Miss SA beau­ties share their se­crets

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The Miss South Africa con­test will be held on March 26 at Sun City. COLIN ROOPNARAIN finds out more about two of the fi­nal­ists, Priyeshka

Lutch­man and Shané Naidoo.

T HERE are two things most peo­ple never con­sider about beauty pageants. One, that the idea of a pageant is meant gen­er­ally to fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion. In fact, two of the big­gest and es­tab­lished pageants in the world, Miss Amer­ica and Miss USA, of­fer a schol­ar­ship as their shini­est prize.

Pretty much ev­ery beauty queen you see is an un­der­grad­u­ate jug­gling life, ca­reer and so­cially em­pow­er­ing ini­tia­tives on a global scale.

Sec­ond, a stint as a win­ner means you have just en­tered a one-year, pub­lic job in­ter­view in which ev­ery area of your life is scru­ti­nised. Imag­ine no al­co­hol, cig­a­rettes or even re­la­tion­ships.

No swear­ing, no inap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour and you can never af­ford to not look your best, or you might lose your job.

What that tells me is that be­ing a beauty queen re­quires dis­ci­pline and de­ter­mi­na­tion, and a clear vi­sion of what the per­son wants to achieve.

That much is ev­i­dent when I speak to two Miss SA fi­nal­ists 2017, Priyeshka Lutch­man, 24, from Yel­low­wood Park, and Shané Naidoo, also 24, from Benoni.

Both have made the cut to rep­re­sent SA in the fi­nals this month, and to com­pete for not just the ti­tle, but also, the R1 mil­lion prize money.

“Let’s be hon­est,” says Naidoo, “there’s no way around it. Peo­ple hear the words ‘beauty pageant’ or ‘Miss SA’ and they as­sume we are just pretty faces with no real sub­stance.

“What they don’t see is that I’m a highly cal­cu­lated, am­bi­tious en­gi­neer. These are doc­tors, sci­en­tists and highly ed­u­cated, strong women. As­sum­ing any­thing else dis­misses this.”

Lutch­man agrees. Imag­in­ing the man on the street who’s look­ing at her pic­ture in the pa­per and form­ing an opin­ion of her, she says: “Sir, you have only seven sec­onds to form your opin­ion on me… use them wisely.

“Thank­fully, I wear my sin­cer­ity in my eyes so within seven sec­onds of look­ing at my pic­ture, he should be yield­ing to my will.” She’s jok­ing, but also, not re­ally. “You have to be­lieve. In your­self, in your dreams.”

“It’s true,” says Naidoo. “The en­tire process – from au­di­tions and ramp walks to an­swer­ing ran­dom po­lit­i­cal ques­tions – is emo­tion­ally and men­tally drain­ing. You have to be, lit­er­ally, on your toes ev­ery day. You have to not only be in shape, or have goals, but you also have to be in a good head-space to be able to do this, and keep the big pic­ture clear in your head.” I ask Lutch­man to elab­o­rate. “It cer­tainly takes ded­i­ca­tion” she says. “The first day I ar­rived for judg­ing at 7.30am along­side 800 other girls in Gaut­eng, when we left at 7pm there were just a hand­ful of us be­ing con­sid­ered at semi-fi­nal­ists.

“It’s been a lot of hard work since then. I put a lot of ef­fort into ev­ery­thing I do, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, and I be­lieve that’s how I made it to where I am now. My (fos­ter) dad says I’ve grown even more beau­ti­ful dur­ing my time in the com­pe­ti­tion, but he’s bi­ased… and Cana­dian.”

Speak­ing of par­ents, I won­der what it was like for these women to have told their par­ents that they wanted to en­ter a beauty pageant.

Naidoo thinks for a minute and says: “I didn’t re­ally watch pageants as a child, and didn’t have this mo­ment where I thought ‘I want to do that!’. I watched along with my fam­ily and thought it was fun, but grow­ing up, I was a tom­boy.

Hav­ing fun

“It wasn’t un­til I saw what win­ning could do for my ca­reer that I re­ally got in­ter­ested. I started to see what newer win­ners were do­ing, hav­ing more fun, and us­ing the spot­light and net­work to re­ally en­hance their vi­sion, their ca­reers, in a re­lat­able, ac­ces­si­ble way. My sis­ter is a model so it wasn’t that out­side the box for my fam­ily.” It’s dif­fer­ent for Lutch­man. “I have two moms. Ra­nia Naidoo, my birth mom, was ex­cited be­yond be­lief; she knew I’d al­ways wanted to be on the Miss South Africa stage since I was eight so it was just a mat­ter of when.

“My fos­ter mom, Gerry (Rantseli) Els­don, was a dif­fer­ent story, how­ever. She’s the mom who takes only cal­cu­lated risks. As a celebrity she knows how ruth­less the world can be and if she knew about my in­ten­tions she would have wanted a Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion of my 90-day strat­egy.

“I told her the night be­fore the au­di­tions and watched her freak out with ner­vous­ness.”

Adds Els­don: “She called and said: ‘Mumzo, I’m off to the first cast­ing call for Miss SA to­mor­row. I was panic-stricken but like the en­ter­tainer that I am, I re­cov­ered quickly and started pre-prep in my head. What do we wear for a first cast­ing? What to take? What to ex­pect?

“I’m elated and very proud of her for mak­ing a de­ci­sion to take on an op­por­tu­nity that is so pub­lic. She stepped into it so con­fi­dently and her dad and I have agreed that we see a new ma­tu­rity and beauty in her as if she was born for this. God would give you the grace of a gazelle and the legs she has with­out a plan.”

