days were the same: we both work from home, but our schedules would be unpredictable – on any given day I would have to rush off to see a client or do a photoshoot, while Ryan would be planning his next big race with sponsors. Now that we’ve got a tiny human to look after, we’ve had to be a lot more structured and plan our days better. Something as simple as a glass of wine needs to be carefully timed – I don’t drink before feeding Max or if I need to express milk for him. We’ve got our evening routines down to an art form now, though; I’ll feed Max and put him to bed while Ryan cooks us dinner.
There was a time after I became a mom where I felt like I’d lost my identity.
Besides being exhausted, I wasn’t myself. Now that Max is a year old and things at home have settled a bit, I can focus on work more. Over the last few months I’ve done some photo shoots, worked as an ‘influencer’ with Webfluential, and I plan to get back into modelling before the end of the year – while I love the dressing up part of a shoot, I really enjoy meeting new people and visiting new places. I’m also hard at work on building my business, Peak Digital Marketing. I ran my own Joburg-based events company years ago and I’m thrilled to take on the challenge of being an entrepreneur again.
When it comes to my Hollywood acting career, I’m a bit of a one-hit wonder.
District 9 opened so many doors and I did some auditions afterwards, but there was a dark side to Hollywood that I could never reconcile with. I did a few auditions in Los Angeles where well-known film directors and producers would make inappropriate advances towards me with the promise of a role. This kind of attitude towards women didn’t sit well with me and I decided that L.A. was not the place for me. I’d also met a lot of actors who were holding down multiple jobs to try and make ends meet between acting gigs. I realised I wasn’t willing to suffer for my craft as they did.
I thought about giving acting a second shot by moving to London, but all of that changed when I met Ryan.
I’m an avid runner, and I met Ryan at a marathon in Knysna – we immediately hit it off. Even though I wasn’t looking for a relationship at the time, he got me thinking about my life in SA, and how I’d have to start all over again if I moved – I had my own place, a car, and my own business. Moving would mean I’d be starting back at square one and suddenly London seemed less appealing.
Ryan often teases me that I’m a cougar, but there’s only four years between us.
As an ultra-runner, his career is quite demanding with lots of overseas trips that need careful planning, and he needed someone who was independent and settled. Sometimes I wake up on a Saturday morning and Ryan’s already started a seven-hour trail run! This might be a lonely life for some, but we’ve found a way to make it work.
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