Family Portraits: Andre van Heerden

Remember when you were young and your parents asked, “If your friends all jumped off a bridge would you do that too?” Well, in Andre van Heerden’s world, the answer would have been a solid yes.

A handsome young man with a cute accent (that I would be crazy about if he weren’t such a boy), daredevil van Heerden talked to PGN about the upcoming Rainbow Boogie, the world’s only gay skydiving event.

PGN: Tell me about the Boogie. AVH: The Rainbow Boogie is a four-day skydiving event for gay skydivers, though we are hetero-friendly. It is taking place Aug. 26-29 in Williamstown, N.J., at Skydive Cross Keys. This year we’re hoping to break the 12-way Gay Way world record that was set in 2009. We are going to attempt a 20-way.

PGN: That sounds kinky. What else is going on? Is it just for experienced jumpers? AVH: Oh no, everyone is welcome and there is something for everyone: First skydive, novice jumpers and advanced jumpers all turn out for the event. They offer fully equipped training for first-time skydivers interested in a first jump with a licensed instructor. We even have gay U.S.P.A. coaches this year. There’s also a banquet, a tiki bar, a restaurant, dancing with a DJ in the hangar and all sorts of after-hours fun. Saturday is the big boogie party night with the optional underwear jump and the sunset swoop-n-chug. Spectators and spouses are welcome too! Gay skydivers from across the world will be attending this event. I am delighted that it’s taking place so close to Philadelphia. If you don’t mind, I’d love to acknowledge Mark Rejhon and Michael Gamble, who are the organizers of this event.

PGN: You definitely don’t have a Philly accent: Where are you originally from and how did you end up in the States? AVH: I was born and raised in South Africa. I work for an investment-management firm that has their head office based in London and, two years ago, I moved to the U.S.A. I arrived on June 30, 2008, the day of New York City gay pride. I’d never been to the U.S.A. prior to that. Before I arrived here, I found a room through Craigslist that happened to be right next to Gym Bar in Chelsea located on top of a porn store. Of course at the time, I had absolutely no idea about the gay scene in New York and somehow I landed in the middle of it all. It was like stepping into heaven — a whole bunch of beautiful men.

PGN: How did you like it? AVH: From the day that I arrived in the U.S., I knew I found a new home. I have encountered so many people who showed selfless acts of kindness, friendliness and inclusion. I remember getting on bus on the Upper East Side in New York City and I forgot to put money on my Metrocard. A guy just stood up and paid for my fair without me even asking and refused to take money from me. I was totally bowled over by that!

PGN: Yeah, I think New Yorkers are some of the friendliest people in the world, but they get a bum rap from people who don’t understand them. Speaking of which, what is life like in South Africa? AVH: Life in modern South Africa is not that much different from the U.S.A. We face exactly the same challenges of crime, job creation and education but only to varying degrees. The new South Africa is only 16 years old. Our nation has developed into a vibrant place where the constitutional rights of individuals are seen as the highest priority. An example of this is same-sex-marriage that became legal in late 2006. We had our first democratic elections in 1994, at which time the currently ruling party handed over power to a majority-elected government. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president and was instrumental in uniting all the people of South Africa in a way that nobody thought possible. For those who are not familiar with him, he spent 27 years in prison and came out of there without any bitterness. He instead became an international advocate for peace and reconciliation. He holds a very special place in the hearts and imagination of all South Africans. I feel truly privileged to have lived through this special time in South Africa’s history.

PGN: Tell me about yourself. AVH: I am 33 years old with a finance degree. I have a wonderful family in South Africa. I have two amazing younger sisters. My family is Afrikaans-speaking, which is a language very close to Dutch or Flemish. My forefather landed in South Africa in 1652. My parents worked in the finance industry for most of their careers and, later on, my mom became a dairy farmer and my dad a manufacturer of security doors. My parents are now retired and live in a coastal village close to Cape Town. Unfortunately, I only get to visit them once a year. It’s a 14-hour flight from the United States to South Africa.

PGN: How did you get into skydiving? AVH: I discovered it totally by chance. I was at a dinner party in Cape Town savoring my friend Mark’s infamously authentic Thai green curry when, without warning, our friend Gillian declared that she wanted to go skydiving. Before I could stop myself, I agreed wholeheartedly that it was a fantastic idea and told her that I’d always wanted to do exactly that. That Monday I was sitting in my office, considering life, when Gillian called and informed me that we were booked for the first jump course that coming weekend. Of course I was terrified, but I couldn’t risk having my dignity compromised and I agreed to go with her. My first jump was a life-changing experience and I have been skydiving ever since. Jumping from 13,000 feet, freefalling at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour and being able to fly my body three-dimensionally in relation to someone else is an experience that is very hard to describe.

PGN: Craziest skydiving moment? AVH: It was skydiving-related. A bunch of us went on a skydiving trip to Malaysia. We did a stopover in Dubai in the Middle East and stayed there for a couple of days. One of the evenings, we went to the Dubai waterfront and had a really fantastic time enjoying Lebanese cuisine and discussing skydiving ad nauseam. As the evening progressed and the sweltering heat did not subside, we decided that taking a dip in the Arabian Sea was the answer. My friend Abie and I decided it was a good idea to swim without our clothes. Looking back, it was pretty stupid to break another nation’s rules. Indecent exposure in the United Arab Emirates is considered a serious crime.

