Beauty and the Beast

11 December 2011 - 03:16
By Charl Blignaut

A new Miss SA will be crowned at Sun City tonight. Charl Blignaut looks at the turbulent history of a pageant that's trying to reinvent itself.

It's early on a Saturday morning and we're a midget short of Twin Peaks. We're in the bowels of a shopping mall in the suburbs of Joburg, in a theatre that's been done out to resemble a barn.

"Send in the girls!" calls a voice from behind the velvet curtain and there's a sudden clomping of heels on wood. Bearing down on us is a small herd of mostly blonde women in mostly silver bikinis. It's not a great mental leap to arrive at "cattle show".

Not that I hadn't been warned. "This year, we're going straight to swimwear because you can't hide anything in swimwear. You need to be fit and health conscious," says head judge and former Miss SA Sonia Raciti-Oshry to me over coffee before the day's judging. "The goal is to find the next Miss Universe."

It's one of two mantras I hear from everyone I talk to at Miss SA. We need a Miss Universe, a woman of impeccable physical proportion. The other is we need a "youth leader" - an intelligent, business-minded woman who cares about the poorest of the poor. "For me," says the broadcast channel's Vanessa Jansen, "this title asks, 'What are you going to do for your country?'"

So what we're looking for today, then, is an Amazonian Graça Machel.

The words "strength" and "power" come up all the time during the contestants' interviews. "I believe that beauty queens are actually feminists," says one. "They're beautiful but also powerful, because they get things done."

According to theorists, one of the great tricks of the modern pageant has been to take the feminist backlash against it and claim elements of popular feminist thought as parts of its own identity.

"We're not doing this for men!" the first black Miss SA, Jacqui Mofokeng, said to me after her 1993 win. "We're doing this to empower ourselves as women."

But back in the barn it's clear we have a problem of clashing mantras. Amazonian? Sure. A leader? Sure. In one girl? Not so often.

Take Rolene. She looks as though she's stepped from one of those TV adverts where women bathe in the forest. She has a country innocence and a classic voluptuousness. But then she's asked to name the country's deputy president. Long beat. "Julius Malema?" she asks. Awkward.

Nompumelela is dark-skinned, statuesque and editorial. Crowned Miss Mpumalanga 2011, she recently appeared for Black Coffee at SA Fashion Week. But then she's asked about the spread of HIV and free condoms at schools. "Bad idea," she says. "It's encouraging children to have sex ... We need Christian role models to say it's wrong to have sex before marriage."

It wasn't always this way. For decades, intellect and good deeds didn't matter. Outer beauty was what won you the car.

The first official Miss SA was held in the pages of this newspaper in 1956. Die Landstem had won the rights to select a Miss World candidate and they joined forces with the Sunday Times. Photos of entrants appeared and readers voted for their favourite. Hey presto, white South Africa had a new Miss.

"Blue-eyed and blonde! Isn't she a charm?" asks a British male voice with great gusto. In the belly of a different beast, the SABC archive, I have found an African Mirror report on Miss SA 1972. It was the first year that the pageant, owned by the Sunday Times and Rapport, was staged in front of an audience. Young women with high hair line up on a ramp in the Johannesburg City Hall.

"Now the moment the birdwatchers have been waiting for. The parade of pulchritude!" Down the ramp they come in white bathing suits and death-defying wedgies. The insert cuts away to men in the audience taking out their opera glasses to take a closer look.

In 1974, a 19-year-old Pretoria Jool queen snatched the sash and took blonde South Africa global. Anneline Kriel was second at Miss World, but it emerged that the winner, Helen Morgan, had a child, and Annie got the gun.

She would use it to fire off fragrances, music and clothing ranges. It also proved useful in attracting stupendously wealthy husbands. The difference between today's queens and Kriel is that she never took herself too seriously. At 39, she posed for Playboy, naked and draped in a new South African flag.

A Miss SA hadn't bagged a global title since an 18-year-old secretary from Durban, Penny Coelen, won Miss World in 1958.

But by 1978, when Margaret Gardiner claimed Miss Universe, politics had erupted all over pretty.

Since the 1950s, black beauty pageants had also been held: some in the pages of magazines such as Drum, but mostly "body beautiful" contests arranged by sports clubs. In 1970, the SA Amateur Weightlifting and Bodybuilding Federation was invited to send an alternative contestant to Miss World. She was called Miss Africa South, and the very first entry, Pearl Jansen, landed first princess. Miss World has always been known for its "soft politics" in the bestowing of sashes.

For eight years, we saw the bizarre double of two Miss South Africas, one black and one white, in the Miss World line-up. There were many critics of Miss Africa South. Activists felt the title was perpetuating apartheid and demanded there be one winner of a multi-racial pageant.

In 1976, Soweto rippled across the ramp and nine countries withdrew their contestants in protest against apartheid. South Africa was booted from Miss World from 1977 until 1991. In an attempt to fix the damage, the pageant opened its doors to all races in 1978.

Except that it didn't.

"On paper it was open," laughs Doreen Morris. "But the rules said that entrants had to have a driver's licence." There were a limited number of beautiful young black women with driver's licences in South Africa in 1978.

I was interviewing Morris in 1994 because she'd bought Miss SA along with the Sun International hotel group. The ANC Youth League had been campaigning against the newspapers, who sold it. The league has always insisted on helping shape the modern Miss SA, lobbying for it to be representative.

It would take until 1992 for Miss SA to crown a non-white winner, Amy Kleinhans. The man who has produced countless Miss SA and Miss World spectacles for TV, Mark West, has written a book on the pageant with Marcelino Matthews. One of the most fascinating stories in The Beauty of Dreams is about Kleinhans.

