Durban’s new Playboy

Frédéric Michalak is a model, gay icon and music producer. But he wants you to remember him as a rugby player.

Michalak is pissed off. Durban is at its unforgiving best – 32˚C with sufficient humidity to completely soak his polo-style shirt in perspiration. We’d been promised four hours in his company. He hadn’t got the message. He had five minutes. We weren’t budging.

‘It’ll be quick?’ he offers in rapidly improving English. His desire to evade the interview, I’ll later learn, is not born out of a learnt scepticism of the media. They’ve burnt him before, but Michalak is not the type to hold grudges. He is brazenly frank: ‘This suit, it’s shit,’ he’d tell the stylist at the photoshoot. ‘And the shirt, it’s not far behind.’ With Michalak, there is no wondering where you stand.

Despite a public image that suggests the contrary, Michalak is intensely private.

‘Are you married?’ ‘No. I’ve got a girlfriend in France but I don’t want to speak about that.’

‘What’s your relationship like with Bernard Laporte?’ ‘We had issues. But he is not the France coach anymore, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about that.’

‘You posed nude for Citizen K [a luxury fashion magazine] and Dieux du Stade [The Stadium Gods, an annual calendar produced by French club Stade Français]. In retrospect, do you regret agreeing to do that?’

‘It was a good experience but it happened five years ago. Do you remember what you did five years ago?’ ‘If I posed nude I’d remember, yes.’ ‘Well it wasn’t a big deal. Let’s not talk about that.’

‘Will you ever do it again?’

‘Probably, I’m not sure. But I thought we agreed not to talk about that.’

‘I read that your popularity with gay men has skyrocketed since then. Apparently, you’re the second-most desirable European sportsman, as voted by a collection of European gay magazines and websites recently.’ ‘Who’s first?’ ‘David Beckham.’

‘I knew it. I don’t want to talk about that.’

When viewed in the context of what Michalak has had to deal with since making his debut for Toulouse as an 18-year-old in 2001, his attitude is somewhat understandable. His life has played out on the pages of newspapers and magazines, his every move captured by what he believes are assassins whose weapon of choice is the camera.

Michalak was the right kinda wrong.

A marketer’s dream, if you like. A devastatingly handsome kid from the wholly undesirable Toulousian working-class suburb of Cite D’Ancely. The mischievous son of a bricklayer named Serge and a housewife named Renee. His impossible brilliance with a ball in hand (and every so often without it) was exceeded only by his ability to make everything from Nike apparel to Manix condoms fly off shelves globally. The world was taken with this phenom, swept away in a tsunami of billboards, television appearances and the occasional fabricated scandal. Michalak didn’t shun the attention. He regrets that now.

To pry into Michalak’s life is an arduous, near-impossible task. The incessant attention is part of the reason he left Toulouse, the club whose academy he joined as a seven-year-old. Durban would offer him some sanity. Sharks commercial director Rudolf Straeuli’s approach couldn’t have been better timed. It met with Michalak’s desire to challenge himself afresh. Having won all he could in Europe, the southern hemisphere was an enticing option. He would compete against the world’s finest players and enjoy relative anonymity off the field. That is until SA Rugby magazine arrived with pitchforks and cranes at Kings Park, ready to dig deep to extract the man behind the hype, the real Frédéric Michalak.

‘You’ll be disappointed with what you find. That stuff you read in the press is not me. I’m not that interesting,’ he says while pawing his ears that are sans the diamond earrings that have become a prominent feature of his off-field attire. He still has them but doesn’t wear them nearly as often as he used to, quickly adding that his bling is fake, bought at a Brisbane jeweller for just A$20 (R120).

‘I’m here to play rugby, to excel for the Sharks, and not for the party like some would have you believe. I’ve always dreamt of playing Super Rugby and I’m not going to blow my opportunity. Nothing will give me more pleasure than to help us win the Super 14. Nothing. I understand the pain they felt at missing out like that last year. I knew by then that I’d be a Shark this season, so there was some connection there already. And when I watched that final I felt their pain.’