PGN: Are you a member of the mile-high club? AVH: Kinda. It was an empty flight from London Gatwick to Bangkok in Thailand. Anything else I say would incriminate myself. Now I’m blushing!

PGN: What was your favorite thing to pretend when you were little? AVH: My sister and I spent many holidays at my grandparents’ house. Naturally, we had copious amounts of time at our disposal and limitless imagination. I pretended to be a talking dog that always had a litter of puppies on hand. Whenever I now see the house dog Brian in the delightfully insightful TV series “Family Guy,” I think back to those times. One wonders if I should discuss this with a therapist.

PGN: If you could have one object or place to yourself for one day, what would you choose? AVH: I don’t have any object or place in mind, but an experience. I am completely captivated by anything related to space travel and I would love to take a Virgin Galactic space flight. I want to experience zero gravity. Unfortunately, they cost $200,000 at the moment.

PGN: Who’s the most famous person you’ve met? AVH: Having spent my life in South Africa, the opportunity to meet famous people was somewhat limited. I did have a very close encounter with the South African finance minister at the opening of a very swanky convention center in Cape Town. I dressed up in a tux and engaged in light conversation with some of the other guests. Unbeknownst to me, the minister was right behind me and, in all probability, brewing up the latest not-so-subtle corruption scheme with a fellow government colleague. All of a sudden, we both turned around and his hand had implanted itself on my left buttock. I have received compliments in the past about my well-proportioned buttocks and the compliments are sometimes expressed in the form of a brisk pinch, so I was only mildly alarmed when it happened. But I can now claim to have been touched inappropriately by South Africa’s fiscus. The other incident was when I was on a flight back from Johannesburg to Cape Town. I had the aisle seat and this really friendly lady sat next to me, her husband in the window seat. After the mandatory chitchat, she borrowed my newspaper and asked if she could take my unopened leftover airline chocolates for her son. After a while, I whipped out my iPod out and did not pay them any more attention. During the flight, I noticed that people kept staring at me. I was completely mystified about this apparent attention! When we got off the plane, the man and his wife stood next to me at the baggage claim. The next moment a tsunami of people flooded toward me, all shouting “François! François! François!” I knew my name was not François. I looked to my right and it dawned upon me that all this time I was sitting next to François Pienaar and his wife and did not have the faintest clue. Francois Pienaar is the South Africa rugby team’s captain that won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Matt Damon portrayed him in the movie “Invictus.” He was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, for playing the guy I was sitting next to!

PGN: First kiss was with … AVH: A girl named Onthene. Part of my youth was spent on a farm in South Africa and, one day, Onthene and I went for a swim in the farm dam. I will spare you the details but it was a defining “nurture” moment in both our lives. Needless to say, Onthene prefers the fairer sex today.

PGN: Early signs that I was gay … AVH: [Laughs.] I don’t know. You will not catch me dead in high heels, that is all I can say. The rest is nature.

PGN: Most dangerous stunt? AVH: Driving in New York City for the first time. Y’all drive on the wrong side of the road in the U.S. When I moved apartments from the Upper East Side to Hell’s Kitchen, I decided to rent a U-Haul truck and drive it myself. I have done five base jumps of the Perrine Bridge in Idaho. It did not come close to morning traffic in New York City.

PGN: What is the best $100 you ever spent? AVH: A pair of jeans in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I arrived in the Middle East wearing shorts and flip-flops, obviously having taken into account the climate. The airport security guards scowled at me, at which point someone informed me that my wearing of shorts was offensive. One should not show too much leg in the Middle East.

PGN: Book you’d recommend for Oprah’s book club? AVH: Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell.” She was an amazing author. A movie was made about her life that starred Kate Winslet, as the young — and Judi Dench, as the older — Iris. It is rumored that her work is completely uninfluenced by other authors, almost like the “Inception” concept!

PGN: What’s the earliest recollection you have of your mother/father? AVH: My earliest recollection is when we were about 4-5 years old. I have wonderful parents. My sister and I used to go to my mom’s office before the kindergarten bus collected us for school. Our favorite thing would be to draw pictures on little square pieces of paper and my mom would frame them for us. I was very fortunate to grow up in a loving and extremely supportive family environment.

PGN: What’s the biggest misconception Americans have about South Africa? AVH: I think people still think of South Africa as a dangerous third-world country in dark Africa rampant with crime. The recent Soccer World Cup was an event where the people of South Africa demonstrated the progress made in the last decade-and-a-half in our country. Our financial system is considered one of the most advanced in the world. An example of tight financial regulation is the National Credit Act that was introduced a couple of years ago that prevented people from overextending themselves on credit. But, like the U.S., we still have many challenges like unemployment, education and crime to overcome.

PGN: What’s the gay scene like in South Africa? AVH: We have a sizable gay community in South Africa. Cape Town and Johannesburg are definitely considered to be the gay capitals of South Africa, and certainly Africa. We have many openly gay public figures. An example would be a high-court judge named Edwin Cameron who made the fact that he is HIV-positive public. I think homosexuality is still taboo in the black culture. I remember that we received severe criticism for the way that ex-South African Prime Minister Thabo Mbeki talked about HIV/AIDS. I feel that to a certain extent, people are ignorant about it.

PGN: Parting thoughts? AVH: When I think about the South African community, the African term “Ubunto” comes to mind. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it well: “The essence of being human. Ubunto speaks particularly of the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself … ” Africa as a continent definitely has a unique rhythm to it. Wow! I really miss my country and my family now!

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].