Melissa's added ingredients

Brand image is all: what the business says and does must reflect its image, failing which consumers will regard it as a fraud. All the more so where the business is closely associated with an individual. What would happen to the Virgin brand if it were to come out that, far from being an iconoclastic daredevil, Richard Branson’s idea of a good time is a cup of cocoa and an Agatha Christie novel?

In the case of Melissa’s, the highly successful Western Cape-based Melissa’s Food Shop, (there’s a branch at a posh address near you) the brand image is very much one of wholesome country goodness and old fashioned values.  And the business is intimately linked with its founder, Melissa van Hoogstraten, a successful entrepreneur who lives outside Stellenbosch with husband Mark and their young children.

Clearly it would be bad for business if it were to emerge that Van Hoogstraten is a cold, anti-social, workaholic with very strange views on parenting. Which may explain why, when the now-defunct Femina magazine gave Van Hoogstraten the opportunity to review and modify the rather candid answers she had given in an interview in anticipation of a feature article. Van Hoogstraten grabbed the opportunity.

What follows are extracts of the interview, showing the answers as recorded by the journalist (and submitted for publication), and the answers as modified by Van Hoogstraten (and published by Femina). In some cases deleted bits were replaced with new bits. You may find it quite amusing.

The piece had a box with some quick facts about Van Hoogstraten, some of which gave a clear clue to her personality. It was standard women’s magazine stuff:  most treasured possession? “my Aga stove”; favourite holiday? “the family farm in the Karoo”; favourite leisure activity? “walking in nature reserves near our home, picking flowers in my garden and arranging them”; favourite perfume? “I don’t do perfume”.

So far, so brand consistent. The interview kicked off with a short introduction, and even here a bit of polishing was deemed necessary.

[bold strike through script was in the original interview, removed and replaced with the red script]

'Melissa van Hoogstraten is passionate about the old-fashioned lifestyle and, with the help of her husband, Mark, has infused her philosophy into her four Melissa’s stores. The success of their business has turned both Melissa and Mark into a frantically/ very busy pair who run their head office from a building on their property/ their home in the Stellenbosch countryside. They have two children, Alexander, nearly three, and Olivia, one-and-a-half... [The couple have since had a third child].

Then came the questions. For starters, Melissa was asked what quality of life means to her. She rabbited on rather predictably about picking vegetables, cutting flowers, baking bread, having candles in the house, and refusing to own a TV. But when husband Mark van Hoogstraten was asked to discuss lifestyle, he unwittingly gave a clue of what was to come.

Mark: “Lifestyle means deciding what is important to you and then planning your life accordingly. We simply do not waste time on things that don’t matter.” 

Q: How do you balance such a busy working life with the high standards you set for your home?

Melissa: “It’s flipping very difficult. Believe me, there's no such thing as I find it hard to believe that there is a woman that gets it all together as a businesswoman, a hands-on mother who runs a home like I like to do – and who somehow manages to produce stunning meals for all her best friends every Sunday. Now that Melissa’s takes up about 90 percent of our lives Entertaining, children, family, friends and work keeps me very busy and I would, quite frankly, never manage without a great deal of help.”

Mark: “We do not throw wonderful Sunday lunches. Our idea of a perfect Sunday is to be alone at home. We love entertaining & having our friends around but we also love a Sunday alone.”

Q: Who helps in your home?

Melissa: “We have seven household staff. They are not always here all at once, but, at any given time, we have three women in the house – a cook, a cleaner and a nanny – and two men working in the garden. Then there is my mother, who does all the things that a normal mother does. She takes Alexander and Olivia to all the things that I don’t do, like toddlers workshops, to plays etc and they love it. My mother lives in Camps Bay, and when I go into Cape Town twice a week, I drop the children off with her and pick them up on the way home. She gives them all the things we don’t give them, like flings, jelly tots and smarties – and they are in their element when they are with her.  Funnily enough, they don’t ask for those sorts of things when they are at home. Having this kind of support frees me up. I don’t do anything for my children – I don’t change nappies, feed them or bathe them, dress them, or do any of the basics. When I come back from the office, they are always bathed and fed. I don’t have to worry about anything to do with them. If I come in and feel like having a bath and they haven’t bathed, then they will sometimes bath with me. That happens every now and then and I really enjoy that.