"The day after winning at Sun City, she and her mother drove back to Cape Town. They had to sleep in the car. They weren't allowed into any hotels or motels because she was a Coloured girl," tells West.

Yet Kleinhans's skin colour was good enough for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. A few weeks later, she received a call from Pik Botha. Egypt was threatening an anti-apartheid boycott of their air space. SAA would not be allowed to land.

"Amy was dragged off in a presidential plane to go and meet Mubarak and convince him otherwise," says West. "It worked. If you've got a non-white person representing the country then you're not as bad as they thought."

Times have changed, but not all that much. In Sandton, I attend the farewell party at Sun International - now the sole owners of the licence - for the current Miss SA, Bokang Mojane.

Mojane, a popular winner, has been busy building libraries and motivating schools, but is on her way to Miss Universe in Brazil. In between the lusty Latin band and emcee Ed Jordan welcoming everyone to "Jozi" and "Boekang's" party, sits Malema and Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula.

In his speech, Mbalula refers to "the Sun International family" and of "the glory, honour and beauty" of the crown.

I'm curious to ask Malema why he supports beauty pageants, but he won't talk to journalists and is very busy with his phone. It's only the next morning I find out he has been charged with violations of the ANC constitution.

Miss SA judge, journalist, talk-radio host and the only straight man in sight, Kieno Kammies, isn't shy to offer his opinion: "I would guess they see the pageant as a marketing tool for themselves." Kammies speaks the mantra of the youth leader Miss SA. "Youths need people to look up to. Malema prevails because we don't have a culture of critical thinking. He puts stuff out there and the ideas are relevant, but where are the details? We need more voices, and this pageant can shape them."

When I ask Mojane, she says she and Malema are from the same part of the world. And she works with the sports ministry because she wants to help combat teen pregnancy. "In rural areas, there's nothing to do after school in the afternoons. Sport keeps kids busy."

Despite her impeccable answers, spoken slowly while thinking furiously, she's genuine and bright and makes short shrift of winning me over. "You're still up against it as a black Miss SA," she says. "We've done a lot in 17 years, but it's only 17 years. I'm only the seventh black winner."

"What I try to recreate every year, is that euphoria that hit that Superbowl in 1993 when Mofokeng was announced," says West. "But shame, that poor girl had a really, really rough reign."

Mofokeng had to face a barrage of criticism from white South Africa. The tone could be best summed up by a caller to a radio show who told her they didn't mind so much she was black, it's just she was ugly.

"Nowadays the white girls get racist stuff," says West. "Remember how Vanessa Carreira took on the Youth League when they gave her a hard time because a white, colonial, Portuguese girl won?"

In 1994 South Africa became a democracy and Basetsana Kumalo (née Makgalemele) became a face of it. She was Madiba's girl and she went on to set a new standard for the businesswoman model of the former beauty queen. She's launched numerous products, owns small companies and sits on the boards of firms. "She was the quintessential story of a girl from a little village who made it," says West.

"That was a golden era for the event. It was just the most watched thing on television," he recalls. The days when Peabo Bryson would fly in to sing a duet with Yvonne Chaka Chaka. M-Net had taken the show from SABC and used it to splash their live broadcasting platform.

I'm talking to West in a casino restaurant in Sun City, in the middle of a fake jungle and set to the ka-ching of money dropping in and out of slot machines. The complex is being used to shoot the reality show Road to Miss SA for Mzansi Magic as a run-up to the final. With it, Miss SA is hoping to recapture the public imagination and reinvent the pageant, which has been seen as increasingly irrelevant in recent years.

Jansen, the channel's commissioning editor, tells me that the reality show will let viewers get to know the contestants. They will see the transformation they undergo. They will gain life skills by following them through a series of self-improvement workshops and will be riveted by the eliminations. "Plus, what I love, is it gives you an opportunity to look beyond race."

Certainly, the workshops I observe are hugely useful. They range from managing finances to dealing with journalists to personal grooming to working your social media to build a brand. South Africa is the only country that offers this kind of training for its finalists.

It's quite different in Venezuela, which has won more international beauty titles than any other country.

"I believe half the beauty you are born with and the other half is made," says Osmel Sousa, the pop guru who owns the Miss Venezuela pageant. At his beauty boot camps, future contenders train and diet until they drop. They then have their smiles corrected, their boobs enlarged and their other bits perfected. The pageant's plastic surgeon is a national celebrity.

These are the true Amazonians and they're who the young women in this room at Sun City will be competing against at pageants where good deeds really don't count for much. Miss Venezuela won Miss World this year, but at Donald Trump's Miss Universe she was beaten by Miss Angola, Leila Lopes. So there's always hope.

I am a fan of reality TV and I'm ready to love Road to Miss SA. But when I watch it, I am reminded that local budgets simply can't afford enough cameras to make reality work. There are too few off-guard moments and close-ups and nowhere near enough conflict. The corporate owner looms too large in every shot.

The biggest problem with the show, though, is beyond its own control. SABC can't afford pageants and free-to-air isn't interested in pageants. Pay channel Mzansi Magic is committed to making Miss SA work, but the crowning of the face of the nation will be seen by less than half a million of a nation of 50 million.

As for the issue of race, the pageant's old nemesis, the reality show forces a kind of buddy-buddy diversity that we all know doesn't exist.

That's the thing with pageants. They fake it. The idealised national beauty - the Amazonian Graça Machel - is probably one of the worst role models out there. She isn't a whole woman. She's a construct of various elements of femininity, mostly determined by men, that have been stitched together for the camera.