Sporting disappointments linger in the memory for a while before success erases the pain. But Michalak knows true pain.

His parents divorced when he was just seven years old. Their relationship had degenerated so much that it had a seriously adverse effect on Frédéric, his brother Denis and sisters Ludivine and Nagage. Denis’s bike was Frédéric’s escape from the madness. He peddled to the edge of the city, only to be found sitting beside a canal by a priest who took him home. But the damage was done and his performance at school began to dip alarmingly.

The divorce followed soon after, and although he concedes that the pain was immense, he knows it was better than suffering through the hellish existence that his life had become. His schoolwork showed an upward curve and he enrolled at the Toulouse academy, where, even at that tender age, it was obvious that he’d be an uncomfortable fit in the company of those who were simply good at rugby. Even then his prodigious talent separated him from the ordinary folk.

Michalak lived with his father. ‘My mother wasn’t around,’ his simple answer when asked what sort of influence she had on his development after the divorce. ‘My father often came home from work late, so he just rested and never really had much to say to us. He didn’t teach us any lessons the way fathers would normally teach their kids. We had free rein to do what we liked. There were little or no rules.’

The legacy of that undersupervised childhood has surely shaped the player Michalak is today. Shackling him with structure is like governing a supercharged hotrod to 200kph.

‘To insist that he always sticks to a structured approach would defeat the purpose of having Fred in your line-up,’ says Grant Bashford, Sharks assistant coach. ‘You want him to do the unpredictable, you want him to be taking on the defensive line, committing defenders and freeing up runners around him. He reads the play superbly and sees how a move could unfold perhaps two or three phases ahead. He is phenomenal.

‘We needed to replace Butch James, who is one of the finest attacking flyhalves I’ve ever seen. We had to at least match his quality. Fred was the logical choice. Some say that he is inconsistent and prone to major errors. But he’ll win you far more games than he’ll lose you. I’d much rather have him in my team than have him playing against me.’

We’ve had Michalak captive for 40 minutes and he’s zoned out, reduced to clichéd sound bites and that infuriating line: ‘Let’s not talk about that.’ He’s hot and sweaty and keen to return to his upmarket Umhlanga Rocks pad where Sharks centre Brad Barritt is his neighbour. You don’t have to be a human behavioural science expert to see that Michalak wants a photoshoot in central Durban like he wants a tête-à-tête with ‘Mad Bernie’. He agrees to humour us for a while longer and we meet up at his car to drive in convoy. He looks distinctly out of place in his 1.8l Volkswagen Polo – this for a man who dashed around Toulouse in a Merc coupé.

A German research company recently found French drivers to be the most skilled on the planet. The driving exhibition Michalak put on confirmed those findings. For 15km through lunchtime traffic, he drove with his left hand on gear-and-steer duty while his right hand pressed his cellphone tightly against his right ear. ‘It was Clement Pointrenaud,’ he later discloses. ‘He and I talk a couple of times a week. I really miss that guy.’

Pointrenaud and Michalak are closer than brothers. They met at the Toulouse academy when Michalak’s parents were on the brink of divorce. The fullback’s devilish ways and penchant for practical jokes appealed to Michalak. The two would later be at the centre of nearly all comical ambushes on unsuspecting Toulouse and France team-mates, including an incident in which former France skipper Fabien Pelous stabbed Michalak in the hand when he refused to stop throwing bits of bread at the giant lock.

It’s unlikely that Pointrenaud would have approved of Michalak’s stunt driving, because he was perilously close to losing a brother on more than one occasion. In the Frédéric Michalak School of Driving, indicating is not a big priority. Just ask ‘Baby Love’, the wonderfully named taxi he nearly sideswiped, and ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’ wouldn’t have been pleased at being forced to brake so hard that the thickset Zulu lady on the backseat was forcefully catapulted forward.

