Define: giraffe. A tall, graceful mammal, Giraffa camelopardalis, generally inhabiting the society events, radio airwaves and cycling races of southern Africa. Nudge, nudge, wink wink – YES! Today, you’ll find it at the core of my personal brand identity, following an apt giraffe nickname from journalist and designer Craig Jacobs back in 2009 in the Sunday Times.
The giraffe symbolises self-acceptance and a sense of pride; it’s a graceful animal that’s comfortable with its appearance (despite it’s great height) and knows its uniqueness in the world. However, it took a while for me to fully embrace the nickname and steadily weave it into everything I do.
It certainly helped when the nickname’s originator, fashion designer and Sunday Times journalist Craig Jacobs, actually referred to me as “Liezel” and not “the giraffe” in his 27 January 2019 piece in The Sunday Times, when he wrote about the fashion being showcased at the Sun Met, Kenilworth Racecourse. He said: “Take newly engaged Liezel van der Westhuizen, who turned up in a black leotard-style top finished off with a dramatic skirt, all designed by Cape Town’s Jacques le Grange”. For fun, I must compare this to his comment in last year’s piece on the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, when I was still “the giraffe-tall blonde”.
The nickname took off when my sister Monique, who is 1.87m tall, and I attended the launch of a fashion range at the Radisson Blu in Joburg – both of us wearing a killer pair of heels. While I couldn’t be prouder of the nickname today, back then I hid what seemed a rather scathing reference to “the giraffe sisters” in the Sunday Times for fear that Monique would be upset. I am 1.8m and, funnily enough, the shortest in my family. When she finally found out, she reacted unexpectedly to say: “That is so cool! We have a nickname in the media!” And this, despite Craig’s reference to not being able to miss “Liezel van der Westhuizen, who … was there with her equally giraffe-like sister, Monique.”
I realise things could have gone very differently if I had not embraced the nickname and steadily incorporated it into my personal brand. Craig and I could have been at loggerheads for life. My advice to others who regularly find themselves in the media is to have a sense of humour about these things. I credit my parents with keeping me humble and personable; in fact, my dad reminded me at the start of my media career: “You’re a girl from Pretoria – just because you’re on TV doesn’t make you better than anyone else.” And my mom told me to “Just be true to yourself,” which has seen me continue to talk to anyone and everyone – and loving it. I also believe this is an example of how I am able to assist other individuals and brands, making use of the personal brand and other coaching I am currently engaged in, to turn potentially negative publicity into something that can, in fact, work extremely well in your favour.
I have to add that publicity and marketing companies have sent me clothing items – such as a treasured jacket with the word “giraffe: inscribed on the back; a hotel gifted me a giraffe soft toy, which I found on the bed when I checked in (What a welcome!); and a female giraffe at the sanctuary I support has been named after me. I am truly honored.
Craig wrote in his recent 9 June 2019 Sunday Times piece “F1 legend gives crowd a dose of speed”, that the “giraffe” nickname he gave me over a decade ago has become a lucrative cottage industry. And it’s true – I’ve recently launched my Giraffe Brand Academy, which shows business folks the world over how to “build a powerful and authentic personal brand” so that they can take their life and business to the next level. I have a particular passion for empowering female entrepreneurs.
Within the South African cultural setting, based as I am now with the Western Cape, I’ve discovered that the Xhosa word for giraffe, “indlulamthi”, translates directly as the one who towers above. In my coaching work, I bring everything back to helping my clients to get their personal brands to stand tall above others in the marketplace.
Also, Craig and I are great mates today and I cite him as one of my favourite local designers – others being Simon Rademan, David Tlale ; Rich Mnisi, Tokyo James, Thula Sindi, and Imprint.
I adore how this beautiful, graceful and proud creature finds itself at the core of what I stand for, not just in my coaching work but also across the board (see my Giraffe Brand blog and Giraffe in the City vlog). And I certainly won’t be shying away from those killer heels in the future – my fiancé is 1.87m so there’s no towering over him!