Miss SA finalist Liesl is already a winner in Eldos
In the run-up to the Miss South Africa pageant, we speak to Eldorado Park's new heroine and take a look at some of the childhood pictures of the beauties who hope to be crowned queen at Sun City.
It is two weeks until the new Miss South Africa is crowned, but Eldorado Park already has its very own Cinderella in Liesl Laurie.
The 24-year-old is the first finalist to come from the large Johannesburg township since the pageant's inception in 1956.
And, boy, is she being pampered by proud residents in her neighbourhood.
All the area's schools have posters of her in classrooms, neighbours have been raising funds for a new wardrobe and a local beautician is giving her free treatments until she heads off to Sun City for the big event at the end of the month.
"Being a finalist for this competition means you have to look good almost every day. Unfortunately, I can't afford this lifestyle yet," said Laurie this week.
The BCom graduate put her study plans on hold to focus on modelling, as well as to open a nonprofit organisation, the Pearl Project, which holds motivational talks and workshops for young girls in her township.
Raised by her mother, Karen, and her grandmother Lorraine, Laurie never lost sight of her goal to become a beauty queen.
"From the age of four, I knew she would be a model," said Karen. "In her teen years she watched and read a lot about beauty queens, including Miss World and [Miss] Universe."
She said the family had been inundated with messages of support since Laurie became one of the 12 finalists.
A local church held a special prayer service for her last week and almost everyone who knows her now uses a photograph of Laurie as their WhatsApp profile picture on their phones.
"We are all proud of our Liesl and rally for her to win," said a neighbour, Debbie du Preez.
She and her husband, Brian, began raising funds for Laurie's new wardrobe the minute they heard she was struggling for outfits.
Finalists are not given clothes in the run-up to the finale.
"People know this area as a drug den, but she has shown everyone that something good can come out of here," Du Preez said. "Her work with the young girls is amazing. She is the first girl to represent us nationally at a beauty pageant. We are so proud."
Another resident, Carmen Kern, has volunteered to do Laurie's hair and nails. She will also pamper her with facials until she goes to Sun City.
Laurie said: "I don't regret growing up in Eldos: the community is so kind and friendly. I know people who have not lived there think it is a no-go area because of the crime and drugs ... but the people still have ubuntu and growing up in the area has taught me to be streetwise."
From Panorama in KwaZulu-Natal to Idas Valley in Stellenbosch, this year's Miss South Africa finalists are an eclectic bunch, some of them rough diamonds just waiting to shine.
Taryn Morris of Camps Bay, Cape Town, only became interested in beauty pageants late last year - despite her mother, Sharon, being a Miss South Africa semifinalist in 1985.
The proud mom said: "I think the interest only came when someone told her this could be a platform for her to raise funds for animals. She loves animals and likes to walk our three dogs here at home."
For another finalist, the stunning Refilwe Mthimunye, 22, interacting with powerful and famous people has been a bit overwhelming.
The Bronkhorstspruit beauty said: "Right now, it is like God is giving me a taste of what life will be when I wear the crown."
But the Unisa law student said taking part in some of the formal events in the run-up to the final made her feel as if she was leading a double life.
"One week I'll be living a glamourous life, sleeping in hotels, chauffeured around with bodyguards and being treated as a VIP, but when the workshops are over, it's back to the real life. This starts when I get off the Gautrain, drag my bags to a taxi rank and go home to Bronkhorstspruit," she said.
Then it's off with the flashy high heels and back into the comfortable flat shoes.
But being back with the people she had known for many years had helped keep her feet on the ground, she said.
Organisers said this year's event had gained a lot of public interest thanks to Rolene Strauss winning the Miss World crown.
Miss South Africa Ziphozakhe Zokufa, who assumed the title when Strauss won Miss World in December, will crown this year's winner. Strauss, currently based in London, will be attending the event. Another special guest at the pageant on March 29 will be former Miss World Anneline Kriel.
Miss SA finalists: Then and Now
Reluctant dad is now her biggest fan
Sihle Makhanya grew up playing with boys and loved wearing baggy clothing. That's hard to believe when you meet her today.
The 23-year-old quantity surveyor from Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal says she knows what is expected of her as a beauty queen.
"Even when you're having a bad day, you have to keep smiling and convince yourself you're beautiful - even when you think you're not," she said.
After being named a finalist, she needed her mom's intervention to get her dad, Sthembiso, on side.
He was not happy about her parading in a swimsuit in public, but he is now her strongest supporter.
Makhanya said that while there was a huge age difference between her and her mentor, Wilma van der Bijl, they clicked immediately.
"She is like a mother to me, we speak almost every day. She told me from the beginning that I should develop a business mind and create my own brand."
She said she believed Van der Bijl, who won the title in 1987, wanted to see her do well not only in the competition but in life as well.
Second time lucky for Christmas baby?
Lovely Danelle de Wet was a Christmas baby. The first in her family to be born on December 25, she believes it made her special.
She started entering beauty pageants when she was six and has won many prizes.
She and her mom, Francis, have avidly watched all the Miss South Africa pageants over the years.
Now the 22-year-old marketing student from Kuils River in Cape Town is hoping to wear the crown herself.
She first entered the pageant when she was 19, but she believes she was too young to handle the pressure.
"I'm more mature now and nothing about the competition scares me," she said. She realised all the finalists wanted to win, she said, but no-one was more determined than her.
Danelle had bumped into former Miss SA, Nicole Flint, a number of times and, seeing how humble she was, she wanted to be just like her.
Another of her aims had always been to achieve more and work independently without her parents' financial support.
Her secret's out: she's in the finals
Even as a toddler, Busi Mahlangu was a beauty. But as a youngster, she was discouraged from entering beauty pageants.
However, believing that a beauty competition like Miss South Africa could open a lot of doors for her, she entered this year's contest without even telling her mom.
The 23-year-old student from Mpumalanga only confessed to her mom, Angelina, after she was told she had made the finals.
Mrs Mahlangu admitted that she had been opposed to beauty contests because she wanted to protect her daughter.
"To be quite honest I didn't want her to be exposed to these things. I feared that one day boys would take advantage of her."
But at the end of the month, Mahlangu's parents will be at Sun City cheering her on.
Mahlangu said she was being mentored by a former Miss South Africa, Thuli Sithole.
Her advice had been to work on her confidence and stay true to who she was.
Shortest girl with a reason to stand out
Although she was always a beautiful child, Taryn Morris preferred horse riding and dancing to beauty pageants.
Her mother, Sharon, was a finalist in the 1985 Miss South Africa contest, but she never considered following in Mum's footsteps.
However, she was persuaded by family friends that winning the title would give her a platform to raise money for animal welfare.
Now the 26-year-old fashion company brand and marketing manager is hoping she can come out tops.
She has had to get used to wearing high heels all the time. "If I could, I would wear them to bed just so I'm ready for the crowning night," she joked.
Her whole family will be at Sun City to watch her compete for the crown.
Her father will be flying in from Australia, while her mom and brother will travel from Cape Town.
She said that she was the shortest girl in the contest, which meant she would have to make sure she stood out.
Her message to young girls is to believe in themselves and not to let anyone take advantage of them.
Nicole Lee Lamberts