Whoopsy, major re-write required:

"Then there is my mother who does all the things that I don’t do and having this kind of support frees me up. When I am at my shops in town Alexander & Olivia spend the day with my mother going to the park, plays, friends or toddlers workshops and they always come home inspired."

Q What is your parenting style?

Melissa: “Mark and I are so not the norm. We are not normal parents. The children fit into our lives, we don’t fit into theirs. We never underestimate them and nothing special is done for them or bought for them. We don’t cook special meals for them, they eat what we are eating and keep themselves busy all day. Most of their toys and clothes are hand-me-downs. If they need any basic items of clothing, my mother will go and buy them. We don’t focus on the children at all.  As a result, they are very independent and get on with their lives, without hanging around us They are competent, independent little people and get on with their lives happily with confidence. I come across so many people in their 30s whose entire lives are their children. We are not like that. I have never read a book on raising children in my life. A woman I know was recently talking about a book she was reading on Montessori - and I didn’t know what she was talking about.  I believe if children have love, structure and routine, they thrive. Alexander and Olivia have the most amazing people looking after them and are brought up in a very stable, secure and inspiring environment. Sometimes I think I should spend more time with them, but I don’t think I could do it but I sometimes think that they are better off without me!” 

Mark: “We pass on the fancy toys and clothes. I believe children should have a frugal, sparse upbringing, with as little money spent on them as possible I believe that the less children have in terms of possessions the better for them. We have not changed our lifestyle at all to fit in with our children. Children should be treated like little people. We do not buy toys for our children, but prefer to leave them to play outside and create their own entertainment. Toys kill a child’s imagination. How can they be creative if you give them a television set, a video machine and a big pile of plastic toys? Give them some bricks and a box and some mud and they can make something of it. We are not into baby things - and could think of nothing worse than spending a Saturday morning at Baby City or Toys R Us. People buy so much rubbish for their children. Children have no dress and decor sense. You won’t see any pastel colours in our children’s rooms.”

Q: Tell us about Alexander and Olivia?

Melissa: “They are the two most divine children. Alexander is hugely charming... He spends most of his time with no clothes on outside with his best friend Japie the gardener and a wheelbarrow and a spade. His feet are always so dirty it is impossible to get them clean. He keeps himself busy all day, interacting with everybody on this property. Olivia is an Aries, and has lots of energy and knows what she wants. She is very bright and totally independent Because of our lifestyle, they have to fight for their rights!” and loves her daddy!”

Q: What do you love doing with your children?

Melissa: “I can’t bear sitting down for an hour having to entertain them. I would rather slit my wrists. We like including them in things we would normally do ourselves, like going for a walk.  A few weekends ago, it was hysterical. We returned home after spending the day out - and for some strange reason Mark and I were alone with the children for an hour. I said Mark it’s only an hour. But we were both in a complete mood because we just couldn’t do it. To me it is the most tedious, boring thing looking after and playing with children. I adore my children more than anything, but I would never go home and spend hours reading to them. Absolutely no ways.”

Oops – scrap that! Rewrite:

Melissa: “I am useless at the entertaining children bit. We like including them in things we would normally do ourselves, like going for a walk, baking, cooking and eating”.

Q: Tell me about your friends?

Melissa: “I don’t really have many friends. Friends! My friends are mostly the people who live around Stellenbosch and the people I work with.”

Is anyone surprised?'

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Submitted by : on 2011-02-03 12:01:30
I have known Melissa since I was 14 years old and had the privilege to work with and for her for twelve years. During this time, I spent a sufficient amount of time with and around her family. I am yet to come across a more authentic and inspiring person. The philosophy of their brand is mirrored in the way Mark and Melissa live. For over a decade I have experienced zero cognitive dissonance in working extremely closely with both Mark and Melissa.

The Femina journalist did the typical thing: out of context verbatim Heat/DailyMail/People-style snippets, instead of approaching this lifestyle article in context and from a holistic perspective. If the article was approached by a seasoned mature and talented journalist, the essence of Melissa would have been captured accurately and sufficiently, and Melissa's edits would have been unnecessary.

What I find most surprising, this article was written soooooooo long ago. Who has the time (or surplus bitter negative energy) to go sooooo far back in time to write such a scathing article. Is it not time for journalists to start separating from sensationalistic blabbering and distinguish themselves in this art form that used to earn respect? Is it not time for us to celebrate the ingenuity and spirit of entrepreneurship in our country?

