Zozi Tunzi talks life lessons post Miss Universe: 'It wasn't tokenism, I deserved to win'
The beauty queen reflects on her historic reign, which has been filled with excitement and disappointment
In 1978, Margaret Gardiner made history by becoming the first South African to win the Miss Universe title. She was 18 years old. In 2019, Zozibini Tunzi became the third woman from SA to clinch the title, and this year she set the record as the longest-reigning Miss Universe of all time. As Tunzi prepares to crown her successor at the 69th Miss Universe pageant on May 16, she chats to Gardiner about her historic reign, which has been full of excitement and disappointment.
“I didn't want to disappoint SA,” says Tunzi. “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 runner-up [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 words I said on [the Miss Universe] stage, the message of a girl raised in a small village in SA.”
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.”
WATCH | A conversation between two historic Miss Universes from SA, Margaret Gardiner and Zozibini Tunzi
WATCH | PART 2: A conversation between two historic Miss Universes from SA, Margaret Gardiner and Zozibini Tunzi
WATCH | PART 3: A conversation between two historic Miss Universes from SA, Margaret Gardiner and Zozibini Tunzi
What else was mind-blowing for Tunzi was that in 2019 Miss USA and Miss Teen USA were also women of colour, as were Miss America and Miss World.
For the woman whose earliest memories are of sitting on her granny’s lap as she was read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, this sweep of pageant title-holders heralded a change in perceptions of beauty.
“It wasn’t tokenism,” she explains. “You could see a change. You don’t have to have just one woman of colour at the table, you can have more of them doing these special things. I loved that.”
It meant even more to her because of the disparaging commentary when she won.
“The hardest part of being in the public eye is that you are open to scrutiny. Everyone has something to say about you whether it’s beautiful or painful,” she says.
“I’ve experienced some form of racism from the moment I won. People made it quite clear that they didn’t want me [as Miss Universe because of] my skin and where I am from,” she adds.
However, her natural optimism and strength allowed her to concentrate on the overwhelming majority, who expressed their love and support for her.
“Its incredible to me that people can show you so much love and they are not even your family. People are welcoming me into their hearts — I think that’s the most beautiful form of love. I was so happy to experience it and continue to experience it.”
Tunzi's reign has been filled with excitement and disappointment.
She was in Indonesia when she heard the world was shutting down due to Covid-19. By the time she arrived back in New York — where she had moved after winning the pageant — 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?”
Ordinarily the winner spends her year jetting around the globe, but Tunzi had effectively been grounded. “I didn’t handle it well at first,” she admits.
She quickly adjusted. The Miss Universe team created the #UniverseUnited platform, which allowed her to spread her message to an international audience, to bring people together, albeit virtually, and to help them weather the pandemic.
“I'd host people on Instagram Live — psychologists, activists and women from the UN,” she explains.
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 is not just a fleeting thing; it's our lives as people of colour,” Tunzi says. “There was so much anxiety, stress and frustration for all of this to be happening during a pandemic and lockdown made it worse, but people stood up and used their voices. Not just black people or people of colour but everyone.”
She was heartened to see this display of unity in the face of a “humanity crisis”.
Tunzi made history as the longest-reigning Miss Universe of all time after the 2020 pageant was postponed due to the pandemic.
One of the highlights of her reign was returning to SA shortly after winning the title, where thousands of people came out in the rain to see their queen come home.
She plans to settle in Mzansi after crowning her successor and is 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, but at certain times I’ve felt like there is no Rainbow Nation because people fight with each other and sometimes things don’t go right. I wish we could do better.
“I hope we can become a country full of acceptance and tolerance because we are a beautiful nation with some of the kindest people in the world.”
Tunzi attributes her confidence to her educator parents.
“I wanted the Miss Universe title because of the instant platform it provides; there are not many platforms for black women to reach an audience.
“I also understood that I deserved it as much as anyone else. I tell people, nothing is far-fetched, nothing is meant for certain people only. No, it's meant for all of us.
“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 2020 Miss Universe pageant will take place at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on May 16 (2am to 5am on May 17, SA time). It'll be broadcast on 1 Magic (DStv channel 103).