By Chanel Retief
If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi would have been traveling the world on assignments. The South African relates how her reign has been diffferent, as she works from her current home in New York, continuing to advocate for gender equality. A special read as her home country celebrates Women’s Month.
What have the last few months of being a Miss Universe been like, with the hovering pandemic?
My reign as Miss Universe has been a different one from the usual. Like everyone else, I have also had to social distance and work from home, which is very out of the norm for a Miss Universe.
What has been the best moment of your reign so far?
It was getting to go home for the first time after winning. I had a whole week of ‘welcome back’ celebrations. To see the faces of young girls and women when they looked at me and seeing a possibility that their lives too can change in an incredible way was heart-warming. Before I won, I had said I wanted to win because I want young girls to look at me and see their faces reflected in mine, for them to see that their dreams too are valid. To actually go home finally and see it happening is a blessing I will never forget nor take for granted.
As Miss Universe, what are some of the main aspects of your job?
The biggest part of the job is traveling the world doing different work, from charity work to entertainment and speaking engagements. Every Miss Universe has a different social cause close to her heart. We take the year to address those issues, be it educating or raising awareness.With the travel ban all over the world due to the pandemic, I have not been able to travel. My last trip was to Indonesia in March. Even though I have not been able to travel, I have still done most events virtually. I have used all my social media platforms to continue championing gender equality and issues of race and racism using a hashtag we created #UniverseUnited. With this hashtag, we have been able to open conversations about different social issues, we have been able to educate and entertain each other from every corner of the world.
When you won the crown, there were some negative comments about the win. How have you been able to rise above them?
When you challenge the status quo and go against the grain, people will always have mixed comments and emotions so I cannot say I did not expect some resistance. For me, the most important thing was, and is still today, to fight for inclusion and representation. I want to live in a diverse, inclusive world. When I won, that was a victory and a win for representation and inclusion. That is what helps me rise above the negativity; knowing that there is a bigger picture that matters, and not focusing my time on non-entities that have no contribution to progress in this world.
People, particularly here in South Africa, are still celebrating your victory as Miss Universe especially because you advocate ‘natural beauty’. Why do you think it is important for representation of people of color in media and business?
It has been said many times before that we can’t be what we can’t see. For me, this is one example of many on why representation is important. If the media continues presenting horrible stereotypes of black people or people of color, there is no progress happening. We need more positive messages and images of black people out there, for young people to see a possibility of what they can become. Seeing a black, natural-haired Miss Universe as a young black girl growing up in a rural area is enough to spark a fire inside someone to want to strive for more and be more. To see a black president is enough to steer a young black man to the direction of his incredible dream to influence and change the world in a beautiful way. To see a woman leading a nation or company is enough for women to recognize the power that they have within them, it is enough for them to not be scared to step into their power and take up space.
Given everything happening in the world where society is highlighting racial and gender inequalities across organizations, platforms and sectors, what would you as Miss Universe like to see changed before your reign is over?
Conversations have been heard. I would now love to see more action and implementation. Companies and platforms have tweeted, and they have said amazing things about progress when it comes to systemic racism, now, I would like to see more of them actually doing something. Most of the world is functioning on systemic racism, I would like to see in the future [beyond my reign], the dismantling of these problematic systems from the ground-up.
What do you say to people who regard pageants like Miss Universe as ‘anti-feminist’?
We are all entitled to have different views and opinions about things. Miss Universe started as a swimsuit competition, which some may regard as objectifying women, so it’s not far off or shocking that some people feel this way. However, just like everything else, the pageant has evolved and is continuing to evolve every day. I have seen women come on this platform and champion a variety of social issues. I have seen them being empowered and empowering other women. As a Miss Universe, I have been able to amplify my message of gender equality and gender-based violence through incredible partnerships and relationships. I have been able to challenge and open conversations about beauty stereotypes that have been pushed on to women for many years. For me, it has always been about what I can do with this platform to influence positive change, not only in my community, but throughout the world.
Female empowerment is something you champion; can you tell us why this is so important to you? And also draw on how you would like to continue to empower women even beyond your reign as Miss Universe.
I believe in the empowerment of every different kind of woman, regardless of gender or race. It is important because we need to get to a place where every gender is equal, one where we are not bound by patriarchy and inequality. Not only is it killing our future, but it is killing countries and economies. Women are just as capable as anyone else to get the job done, so let them do the job. It’s also not asking for special treatment — just equality.
Miss Universe is about sisterhood. Have your predecessors given you any advice during your reign and who has given the best advice (and what was the advice)?
Yes, absolutely. The former winners have given advice whenever I speak to them. I think the one common advice they have given me is to focus on things that matter and what I want to achieve during my time as Miss Universe and to cancel out all the noise. Pageant fans can be brutal and toxic so it’s important to know why you are there and not lose focus.
You currently live in New York City, how has it been? What do you miss most about South Africa?
It’s quite unfortunate I have not been able to experience New York extensively due to the pandemic, but the little that I have experienced has been great. What I miss the most about South Africa is my family, the diversity of my people and the food.
Looking at your recent partnership with 1st for women, what attracted you to the brand?
It is the belief that 1st for women has in women; the belief in our resolve and power, and that we have space in this world to thrive just like everyone else. I also share these beliefs, and so that is why this is the perfect partnership.
Finally, what next after Miss Universe?
Most of my plans I cannot disclose yet. What I can say though is that I will always champion gender equality and women’s rights even beyond my years as Miss Universe.