Bring It On!
Unlock your inner badass with Miss Universe, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters’ playbook
DEMI-LEIGH NEL-PETERS, AKA MISS UNIVERSE, IS THE EMBODIMENT OF BEAUTY, POISE AND ELEGANCE. BUT SPEND A BIT OF TIME WITH HER AND YOU’LL DISCOVER A TOUGH AND TENACIOUS WOMAN WITH STEELY DETERMINATION. SHE SHARES HER RECIPE FOR UNLOCKING YOUR OWN INNER BADASS
It’s a crisp Friday morning in Joburg when the phone rings. It’s Demi-Leigh’s manager calling to say our cover star is running late for her shoot. Whispers churn through the air from people who’ve met her before, wondering whether being crowned Miss Universe and living in New York City for almost a year has changed her. Sure enough, when the beauty queen arrives, she’s preceded by an entourage of security and publicists from both the Miss Universe and Miss South Africa franchises. Then, an unexpectedly heel-less DemiLeigh dashes into the studio and heads straight towards the crew. “Sorry to have kept you. Thank you so much for waiting,” she says. She’s flawless and knows how to command a room. But the minute she opens her mouth, it’s like you’re chatting with a friend. She speaks with the practised ease of someone well-accustomed to being in the spotlight – each sentence considered and perfectly articulated. But the charm and openness are genuine. At heart, DemiLeigh is most definitely still the girl next door. But with a drive and determination that means she was never going to stay next door for long.
IF YOU WANT SOMETHING, BE PREPARED TO WORK FOR IT.
Growing up, Demi-Leigh always sought out leadership positions. She’s always looked for an opportunity to do more, to serve. “I was head girl of my high school, my boarding school and the deputy junior mayor of the George City Council in my matric year. I had to balance my academics, sports and the responsibilities that came with the multiple leadership roles I held. I was definitely under a lot of pressure to perform well in all these areas. That was a year where I really learnt about prioritising – the hard way. It made me stronger and wiser and taught me so many things about myself I never knew I was capable of.” It’s these lessons learnt by her younger self that paved her road to success. There’s a cynical perception, particularly around pageants, that good things come to those with a pretty smile. But Demi-Leigh is proof that it takes a lot more to succeed – even in the world of pageants. “I have had to work really hard for everything that has ever come my way,” she says. “That is why I never take any victory for granted. I believe every situation and experience I’ve lived has prepared me for the present and made me the woman I am today.” And while her Insta feed is the definition of living the high life (check out @demileighnp), she’s also a powerful ambassador for South Africa – a role that she takes very seriously. “Beauty queens are so much more than just a woman with a crown and a sash and pretty hair and make-up. I’m a representative for my country first and foremost – and I get to represent my country all over the world.”
BEAUTY IS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT.
Younger Demi-Leigh was a sporty girl. In the small, Western Cape coastal town of Sedgefield where she was raised, she spent her afternoons on the sports field. “I was always the athlete, always the hockey player, always the cross-country runner. So I was more health-orientated,” she recalls. Beauty awareness came later. “I never did many pageants,” she admits, recalling the pageants she has entered – in fact, “I remember being at a carnival type of festival with my parents in my home town, and we were watching a beauty pageant on one of the stages. I was wearing khaki shorts, a T-shirt and takkies. I got pulled up on stage and I ended up winning,” she laughs. After that she took part in her school and town pageant, Miss Varsity Cup, Miss Teen South Africa, Miss South Africa and then Miss Universe. There was a lot of learning that had to take place for the fresh-faced active young woman. “I had my first make-up class just before I did Miss South Africa,” she recalls as she’s getting made up for the shoot. And while she has learnt how to keep herself looking flawless, for Demi-Leigh beauty is more than just about how you look on the outside – she sees it more as a radiance emanating from within. “Beauty is about being healthy, feeling good, being energised and glowing from the inside out. It’s being able to take care of yourself and your body and giving it the nutrition it needs. I mean, it’s the only body you’ll ever have,” she says.
SHOW YOUR BODY SOME LOVE.
There’s no doubt that Demi-Leigh has good genes on her side, but that doesn’t mean she can get away with not working on her physique. And while a globetrotting lifestyle has many perks, it also wreaks havoc on any attempt at a healthy routine. “It’s difficult when you’re travelling to different countries and they want to spoil you and make you some food. You can’t be rude; you have to try some.” Plus, Demi-Leigh has a sweet tooth. Her MO: sampling local cuisine in small doses when she’s travelling and getting straight back to basics when she’s home in New York. “I try to eat really clean and healthy. So when I’m home I’ll always steam or ovenbake veggies, chicken and red meat. I love red meat.” she says.
