Women of Today Series
“I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful. And I think that it is time that it stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.”
These are the words from a closing statement that resonated within the Tyler Perry Studios in a glamorous night that celebrated women from all over the world and their diversity; the words that cemented her significant victory, the words of the very first black woman with natural hair to win Miss Universe; the words that ultimately changed the narrative of beauty.
They are the words of Miss Universe 2019, Zozibini Tunzi.
Born in the rural town of Tsolo, in the province of Eastern Cape, South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi’s life story is humble yet relatable, a life story that substantially mirrors the reality of most black Africans in South Africa. Her home province, the Eastern Cape, is regarded as one of the poorest places in South Africa. Opportunities for young people like her were sparse due to the overwhelming inequality in the country. Nevertheless, she eagerly worked hard and was fortunate enough to have access to education, a right which is, unfortunately, a privilege for most black Africans. She then studied public relations and has a diploma on the same degree. By that, she considers education as a primary tool that catapulted her to where she is now, and she is strongly advocating for it to be a right of every child in her country.
Before joining Miss South Africa in 2019, a young Zozibini has already entered the pageant two years prior. Back then, she still had long-straightened hair, which, up to this point, is a common hair trend for women of color. Ultimately, she made it to the semi-finals but wasn’t able to make the final round. The edition was won by Demi Leigh Nel-Peters (now Tebow) who would eventually go on to win Miss Universe that year. The win popularized the pageant in South Africa, a country that doesn’t have a sizeable pageant audience. The popularity of Miss Universe in South Africa further intensified after a runner up finish by then-medical student Tamaryn Green the following year.
The two-consecutive placing in the top two at Miss Universe made Miss South Africa in 2019 a very popular event and was closely watched by a lot of people. Tunzi reentered the pageant two years after her first try. However, in an interview on her Instagram, she said that her re-application was unplanned and was intending to join the 2020 edition because of her ongoing internship. However, she realized that the pageant’s age limit was 26 and she’ll be 27 in 2020. With that, she was torn in deciding to join since she wanted to finish her internship within the year but doing so would mean making her unqualified if she were to join for the next year. Nevertheless, she took the opportunity of achieving her dream despite these conflicts and she believed that she is prepared for what it is to come.
But the most noteworthy feature about Zozibini Tunzi in her second time of joining Miss South Africa was her look, more specifically her hair. Her hair was completely different than the time she first entered the pageant. From a long-straightened hair two years ago, she had now cut her hair and was proudly showcasing a very short 4c natural hair, a hairstyle which is seen as a disadvantage in the pageantry world. This disadvantage is rooted in the fact that black girls in pageants weren’t represented that much and only a few have achieved relative success. Beauty pageants are known to be inclined in presenting a Western type of beauty that hails fair skin, tall stature, and pointy nose as the standard. This makes women with dark skin undeniably disadvantaged, let alone a woman with natural hair. With that, Zozibini was considered an underdog even after she was announced to be part of the pageant’s 16 finalists. However, this will all change on the night of August 9th.
Intentionally coinciding with the celebration of Women’s Day in South Africa, the glittering finale of Miss South Africa was indeed a spectacular show of its own. The finalists of the pageant were incredibly excellent as they presented themselves in various rounds of the competition. The high caliber of performance by the girls was matched by the flawless production of the event. However, ultimately, a dynamic and charismatic Zozibini Tunzi emerged to be the favorite as she progressed through the stages of the final, advancing to the top ten, then top five, and finally the top two. Finally, after a tight yet spectacular event, Tunzi was crowned Miss South Africa 2019.
Her win would be her ticket to compete in Miss Universe 2019, an event where she will carry the pressure of pulling another victory for South Africa after two consecutive top-two finishes in the pageant. In the run-up to the final night, Tunzi was a divisive choice. Many pageant fans from all over the world had different opinions on her but the dominant remark was she is a ‘downgrade’ from her successful predecessors. Nevertheless, this never got into Tunzi’s head and she went on to ace pre-pageant activities and the preliminary competition. She used these negative remarks as a pedestal for her to stand out.
In a gleaming night at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, United States, the very first major film production studio to be owned by a black American, the finale of Miss Universe 2019 continued to be one of the most fashionable events of the year as more than a hundred million people tuned in to watch the event. With the name of South Africa written across her sash, Zozibini Tunzi proved once again that she is a woman of substance and beauty. She progressed through all the stages of the pageant with ease and has demonstrated grace and power as she launches into the final stage.
For their final question in the Top 3, all three women were asked by host Steve Harvey: “What is the most important thing we should teach young girls today?” With her signature exuding confidence and conviction, Zozibini answered:
“I think the most important thing we should be teaching young girls today is leadership. It’s something that has been lacking in young girls and women for a very long time, not because we don’t want to but because of what society has labeled women to be. I think we are the most powerful beings in the world and that we should be given every opportunity and that is what we should be teaching these young girls, to take up space, nothing is as important as taking up space in society and cementing yourself, thank you.”
The answer garnered roaring applause from the crowds and her name was started to be on everyone’s cheer. And after a remarkable performance and a moving final statement as quoted at the start, Zozibini Tunzi was crowned as the 68th Miss Universe, a victory that means so much to so many.
Tunzi’s win captured the attention of a lot of people, making headlines after headlines immediately after winning the crown. Conversations regarding her win were also overwhelming. But these weren’t all good. Her victory has just made her even more divisive, sparking questions whether if she’s really beautiful or if she’s just a good speaker. Some argued that the runner up was of a better choice. Nevertheless, the congratulatory remarks and praises about her victory overshadowed the negative perspectives. She was commended by a lot of pageant fans and even some celebrities for being proud of her natural skin and hair. She was greeted and noticed by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, Viola Davis, and Trevor Noah.
She is undeniably a ‘different’ kind of pageant queen for she doesn’t look like the other women before her. This made her historic. Her authenticity and conviction transformed her ‘disadvantage’ and turned it into a powerful message. She didn’t win for the sympathy of her color nor her story. She won because she proved that she was more than what people think about women like her. Her victory was both a statement and an elevation. She was a representation of the voices of the people who never felt that they were beautiful according to the standards set by Western society. She was a revolution, a fight that seeks to shake up the standards of beauty, to rewrite its narrative. She mirrors generational change and this influence will empower young girls and boys who were left out by society’s standards.
Zozibini Tunzi’s reign and activities as Miss Universe are hampered by the restrictions caused by the world’s response to COVID-19. Despite that, she continues to engage and discuss with people to create a space of inclusivity and support for other people who are deemed to be ‘ugly’ by society’s standards. Currently, her win still stands as a reminder for everyone that we should go against the prejudicial and restrictive beauty standards and we should empower authenticity and make it the standard. She will continue to serve as the representation of the marginalized and their capacity to take up space and to cement themselves.