This is the man who will steer the Sharks ship in the coming season. If his driving is a foretaste of what awaits when he takes the wheel at the Sharks, brace yourself for an exhilarating ride marked by devastating speed, death-defying cuts through the heavy traffic around the ruck fringe and the odd ghost-faced Congolese vendor who realises his stall is probably too close to the road’s edge.

Michalak is a reluctant natural at the photoshoot. He knows the routine, having done hundreds of shoots before. The photographer barks orders and Michalak duly obliges with the ease of a seasoned model.

He once took to the catwalk for French fashion designer Christian Lacroix but says the decision to do that haunted him for a while after.

‘It was one show and I enjoyed the experience, but the press blew that out of proportion, saying I was losing focus on my game and so on. That wasn’t the case at all. I was training as hard and playing as well as I had at any stage of my career. There’s no question that if a player has a crazy lifestyle away from the field it can affect his game. But that’s never happened to me. I’ve always tried to be professional. It’s not like I’m even a big nightclubber. These days I hardly go out. But let me step in there once and have a poor game, and you just know what their reason for my performance is going to be.’

Michalak is warming up. The frown he has worn for the majority of the day is gone, replaced by a boyish, goofy smile. He’s chatting openly with everyone, even playing games with the photographer – jumping out of shot as the lens man pushes the button. There’s a childlike quality beginning to show through his stern exoskeleton.

Michalak adores children. ‘Adults are always expecting something from you. I love children’s innocence,’ he says. ‘They love you for who you are. You don’t need to impress them.’

Perhaps he’d be open to a question he’d brushed off earlier. ‘Do you want to get married someday?’ I ask tentatively.

‘Sure, when the right woman comes along. And I want to have lots of kids.’

The shoot continues and Michalak has dispensed with his jacket and shirt to reveal the body that’s got him to No 2. He’s hardly the biggest player by modern standards and looks vulnerable enough to entice a galloping Pierre Spies or marauding Jerry Collins to take a drive down Michalak Avenue in the heat of battle. He’s sure no Butch James defensively, but he doesn’t care much for that line of criticism. ‘I have a big heart and good tackle technique. I’m over that issue.’

Michalak’s body is covered with tattoos, all except one with unique symbolic meanings. The number ‘82’ on his neck is his birth year. Still only 25 years old, I think, amazed that he has already earned 50 Test caps. The Arabic script that extends from his left shoulder and stops halfway down his pectoral muscle is the name of a close friend, Aneesa, who died in 2003. A tribal tattoo he says is meaningless hugs his hip, and on his left triceps are three indiscernible characters. ‘A group of friends in Ancely got it to symbolise our friendship,’ he explains.

Michalak still hangs with his childhood mates today. The majority of them are hip-hop artists and Michalak is himself a disciple of the genre. His Durban home boasts a recording studio where he produces music, even laying down his own rap when he’s feeling inspired. ‘I’m a bit like 50 Cent,’ he laughs. ‘My style is laid-back and I try to blend as many different influences into my music as I can. Arabic, Moroccan, French – if you listen they’re all there. I grew up with those people around me. It’s kind of paying tribute to them.’

There’s one more tattoo. He has a star commemorating Toulouse’s 2003 European Cup victory inked near a part of his anatomy those who voted him No 2 (and hordes of others) would love to see.

An afternoon with Michalak is enough to convince you of a number of things.

His loyalty to those who are loyal to him is unbelievable. He is arguably the most skilful driver in Durban. He has a deep desire not to replicate the mistakes of his parents. And perhaps most importantly, he no longer enjoys being branded the rock star of world rugby. This Michalak is a man transformed. On-field magic, not diamond studs and flash suits, is what he wants to be remembered for, although his appeal will always transcend rugby.

He is, however, intent on remaining a playboy – a boy who can play with the best of them.

By Ryan Vrede

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine. The new issue will be on sale from Wednesday.