Wheel­chair beauty’s big am­bi­tion

Le­bo­hang Mony­atsi has made a tri­umphant re­turn from a global beauty pageant and she has big plans for the fu­ture

YOU (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY MPHO TSHIKHUDO

GROOMED hair, per­fect teeth, high cheek­bones and a daz­zling smile – it’s easy to see why she’s been named first princess in a global beauty pageant.

But there’s a lot more to Le­bo­hang Mony­atsi than good looks: she also has a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy and is an ac­com­plished ath­lete. And there’s one other thing that sets her apart from the pack – the wheel­chair parked in the cor­ner of the room while she sits chat­ting across from us on a couch.

The strik­ing 31-year-old has been dis­abled since she was three but she’s never al­lowed this to de­fine her. “If you think I have more willpower than most able­bod­ied peo­ple it’s be­cause I don’t see a dif­fer­ence be­tween them and my­self.”

Le­bo­hang is still buzzing with ex­cite­ment af­ter be­ing named first princess in the in­au­gu­ral Miss Wheel­chair World pageant – which aims to demon­strate that dis­abil­i­ties aren’t lim­i­ta­tions – held in War­saw, Poland, last month. “War­saw was great,” she says. “It’s very wheel­chair-friendly and the trans­port sys­tem is geared to­wards peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.”

Al­though she’s thrilled by the out­come of the trip, it came with a hefty price tag. The foun­da­tion doesn’t spon­sor par­tic­i­pants so Le­bo­hang re­alised she’d need help. “I had enough money saved to get to Poland but there was no way I was go­ing with­out Thandi Nt­seane, my helper. I had to take a loan and even that wasn’t enough. It was only af­ter an in­ter­view on Power FM that I re­ceived as­sis­tance. I told my story and a lis­tener reached out and helped.”

LE­BO­HANG, who was born in Vry­burg in North West, de­vel­oped po­lio at the age of three. Grow­ing up with a dis­abil­ity wasn’t easy and she couldn’t keep up with the other chil­dren, she re­calls. “Some­times those kids would tease me but the big­gest chal­lenge was the in­abil­ity to at­tend a main­stream school.” When she was nine she lost her mom but, tough as that was, her grand­mother, El­iz­a­beth (80), stepped into the role and has been Le­bo­hang’s rock ever since. Le­bo­hang bat­tled wi t h her heal t h through­out early child­hood and was 11 when she was able to go to school for the first time. Her gran sent her to Tlame­lang Spe­cial School in Gelukspan near Mahikeng.

At school she took a keen in­ter­est in sport, par­tic­u­larly wheel­chair bas­ket­ball, and fell in love with the idea of be­com­ing a model. “I re­alised there was no one like me in show­biz and the me­dia in­dus­try,” she says. “That’s when I told my­self I have to get out of my com­fort zone and be an in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers.”

Le­bo­hang aced her ma­tric ex­ams and went on to study psy­chol­ogy at North­West Univer­sity, where she con­tin­ued to play wheel­chair bas­ket­ball so suc­cess­fully she rep­re­sented South Africa in Mex­ico in the qual­i­fy­ing rounds of the 2012 Sum­mer Par­a­lympic Games. She also renewed her in­ter­est in mod­el­ling and ap­peared on the run­way in her wheel­chair at Soweto Fash­ion Week this year.

Mak­ing the fi­nals of Miss Wheel­chair World was a huge deal for her, she says. As first princess she’s ex­pected to mar­ket the event and do char­ity work.

And the fu­ture? “I’ll be start­ing the pageant Miss Wheel­chair SA,” she says. “I have my work cut out to raise aware­ness re­gard­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.”

PIC­TURE: DINO CODEVILLA

Le­bo­hang keeps fit and en­joys tak­ing part in sport and spend­ing time out­doors.

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