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Charlize Theron: A steel magnolia

Charlize Theron, the first South African to win an Oscar, is a steel magnolia who not only overcame her small town roots and a childhood tragedy to catapult to fame but also doubles up as a controversial anti-rape campaigner in her native country.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 14:00 IST

Charlize Theron, the first South African to win an Oscar, is a steel magnolia who not only overcame her small town roots and a childhood tragedy to catapult to fame but also doubles up as a controversial anti-rape campaigner in her native country.

The 28-year-old blonde, who sparked nationwide euphoria by winning Hollywood's top honour for best actress, has been hailed as an example of perseverance and courage and has become in just a week, a role model for many young South Africans.

Theron's roller-coaster life saw her grow up in a troubled home in Benoni, east of Johannesburg; being bundled off to boarding school; and finally at the age of 15, watching her mother shoot her drunken father dead in self-defence.

Speaking about the June 21, 1991 tragedy to ABCNEWS, she said her father and her uncle were returning from a drinking binge and an aunt had called her mother to warn her they were agitated.

"Nature gives you instinct. And I knew something bad was going to happen," Theron said.

Theron has said she bears the scar of that night on her heart, like a tattoo.

"It's a part of me, but it doesn't rule my life," she said.

Her mother Gerda, who Theron says, has always been a "pillar of strength" remained to face the rap alone while her teenaged daughter -- who had meantime won a modelling contest -- left for Italy.

In the end, Theron's mother never faced prosecution, with a ruling that she had acted to defend herself and her daughter.

Several things happened in between: Theron did odd jobs in the United States and a stint with the Joffrey Ballet, dancing such classics as The Nutcracker Suite and Swan Lake, but this led back to modelling when Theron injured her knee.

She then left for California on her mother's advice and was "discovered" in a Los Angeles bank line-up by a Hollywood talent manager, who witnessed Theron reading the riot act to a teller. This ultimately led to her first role.

The culmination of that small step was this year's Oscar for her portrayal in "Monster" of a real-life American prostitute who turned serial killer.

Theron used heavy make-up, liquid resin and embarked on a doughnut diet to add 14 kilograms (30 pounds) for her award-winning role -- which led many people to draw parallels with her personal life.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who showered praise on her, said: "In this film we see her drawing on her innate tough-mindedness and her own emotional stamina in overcoming the tragic personal circumstances of her own early life, in order to shine.

"Ms Theron, in her own personal life, represents a grand metaphor of South Africa's move from agony to achievement."

In her meteoric journey to stardom which has now seen her living in the United States for nearly a decade, Theron also found time to air her views on rape in South Africa -- a huge problem here.

Theron spoke out in a public service announcement about the rarely talked-about crisis at the end of 1999 which had the stark message that "real men" -- a big deal in South Africa's male-dominated society -- "do not rape."

It was temporarily pulled following protests, but then aired again.

South Africans have been touched that their "golden girl", remembered them in her acceptance speech -- albeit delivered in an acquired Californian accent which bore no trace of her Afrikaans mother-tongue.

She had said: "I'm going to thank everyone in South Africa, my home country... I'm bringing this home next week."

She arrives home to a red carpet welcome and is due to be feted by Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. The euphoria has also resulted in a Johannesburg-based jeweller naming a newly discovered semi-precious stone after her.

Not bad at all for a self-proclaimed "farm-girl."

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 14:00 IST