Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Zozibini Tunzi Is Rewriting The Pageantry Rulebook, and She Wants You To Join In!

Introducing our May 2020 cover star – Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi.


Allow me to take you back to February 2020. It’s Zozi’s homecoming. Up until six months prior, no-one had even heard of her. The Gautrain is offering free rides to the airport to meet her.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is personally inviting her to attend the State of The Nation Address as his guest. And, Nelson Mandela’s grandson is opening the doors to Tata Madiba’s’ historic home, where she is invited to sit in his grandfather’s favourite armchair. ‘I’m never washing this dress,’ she excitedly captions her Insta post. I wouldn’t wash the dress either.

This is a big deal, people. It is one of the many things I love about this country – and its people. The immense pride and inclusive support we show for those who fly our flag high is remarkable. And, as the current reigning Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi is only just getting started.

Somewhere in the middle of her whirlwind homecoming tour, we find ourselves in the rooftop suite of Jo’burg’s current ‘it’ hotel, Hallmark House. ICYDK, all the cool kids are hanging here these days (Laduma Ngxokolo, we see you).

Zozi arrives wearing a maxi dress in an African print. Seven enormous bodyguards surround her, including a New York Police Department officer named Dennis. IRL, she is small-framed, yet tall and statuesque. ‘Just the right amount of “laidback” for a Miss Universe,’ says COSMO’s fashion director Cleo Marcopoulos.

She is graceful, yet down to earth. She is the girl next door, but not. She is professional, yet relaxed and approachable.

She has kind-hearted energy – the kinda friendly and accessible energy you get from someone you’ve known your entire life.

She is feeling exhausted (although you’d never know) – the day before, she was at a street parade in her Eastern Cape hometown of Tsolo, and her body is running on no sleep (New York, where Zozi is currently living out her year-long reign, is six hours behind us). We get her a strong coffee and two muffins (one blueberry and one bran because we’re not sure which one she’ll prefer). Zozi eats both. 

Zozibini Tunzi Is Rewriting The Pageantry Rulebook, and She Wants You To Join In!
Zozibini Tunzi Is Rewriting The Pageantry Rulebook, and She Wants You To Join In!
We stan her even more – a girl after our own carb-loving hearts.

Rewind to two weeks before the shoot when I had her on the phone for our interview, a peaceful conversation before the homecoming frenzy hits – Zozi in her Big Apple apartment, me in my office with a big ‘do not disturb sign’ hanging on the door. ‘I love Nandos,’ she says to me. ‘The first thing I plan to eat when I come home is Nandos because they don’t have it here in New York. I want to have vetkoek so badly. And samp, too. But it’s the middle of summer and people don’t eat samp in summer.’

We go back to where it all began. Zozi was a shy, seven-year-old girl and her mom was concerned. ‘I didn’t have a lot of friends and I didn’t play sport either, so I didn’t socialise much, which worried my mom a lot,’ she says. I tell her I find this rather hard to believe. This is not the same Zozi I watched tell gazillions of viewers across the world in the Miss Universe final that women are the most powerful beings on the planet and we should teach young girls to take up space.

Stay home, self-isolate and self-care with your new COSMO! Download the digital issue on Magzter here.


Whether you’re here for beauty pageants or not (and yes, there’s a giant question mark around them, but we won’t go there just yet), overcoming shyness is something Zozi credits pageantry with. Her mom entered her in a local church pageant with the hope she’d meet people and make friends. ‘When you enter a pageant, they put you on the spot and they ask you a lot of questions,’ she says. ‘I felt self-confident and I became more curious about the world. I pushed myself to share my opinions, to speak about the things that I read.’

If you, like me, have never entered a pageant nor intend to, don’t worry – Zozi has self-confidence tips for you. ‘I always tell people that everyone’s human; it doesn’t matter who you are,’ she says. ‘You can be the president or you can be Beyoncé. We are all human, so speak to people as normal humans and don’t get intimidated by their titles. That’s the first step to overcoming your shyness.’
Zozibini Tunzi Is Rewriting The Pageantry Rulebook, and She Wants You To Join In!

Back in 2017, Zozi entered Miss South Africa but didn’t make the top 12. Something made her enter again. Something made her give the middle finger to defeat. I want to know why.

‘The truth about life is that you will hear “no” more than you will ever hear “yes”,’ she says. ‘People will shut their doors on you all the time, more than they will open them. I grew up with this mentality and my parents taught me that the world doesn’t owe you anything. They taught me to work hard for everything I want to accomplish. That is why failure, for me, is just a stepping stone to the next level – if they say “no” here, then try somewhere else.’ It was this unrelenting, defiant self-belief that made Zozi enter again in 2019. That, and her trust in timing (the universe has a plan for us, right?). ‘There’s something about timing that needs to be learnt. It was someone else’s time in 2017 – it was Demi’s time, because she went on to become Miss Universe.’

2017 had other plans for Zozi. It was the year she went back to varsity after being financially excluded for not being able to afford the hike in fees circa #FeesMustFall. Hard work rewarded her with a bursary, and competing in Miss South Africa enabled her to leverage more funds to graduate with a degree in public relations at the end of 2018. Working hard to build wealth for herself and her family is important for Zozi. I ask what she intends to do with the R1 million prize money and she tells me, ‘This is an opportunity that we never really had as a family – to focus on building generational wealth so the next generation won’t have to work as hard.’

