Pearl is a queen again — 50 years later

Miss World’s sop to apartheid sur­prised the world, but was for­got­ten at home

Sunday Times - - The A-listers - By CLAIRE KEE­TON

● “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.

Dowdy dress

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.

Mother’s bless­ing

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.

Pic­tures: Esa Alexan­der and Sun­day Times ar­chive

Pearl Jansen, above, still has the ra­di­ant smile that won her Miss Africa South, and, right, Miss World run­ner-up in 1970.

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