Both women tell me that their friends, fam­ily and col­leagues have all been over­whelm­ingly sup­port­ive. They put this down to hav­ing their eyes on the big­ger prize.

“I’m not un­aware of the crit­i­cism,” says Naidoo, “of the as­sump­tion that what I do is su­per­fi­cial. I have a clear plan. I en­ter the com­pe­ti­tion with the mind­set of win­ning, oth­er­wise what am I do­ing? I’m con­fi­dent be­cause I can see the route. It might not be con­ven­tional, sure, but it gets me where I want to be.

“Each of the girls has a so­cial, em­pow­er­ment cause close to their hearts. Win­ning, for me, means I get to pur­sue these goals on a much larger scale, with greater re­sources and a much big­ger net­work. I don’t see win­ning as the end of the pageant, I see it as the start of my ca­reer.”

That big-pic­ture think­ing, that clear drive and fo­cus, is some­thing you can­not help but be in awe of when you speak to these women.

Lutch­man sees it too: “The ti­tle awards you many op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s a re­ally long job in­ter­view, where the op­por­tu­ni­ties are end­less and the play­ers are con­stantly chang­ing.

“I work with a pro­gramme out of Richards Bay that dis­trib­utes san­i­tary tow­els to ru­ral girls across South Africa in an ef­fort to en­sure they don’t miss school and that they are not em­bar­rassed about hav­ing their pe­riod.

“Win­ning for me means I would call the Of­fice of the Pres­i­dency and ask for a meet­ing with Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa as he over­sees a lot of the so­cial pro­grammes.”

Am­bi­tious? Def­i­nitely. But why not?

“I don’t think my power is in the ti­tle but in how I wear the crown,” says Lutch­man. “I’ve been taught that the ti­tle is my busi­ness card. The trick is re­mem­ber­ing that and us­ing it ef­fec­tively.”

It might be all well and good to speak of char­ity and so­cial causes, but it’s also dif­fi­cult to ig­nore the fact that this is a beauty pageant in which women pa­rade around in biki­nis and are then judged for how they look. How do you rec­on­cile those dis­parate el­e­ments? Is the swim­suit sec­tion a ne­ces­sity in a beauty con­test, or does it per­pet­u­ate the idea that women are sex­u­alised ob­jects?

“I love the swim­suit sec­tion,” says Naidoo. “I’ve al­ways felt it has been done taste­fully. But more than that, I see it as a cel­e­bra­tion of our bod­ies. I work out, and en­joy keep­ing fit. Not just for the pageant, but for me. And that makes me con­fi­dent.”

Lutch­man agrees: “I be­lieve we are all happy to cel­e­brate our bod­ies and help­ing others to do the same. We may not all look the same but we’re unique and spe­cial, it’s such a pre­cious gift that more women should un­apolo­get­i­cally cel­e­brate.”

“In­deed,” says Naidoo, “it’s not the swim­suits that ob­jec­tify women, peo­ple do that.

“For us, it’s a time to be con­fi­dent in your body, and to proudly em­brace what makes us dif­fer­ent.”

I de­cided to check in on a few, well-known pageantry stereo­types. I ask the girls if it’s true that there’s a lot of in­fight­ing, bitch­i­ness and back­stage bru­tal­ity.

“Stereo­type?” says Lutch­man with­out miss­ing a beat. “I think peo­ple watch way too many movies! It re­ally is a sis­ter­hood; we laugh, have fun and take care of each other. We do spend a lot of time to­gether, but trust me, there’s no hair pulling! “

“There are mo­ments of com­pet­i­tive­ness, but there’s more re­spect,” says Naidoo. “We are all hard­work­ing, in­de­pen­dent, im­pres­sive women. We have more sim­i­lar­i­ties than dif­fer­ences. In the end, the ex­pe­ri­ence bonds us more than it breaks us.” And what about men? “They’re not re­ally in­tim­i­dated,” says Naidoo. “They can be a lit­tle cheeky some­times; they usu­ally ask for pic­tures, but you just re­main pro­fes­sional and po­lite and not draw too much at­ten­tion to it.”

Lutch­man is a lit­tle more forth­com­ing: “Men are in­tim­i­dated by me be­cause I am a giant! I am 1.83m tall so it’s un­der­stand­able. The one thing that would im­press me is if a guy ap­proaches me and doesn’t start a con­ver­sa­tion with: ‘Wow you’re tall’. My par­ents have taught us not to be in­tim­i­dated by cir­cum­stances. My moth­ers are strong women and I stand con­fi­dently on their shoul­ders. I re­mem­ber my mom Gerry say­ing: ‘Don’t wear flats to make a man feel tall; a con­fi­dent man can han­dle your height’.”

Speak­ing to Lutch­man’s birth mother Ra­nia, who teaches in the United Arab Emi­rates, I ask her what ad­vice she would give to both con­tes­tants: “Be who you are and never for­get your roots,” she said.

“Aim high and achieve your dreams. Life is full of chal­lenges and over­com­ing the ob­sta­cles can make you stronger. Be the pos­i­tive and joy­ful per­son that you and the world will see that you are beau­ti­ful in­side out.”

Shané Naidoo, right and with her par­ents Ra­jen and Su­ve­sha Naidoo, above.

Priyeshka Lutch­man, top, and with her birth mother Ra­nia Naidoo, above.

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