She recalls the moment when she and Chuma (one of the Miss South Africa contestants) landed at the airport in Jo’burg. They were greeted by a large group of people who were there to show their support. ‘At that time, I realised the importance of the platform that we were given,’ she says. ‘For the first time, people who lived in slums, who were affected by violence and poverty, realised that something good could come out of where they came from. In that moment, we knew we were a part of something special.’

Stay home, self-isolate and self-care with your new COSMO! Download the digital issue on Magzter here.


We chat about the importance of representation. Zozi feels pageantry has evolved to be more inclusive of all women. Sibabalwe Gcilitshana, for example, was the first openly queer contestant in 2019. She had dreadlocks, too. ‘They are on the right path,’ Zozi tells me. She was advised to wear a wig or a weave while competing in Miss South Africa. ‘I chose my natural hair. I wasn’t going to change it before entering a pageant. If I changed it, it would mean that my own hair was not worthy of being called beautiful.’ Zozi is the first-ever black woman to win Miss Universe who chose to wear her natural hair – a huge step for representation around the world. ‘I don’t think people understand the magnitude of that – of a young [brown] girl looking at herself in the mirror and realising that she, too, is beautiful.’

I want to talk about that time when Zozi met Trevor Noah for her Daily Show interview. It was one of those moments where you can’t help but let patriotism swell. You have two people, who, against all odds, share a spotlight in the global arena for being nothing short of brilliant. Trevor brought up the racism Zozi received after being crowned. She tells me it was a mixture of colourism and racism that ensued.

People questioned whether she was good enough to represent the country on a global platform. ‘They said a lot of things: “Why would they send a boy to go represent us?” and “OMG, so this year it’s a black Miss South Africa.” People would comment with banana emojis on the Miss SA social-media platforms.’ One particular attack made Zozi speak up. She’d recently got back to her apartment – it was dark outside, but the lights were on inside. She took a photo of herself sitting on a chair by the window and holding her crown with Jo’burg’s city skyline as the backdrop. ‘This guy said something like, “This picture is so black. Black like you and black South Africa.”’ Any one of us would expect an ugly (and fully justified) race row to ensue. But no, Zozi didn’t react. She responded with the type of ‘rise above it’ superiority and wisdom that puts us all to shame. ‘I wasn’t mad, because this is how society has programmed people for a long time – seeing beauty as one thing,’ she says. ‘I decided to speak about the need for people to see more black women doing things. They need to see that black is beautiful, and the minute media starts putting [that message] out there, people will start to learn about racism. Conflicts occur when people don’t want to understand each other or learn about each other. We need to unlearn racism, because it is taught. We are not born with it.’

Secretly, I want Zozi to spill the tea and tell me that her and Trevor are a thing. I mean, I completely made that up, but wouldn’t they make the best power couple, like, ever? I ask what he’s like IRL and she tells me, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s smart and very gentle. When he interviewed me, it felt so natural and calm, like I was speaking to a friend.’ I push a little, angling for the answer I’ve already manufactured in my head. ‘Did you exchange numbers? Are you friends now?’ I should have known better. Zozi is the queen of diplomacy. ‘He is now one of the South Africans I know in New York, so we’ve definitely had conversations.’

At this point of the conversation, I feel comfortable enough to start asking a few more risky Qs. Here at COSMO, we’re well aware of Cassper Nyovest’s giant crush on Zozi – yes, you’ve got to that part of the story. But is there any smoke? I ask Zozi if she would say yes if he asked her on a date. ‘I don’t think he would ask,’ she says. ‘I think he’s just being supportive, but I would definitely tell him that I am in a relationship with the universe right now.’ Right, she closed the door on that one then. Sorry, Cassper. So what is it, then, that Zozi looks for in a man? ‘He has to be smart, because I want to have meaningful conversations with him. He has to be talented and kind. Humility is a big part of me. Growing up in a village – it’s just something I look for in people, you know what I mean? To just be humble and intelligent and kind. He has to be easy on the eye, too!’ Hmm, does anyone think this sounds a lot like Trevor? I’ll just leave that there for you to mull over.

Stay home, self-isolate and self-care with your new COSMO! Download the digital issue on Magzter here.


Truth be told, Zozi is too busy taking up space. She doesn’t need a man, but she wants an army of women to join her. I want to unpack what this means exactly – to ‘take up space’. ‘Whatever building you walk into, whatever boardroom meeting you go to, whatever space you have to define yourself in, do yourself a favour and do not shrink in that space – take up as much of that space as you can without feeling shy or embarrassed or guilty about it,’ she says. Imposter syndrome, aka feeling like you don’t deserve what you have, haunts many women. That feeling of not being capable is legit a thing I can guarantee you every single COSMO team member has experienced in her life. Zozi also felt it when she was told there was no way she could win Miss Universe, because no-one who looked like her had ever won before. Esther, Zozi’s agent, intercepts our call with her purring American drawl. ‘Okay, time’s up Haallly, we gotta get Zozi onto her next appointment.’

And so, if you take one thing away from this story, let it be to never allow yourself to feel that you are not good enough. And, in Zozi’s words, ‘Own your power. Be ambitious. Show people in the room that you are capable. Lift up your hand and shout as much as you can.’

Stay home, self-isolate and self-care with your new COSMO! Download the digital issue on Magzter here.


By Holly Meadows
Photography: Cedric Nzaka
Art direction: Shirley Padi
Fashion direction: Cleo Marcopoulos

Source: www.cosmopolitan.co.za

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