Success Does Not Happen Overnight
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1977, when I was 15, my parents emigrated to London. We were a family of six and my parents wanted to get away from South Africa’s Apartheid regime.
At that time, I was a swimmer with a dream to swim in the Olympics. South Africa had been banned from all Olympic sports because of apartheid, so I got onto the British International team. I trained for over six hours a day with an ex-Olympic coach. I swam before school, during lunch and after school. It was too late to swim in the 1980 Olympics but my goal and dream was the 1984 Olympics. My times were good enough by the time I was 17, with 3 years of British training behind me, to potentially swim in the 1984 games.
I was offered two full scholarships, to Southern Methodist University in Texas, and University of Houston. However, I realized at 17 that I was burned out. I decided I didn’t want to swim anymore. I needed to experience life, have new challenges, seek new adventures and cut the apron strings. All my life was only swimming. The fun had gone out of it. I decided, of course against my parents’ wishes, to return to South Africa. I entered the South African military instead.
I spent two years in the Air Force. In hindsight, I realize that it was a great life changing experience, but at the time it was terrible. I became a man very quickly, and learned that if I put my mind to something, I know I can do it.
When I finished the military, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was also a gymnast. An opportunity arose for me to be on stage in a show. I felt at home onstage. I knew I needed some kind of foundation, so I took classes in ballet, modern jazz and acrobatics. I worked in South Africa for seven years in cabarets, and other shows, and was offered a job at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. I sold everything I had, and ended up with just enough money to buy a ticket to Paris.
At 26 I was offered the principle spot after only six months in the chorus. I had given myself until age 30 to stop dancing, and to move onto my next goal, and to fulfill my acting dream.
After an incredible year at the Moulin Rouge, I went back to South Africa and pursued modeling. I entered a competition where the prize was to audition for a Soap Opera. I had no acting experience, but I knew this is what I wanted to do. I thought this is my one opportunity to dive into the deep end. I attended five months of drama school until they said I was ready to work. You must learn how to act. It’s a circle, learn the technique of acting so when you act, it looks like you are not acting.
I stayed on Egoli: Place of Gold for seven years. A Soap Opera is the best training for an actor. You work with multiple cameras, eyelines, shadows and at high speed, 23 scenes a day, everyday.
My new dream was to be a USA citizen. After my run with Egoli: Place of Gold, I applied for citizenship. I put a timeline on my dream and turned it into a goal.
In 2000, when I was 38, my wife and I moved to the United States. I knew I would never go back to South Africa. I was looking for a better quality of life. Not necessarily financially, but being able to walk my dog at 10 pm if I want to, and not worry about security. It also means living by the ocean. In 2005, my wife and I became USA citizens. I had reached that goal, one of the best days of my life.
Later, I got an agent, and auditioned for many Soap Operas and TV series. I landed my first job on Nash Bridges. At the age of 40, I reached my dream and goal.
What made you decide to finally realize your lifelong dream?
My dream was to come to the United States and I did it. I got my green card, paid $5,000, and waited in South Africa until I could leave. When I got here, I wanted to get into the industry and act for the rest of my life.
I had another dream . . . to write a book. There was so much I had to share about my experience at the Moulin Rouge. I felt I had a unique story to tell. I also wanted the book to be inspirational to youngsters looking to pursue their dreams.
In July 2016, my book Paris Nights My Year at the Moulin Rouge was published.
What were the specific obstacles that you faced?
As an actor in Los Angeles every day is an obstacle. You hear a ton of no’s, and need to stay strong and single-minded, having unwavering belief in yourself.
Here in the states, my accent is not as strong as it was when I was in South Africa. I must work on my American accent; however, I must stay true to myself. I am not putting on a fake American accent. Why do I want to be like everyone else? I miss out on a lot of roles, but that’s OK.
Life in Los Angeles is tough. You are continuously looking for work. The book was a creative outlet for me and it’s permanent. Writing and getting a book published is somehow more real, as it’s me. When I’m acting I’m always playing a character, so it seems more fleeting.
What helped you get through them?
It’s making a commitment and having nothing to fall back on. My experience in the military helped me to see that. You must do what they tell you. You can’t leave. I would not feel good about myself if I gave up because it wasn’t working for me. I have never given up on anything. Never give up. You must be like a shark. You must keep moving forward. If you stop, you are going to stop breathing.
If I give up on acting, I will stop moving forward. Every job I’ve had has helped me to continue to move forward. A lot of young people give up easily because they don’t know pain or difficulty. When you immigrate, you will do anything to make it work. You will do any work to make it and to survive. Anything worth doing, is worth fighting for.
Were there people that tried to discourage you?
No. I had friends in South Africa and no one said, ‘You will never make it.’ When I decide to do something, I give it one hundred percent to get it done. My friends were perhaps a little surprised in that they probably thought I would return to South Africa. People have always been very supportive.
How did you feel when you finally accomplished your lifelong dream?
As it stands, my book, Paris Nights, My Year at the Moulin Rouge is more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done. My first job was on Nash Bridges and when I was talking to Don Johnson, it was mind blowing. I thought, I can’t believe I’m working with a big star. You work with big names and you get used to it.
When my publisher sent me the book, I thought, This is amazing! I have a book. In this book is half my life. To have Paris Nights was a huge, huge thing for me. You are completely naked in front of people. People who don’t know me will be spending time with me. Everyone has a story, but to get that story on paper is difficult. It’s more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done.
BUT I have never felt that now it’s done, I’ve achieved everything I wanted to.
As one goal or dream is achieved, I have already been thinking about the next one. It’s an ongoing process.
What advice would you give to others that are contemplating finally living their dream?
Never give up. Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. Do not conform to what you think others want or need you to be. Be yourself. No one can tell you, who you are going to become. No one is in charge of you. If you believe you will make it, don’t listen to just anyone. Always be open to listening to people who have experience in what you want to do. Don’t conform. Some teachers will tell you, ‘You will never be that.’ I hated school. School has nothing to do with how well you will perform in your pursuit of your dreams, or in life.
Every person has a battle to fight.
Sometimes it seems that someone has made a huge over night success. That’s not true. We just don’t see how hard they have worked to get to where they are now.
For your dream to become a reality, you need to put a timeline on it. Then it becomes a goal. Everything you do, and every opportunity that arises that you take, moves you one step closer to achieving that goal.
To read more about Cliff Simon, visit his web site here.