The Miss Universe pageant returns this week after a delay of a year and a half due to the Covid crisis. Can SA bring home the title for a fourth time?
THE QUEEN Zozi Tunzi
“Ididn’t want to disappoint South Africa,” says Zozi Tunzi, Miss Universe 2019. “I was confident during the pageant but I woke up on the day and thought, “Demi-Leigh [Nel-Peters] won in 2017, and Tamaryn [Green] was first runnerup [in 2018].” Suddenly she felt the pressure of wanting to succeed for her country. “I called my family, so nervous, hoping to make the top 20.” Instead, she won.
The outpouring of love, not only from SA, but from black leaders across all industries in the US, was cause for celebration. Tunzi repeats the powerhouse names who congratulated her with a degree of reverence, but also acknowledging what it meant to the community to have a black African take the title. “Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Trevor Noah, Naomi Campbell — when they put my words in their profiles, I was like, ‘What’s happening?’ These people were sharing the message of a girl raised in a small village in South Africa.”
What were the words? “I grew up in a world where people who looked like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair were never considered beautiful. That has to stop today. I want children to look at my face and see their faces reflected in mine.”
In 2019, the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA winners were also women of colour, as was Miss World. “It wasn’t tokenism,” she says. “You could see a change.”
Her’s has been a reign filled with excitement and disappointment. She was in Indonesia when she heard the world was shutting down. By the time she arrived back in New York, the lockdown was being fully enforced. “I was still trying to understand it, then it registered: no travel. How was I going to do my job as Miss Universe?” She quickly adjusted. “The Miss Universe team created the #UniverseUnited platform. I’d host people on my IG live page — psychologists, activists and women from the UN.”
In the midst of the upheaval, George Floyd was killed and people took to the streets of the US in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “The #BLM movement — that’s our lives as people of colour. There was so much anxiety, stress and frustration on top of the pandemic and lockdown but people stood up and used their voices,” she says.
Tunzi is the longest reigning Miss Universe because Covid postponed last year’s live pageant. When she returned to SA after winning the title, thousands of people came out in the rain to see their queen come home. She’s hopeful about the country’s future. “I want to see us become more unified. We’re called the ‘Rainbow Nation’ because of how diverse we are. I hope we can become a country full of acceptance and tolerance.
Tunzi attributes her confidence to her educator parents. “The biggest lesson I learnt is that if you will it, want it, and work hard for it, there’s nothing in the world that will stop you from attaining your dreams.”
THE HOPEFUL Natasha Joubert
’Ilooked at my Miss South Africa title as a series of small wins: I grew emotionally, psychologically and had the opportunity to mourn my father, so there was no losing,” says 23-yearold Natasha Joubert of her title as second runner-up to Shudufhadzo Musida in the Miss SA pageant last year. The youngest of three children is an “oldfashioned” beauty. She’s gorgeous, but if you think you’re getting a powder puff poppie, think again.
For those who think pageants are exploitative and outdated, despite the recent slew of doctors who won titles, Joubert gives a peek behind the curtain at ambitious women with limited means taking advantage of an opportunity to attain their goals. This is the girl who entered pageants at the age of 10 and by 13 was using her winnings to “help out” when her dad lost his job. The financial crisis resulting from her dad’s death meant the Jouberts lost their family home, but her pageant winnings helped her pay for her studies. “I also won a scooter and drove it to university; I got to participate in a hockey tour with the cash prize.” So when people with the means to afford plenty of choices ask, “Haven’t women moved beyond being objects of beauty?” she shrugs and asks, “How can I say I’m objectified when participating has empowered me?”
She counters the idea that beautiful women are less capable and lacking in intelligence because of pageant participation. “The pageant has progressed. We now have the opportunity to voice things that are important to us — and people listen.” She adds: “I had to grow up fast. Eight years ago I experienced what many people are going through today: losing a job, dealing with death, losing a business. I pushed through it and rose above it.” The founder of a fashion design company, she recalls the time when money was so tight she couldn’t afford a pageant dress. Her mum innovated. “She said, ‘It can’t be that hard’.” They deconstructed one of her gowns and replicated it. “Looking back,” she laughs, “it wasn’t the best dress, but she made it with love.”
Joubert has the perfect beauty queen smile. “Modelling and love of fashion comes from my grandmother. She was such an inspiration.” Her mother too. “I remember late nights with my mom in our garage, in the winter with the heater on, not sleeping. I embellished the dress. My mom sewed and fitted it on me. The designing became a company, Natalia Jefferys. People started asking for our dresses. My mom is making me some of the outfits for Miss Universe. What better companion to have than your mother?”
Joubert is using her platform to draw attention to SA’s fashion industry, helping designers affected by the Covid pandemic. “We opened a vetting process to SA designers. Twelve were chosen to show their work, participate in workshops and receive cash investments into their businesses. I see it as supporting fellow entrepreneurs, #DestinyDesigned.”
The girl creeps out from behind the crown when she talks of being an Afrikaans meisie, proud of her heritage. She chooses to speak English because, “I want to be able to communicate with anyone in the world. But, ag, ja, you can’t ignore the fact that Afrikaans people love rugby, biltong, braaivleis — it’s special.”
I ask about a post of her crying on social media. “I posted that picture because it isn’t all sunshine and roses as people expect. Social media can be deceiving. People only post the best part of their lives. Having a breakdown, being overwhelmed — these things may have felt like a weakness in the moment, but I’ve turned it into power. Miss Universe needs to showcase inclusivity, relatability and that you represent your people in every way, including emotionally.
“I try to live my life realistically on a daily basis. I show people how I look without makeup, what I stand for, what I want to voice. I show people who I am.”
It’s rare for a country to win back-toback, but it would be wonderful if
Zozibini Tunzi crowns Joubert to bring the Miss Universe title home for the second time in a row.