I have recently written a book and currently devoting my doctorate on narrative and how the media distorts facts and coerces opinions. All I can say: full marks for abusive, coercive and cheap journalism!
Submitted by : on 2011-02-02 14:26:18
I have never read so much utter crap in my life, whoever wrote this should be ashamed that they could be so utterly hurtful. I have known Mark van Hoogstraten my whole life and Melissa for as long as he has known her. They are amazing parents and friends, Mark being godfather to my son, and whom I might add loves to spoil him rotten on his Birthdays and Christmas with brilliantly thought out presents. Melissa is extremely generous and if I comment on an article of clothing that I like, her reply would be 'you can have it' and she means it. Her children are extremely happy and they have an enviable life style in regards to their parents doing so much with them. Mark and Melissa do everything for their family and friends and I feel privileged to be one of them. So bugger you whoever wrote that article, your life as sad, badly paid little journalist will obviously never be as fulfilled as theirs... Is anyone surprised??

Editor's Note
The person who wrote that article -- both versions -- was Melissa herself. Bugger! By the way, am I right in presuming that Mark spoiled his godson rotten with the gift of an old cardboard box and some stones from the garden for Christmas? Only joking.
Submitted by : on 2011-02-02 09:32:52
Great read - and good that people can see censorship and varnishing in action. Is she a bitch? I feel a boycott coming on?
Submitted by : on 2011-02-02 09:31:35
Thoroughly enjoyed this - but maybe for the wrong reasons.

It is refreshing to read an actual interview, prior to the copywriter amending it so it fits more into the socially acceptable norms. I loved her real, unadulterated answers. I too have my own business, my own set of 3.5 year old twins. I too am bored just playing with them and gladly hand that task over to my capable nanny and make use of a good friend or two to entertain them when I need some time to myself. What’s wrong with that? Some of us just don’t do small children well. I enjoy my kids more and more as they get older. And, like Melissa, friends are sometimes a luxury that is left by the way side in the rush to deal with one’s responsibilities. Thank goodness, we don’t have to feel like freaks because we don’t want to spend every waking moment with our kids.

It’s time we did away with that carefully and comfortably constructed, outdated fantasy. Sorry to spoil your dig.

Editor's Note
While I happen to agree with that bit about parents being authentic and having a focus and a passion to their adult life, and while I, too, found the real Melissa far more engaging than the "blanded" one, may I remind you all that the article was not about parenting but about how a brand "image" is constructed as a means of seducing customers into paying higher prices.
And about bringing a smile to your face.
There's an added bonus: once you've stripped away Melissa's show of farmyard innocence you're free to get really pissed off about her outrageously high prices.
Submitted by : on 2011-02-02 09:28:21
Had a good chuckle over this. After 30 years as preschool teacher and principal, here at last, is an authentic and honest response about the unacknowledged realities of juggling parenting and work, and the difficult aspects of raising children. Almost all mothers love their children but few are the model mothers that our current society has dreamed up.

My experience is that emotionally well-balanced children emerge from families where the parents are authentic, like and respect each other, have a focus and passion to their adult life, and are able to set firm but loving boundaries.

My guess is that their children will grow up to be happy, resourceful, independent and well-balanced adults.
Submitted by : Jennifer Spear of KAAPMUIDEN on 2011-01-29 11:15:17
I really enjoy Noseweek, but think this article does Melissa van Hoogstraten a disfavour. Her biggest "fault" is that she is disarmingly and refreshingly, (and yes, amusingly) honest.

What in this article makes her cold? She says she adores her children more than anything. There are many mothers like this and, with the right support system e.g. a gran as Melissa's kids have, they DO do better than they would if the unwilling parents "had" to entertain them.

Not having a tv and not buying expensive toys is a lifestyle choice more people than we realise are making. Besides, many of us grew up like that.

Perhaps she is a person who distinguishes between true friends and mere acquaintances - not like many of us who have hundreds of "friends" on facebook. This doesn't make her antisocial - the family prefer spending time doing what they enjoy doing , together - that is wonderful. The whole family will probably socialise more once the kids start school.

A 3yr old with no clothes on in the middle of the countryside is not abnormal either, by the way.

It seems that it is not only the photos in magazines that are "airbrushed".


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