Miss SA beauties share their secrets
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.
“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.