Clean eating aside, she also makes time for exercise. “I do a lot of cardio and only body-weight strength training. Except for arms, I’ll add a little bit of weights,” she says. Demi-Leigh likes to look toned and strong, but not bulky. She follows the listen-toyour-body philosophy. And her body says highintensity interval training and body-weight workouts are where she thrives. “I try to get in an average of four workouts a week,” she says. Although, if her schedule allowed, she’d be working out on the daily. “I used to train every day because I love it and it’s my escape.” The Miss America pageant made headlines earlier this year when organisers announced that they’d be scrapping the swimsuit segment – a segment that has always been contentious. But for Demi-Leigh that part of the competition was another opportunity to showcase her hard work. “Having first-hand experience participating in the pageant, specifically the swimsuit portion, I know how empowered it made me feel to celebrate my hard work and dedication to physical fitness. I was able to better understand and value what my personal fit and healthy feels like.”
For Demi-Leigh, winning the sash and tiara has always been a beginning, rather than the goal. “Just look at Halle Berry and Gal Gadot. They’ve gone on and started really great careers,” she says. “And very few people realise that it all sprang off beauty pageants. They both competed at Miss Universe. And I just look at the previous Miss South Africas; the entrepreneurs they’ve become,” she says. “Being Miss Universe is a full-time job. I don’t think a lot of people realise that. [But] I see this as a springboard for winners to eventually do what you want to do.” When Demi-Leigh talks about her career, you get a glimpse of the take-my-title-seriously, suffer-nofools businesswoman behind the perfect smile. “I’m my own brand manager, my own marketing manager, my own social media manager. The most valuable thing I’ve gained [during my reign] is business experience... I’m my own CEO,” she says. Impressive stuff when you consider how many celebs – with fewer commitments – have teams managing their brand. And she’s only 23. Of course, the question of whether pageants have any relevance in the world can’t be avoided. “Well, I’ve been able to raise just under a million rand for fire victims in Knysna... In just six hours,” says DemiLeigh. She also works with an organisation called Smile Train that works in more than 85 countries providing corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates. “I work with various HIV/AIDS organisations to create awareness. And I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do all of this if it wasn’t for my title. I would have gotten there – but it would have taken me a lot longer.”
FIGHT FOR YOURSELF AND BE UNAPOLOGETIC.
“I “I WILL WILL NEVER NEVER TOLERATE TOLERATE BEING BEING OBJECTIFIED OBJECTIFIED AS AS A A WOMAN. I FEEL THAT ALL WOMEN SHOULD BE TREATED WITH THE RESPECT AND DIGNITY THAT THEY DESERVE.”
In June 2017, Demi-Leigh was hijacked, held at gunpoint and nearly kidnapped by five armed men. “I had attended a workshop by an organisation called Woman INpowered a few months prior to my ordeal that equipped me with knowledge to handle difficult situations such as a hijacking,” she recalls. At the workshop Demi-Leigh learnt a self-defence technique that would save her life – throat punching. It’s a move that’s only to be used in an absolute lifethreatening situation and doesn’t require specialised training or skills. “In my situation, I surrendered and gave up my car without hesitation. However, as soon as I tried running away, I was grabbed and pushed back into the car. In that moment I did everything and anything I could to get out of the car because the second destination, I knew, would not be better than the first. I managed to pull myself back up and punch my attacker in the throat, like I was taught. He backed off, which gave me a small window of opportunity to run away.” The traumatic experience has not slowed the even-keeled Miss Universe’s future plans. (“I am an independent woman and I have made [myself] the promise that I will not live my life in fear.”) In fact, it prompted Demi-Leigh to start a movement of her own – the Unbreakable campaign – through which she hosts workshops to empower women all around the world with the same skills and knowledge that helped her escape. “To date, we’ve hosted 12 workshops in South Africa and one workshop in Indonesia, Mexico and the USA. I’m grateful for the global platform that I have with the Miss Universe title and I have exciting plans for Unbreakable. I look forward to seeing how Unbreakable will expand and make an impact on the lives of women across the world,” she says.
PLAN FOR THE FUTURE.
“I think a lot more has happened than I ever thought would,” says Demi-Leigh, reflecting on the year of her reign. Yet as much as she’s seen, achieved and experienced already, you can bet she already has plans to push even more doors open and unearth more opportunities. “I’m very hard on myself. I always want to do more and achieve more. I feel like I’ve achieved a lot, but there’s always room for improvement. There’s always next year.” Demi-Leigh’s reign as Miss Universe may be coming to an end, but her role as extraordinary woman is one that will be inspiring us for many years to come.
BY GOTLHOKWANG ANGOMA-MZINI PHOTOGRAPHS BY SEAN LAURÉNZ