Pearl is a queen again — 50 years later
Miss World’s sop to apartheid surprised the world, but was forgotten at home
● “I thought it must be a prank,” says Pearl Jansen of the phone call she received last year. After decades of living in seclusion in Bonteheuwel, Cape Town, Jansen was invited to London to revisit her experience of being runner-up in the Miss World beauty contest in the UK in 1970.
British movie director Philippa Lowthorpe wanted Jansen to attend a VIP screening of Misbehaviour, Lowthorpe’s upcoming film about the controversial 1970 beauty pageant at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where feminists hurled flour bombs at host Bob Hope, where the first black Miss World was crowned, and where SA’s double entry, based on racial separation, caused a furore.
Apartheid’s illogic required SA to send two contestants to the 1970 Miss World: the coloured Pearl Gladys Jansen as Miss Africa South and a white Miss South Africa Jillian Jessup. The support given the two ambassadors for their country appears to have been as unequal as their rights back home.
Jessup was given an elegant gown for the evening-wear parade. Jansen was handed a “dowdy, dirty-pink sheath in which I could not feel confident”. Undeterred, the 20-yearold — whose heroine had been Penny
Coelen since the South African beauty queen won Miss World in 1958 — ditched the vile dress.
“I said to Maureen [Edwards, her chaperone]: ‘I’ve got some money. Have you got money? Let’s go to Harrods. I’m not going to win with this dress.’ So we sneaked out and on sale I bought a beautiful flowing white dress with long, flared sleeves.
“I got into big trouble when the organisers heard I didn’t wear their dress, but I was successful,” says Jansen, her smile as dazzling at 69 as it was when she was 20.
SA did not yet have television to broadcast the biggest live TV event of the day, but a black-and-white film of the pageant shows Jansen gliding across the catwalk in the demure white dress, doing justice to the deportment lessons she received in Johannesburg. When the seven finalists were interviewed in their bathing suits and heels, she answered with grace and aplomb.
TV presenter Michael Aspel asked her: “You work as a machinist? What kind of work exactly is that?”
“Well, actually I’m a supervising machinist,” Jansen replied. “I show the others how to work on the machines.”
Popular with the others
Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, 22, was declared the winner. “Jennifer said to me at the time: ‘Pearl, you should’ve won!’ ” recalls Jansen.
Supporters of finalist Miss Sweden challenged Hosten’s score — it was proved that she had the most points — and objected to one of the judges being from Grenada. But what grabbed most attention were the women’s-lib protesters who disrupted the pageant in front of 100-million TV viewers when host Hope began telling sexist jokes.
“I was downstairs in the dressing room getting ready,” says Jansen. “The screening of Misbehaviour was the first time I saw this. I had no idea. Apparently Jennifer knew.”
Jansen became popular with the other beauty queens, taking them for daily exercises on a common across from the hotel.
“Being a gymnast, I was the instructor. I was selected as Miss Congeniality,” says Jansen, who still moves like the ballerina she once was.
She liked Hosten but did not connect with Jessup, who placed fifth. “We met in Pretoria and sized each other up. In London we barely talked. That week was strange for me. We never had white people in our home.”
Before her departure, the South African pageant organisers showed Jansen photos of anti-apartheid activists in London, among them Peter Hain, who had campaigned earlier that year against the Springbok rugby tour to Britain. She was instructed to avoid them. “They indoctrinated me, told me if I say anything out of line, I’m in trouble.”
Despite her success at this international event, Jansen never had the opportunity to become the model she wanted to be in SA. The burst of fame she enjoyed after returning from Miss World — signing autographs at the airport, waving to some
That week was strange for me. We never had white people in our home
fans from the roof of her mother’s house, or to others during a parade through town in a Cadillac — was short-lived.
She was branded a rich girl because of her £500 prize, yet she found herself struggling for work. “When TV arrived [in 1976] all the white Miss SAs got jobs,” says Jansen.
In the early 1990s she was invited to a reunion of all the Miss SAs at Sun City and received yet another blow. The winners from the 1950s to the 1970s knew her but the younger beauty queens did not recognise her, and Coelen, while going through the booklet containing pictures of the beauty queens over the years, asked: “Pearl, why aren’t you in this?”
But a miniature replica of the Miss World runner-up trophy and a collection of silver cups, reminders of her triumphs, still gleam from a cabinet in Jansen’s mother’s lounge.
When she was 16, Jansen was asked to enter Miss Community Centre. Her father was initially opposed to his daughter taking part in what he called a “cattle market”, but her series of crowns changed his attitude.
When she got mumps right before the
Miss Africa South contest, the Western Province association, which had selected her, promised it would still get her to the national contest, to be held in Durban. She recovered in time — and won.
Aspel asked her at the Miss World pageant: “What was your family’s reaction?” Jansen replied: “They are quite thrilled. They are proud, me being the only daughter.”
Today she says the triumph ruined her life. “My father was told: ‘Your daughter’s rich. You don’t need work; she’ll look after you.’ ” He was fired and her unpaid year of promoting Miss Africa South didn’t help her to support her family.
She says she was a “very angry young lady” but when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy at age 40, her outlook changed. “I decided to be positive,” she says as we speak in her mother’s house. Her mother looked after her and one of her three brothers shaved off her long, silky hair for her before she started chemotherapy.
As the only daughter, who chose not to marry — despite repeated proposals — she promised her father when he died 34 years ago that she would look after her mother, who is nearly 100.
Jansen was recovering from a recurrence of cancer when Lowthorpe called offering the trip to London.
“Without hesitation my mother gave me her blessing to go,” she says. In London she was treated like a celebrity, with chauffeurs and shiny cars, in a way that never happened in SA. “At the hotel, people asked: ‘Are you an actress? You look like an actress,’ ” says Jansen.
Hosten was also flown to the screening and the two beauty queens were thrilled to see each other again after half a century. Hosten asked Jansen to sing Dionne Warwick’s All the Time on stage. The chorus — “All the time/All the wasted time/All the years” — echoes Jansen’s own disillusionment after Miss World.
“In the apartheid era, I wasn’t white enough. Now in the new dispensation, the title isn’t recognised.”
But the new film might finally give her the recognition she is due.
Pearl Jansen, above, still has the radiant smile that won her Miss Africa South, and, right, Miss World runner-up in 1970.