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Pearl Jansen, the forgotten beauty queen

It's taken the film Missbehaviour for the factory worker who had massive – but short-lived – pageant success to get the recognition she deserves, five decades after her Miss World achievements
Thu, Apr 15, 2021

Pearl Jansen is Miss South Africa 1970. PHOTO: Gallo Images/ Media24 archives

We are a country that loves a good beauty pageant. It has been the launching pad for countless TV personalities, business owners, actors, models and more. The last three winners (before the current Miss SA, Shudufhadzo Musida) went on to win two Miss Universe titles as well as a Miss Universe first princess.

Pageants have been so crucial to the fabric of South African pop culture that Miss South Africa has manufactured more stars than Idols. It is almost strange to think that 51 years ago, a black South African was first princess (beating her white South African competitor) and yet she is rarely remembered and most don't even know her name. Especially since the white international titleholders such as Penelope Coelen, Anneline Kriel and Margaret Gardiner's names are in every 30 Seconds set.

From Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats, Pearl Jansen was a factory worker when she won the Miss Africa South pageant. Miss Africa South (later renamed Miss Black South Africa in 1977) was a sort of consolation prize, with allowed black women to compete in a pageant while they were not permitted to enter the all-white Miss South Africa.

In 1970, under pressure from anti-apartheid groups, the Miss World committee agreed to allow two contestants from South Africa – a white one and a black one.

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South Africa sent Miss South Africa, Jillian Jessup and the Miss Africa South winner, Pearl Jansen to the competition in London, England. The 1970 Miss World has almost become notorious in history – it was protested by the Women's Liberation Movement and anti-apartheid activists; it was also the first year that a black woman won Miss World (Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten).

Miss World 1970, Jennifer Hosten, with first runnerup Pearl Jansen to her right. PHOTO: Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Pearl Jansen came in second, while Jillian Jessup came in fifth. It was a monumental occasion, which should have resulted in success and recognition for Jansen, but that did not happen.

A black South African woman being celebrated worldwide was too much for the apartheid government, especially because she did better than her white counterpart.

In an interview with the British talk show host Lorraine, after the release of the film Misbehaviour about the 1970 pageant, Jansen said: "Where I'm concerned it was of no help at all... My life didn't change, not at all. Because I'm from the apartheid era, you must understand, so there was absolutely no opportunity for us... So when I came back to South Africa, it just died. It was just dormant."

Looking back, it is not difficult to understand – we've seen talent and achievement by black South Africans squashed and pushed aside for decades. What's even more difficult to understand is that Pearl Jansen still has not been given her dues. In the interview with the Financial Times, she said: "I was a good ambassador for South Africa, but nobody gave me recognition in this country back then or since."

In 2018, Miss South Africa celebrated 60 years of the pageant and welcomed back all the former winners, but they did not include the Miss Africa South and Miss Black South Africa winners.

The parade of winners included countless white winners until Amy Kleinhans, who won the title in 1992. Suzette van der Merwe, the former Miss South Africa who spoke on behalf of the pageant told TimesLIVE at the time: "Those pageants were owned by other organisations... We cannot celebrate the success of other pageants during that time, as it was not our success."

What the organisation failed to see was that even though they were able to display the fact that the pageant has changed since apartheid had ended, what they needed to show was reparations. They should have given space to the women who were sidelined, ignored and who had to compete as Miss Africa South and Miss Black South Africa.

"Pearl Jansen came second at Miss World, representing South Africa. For her not to even be mentioned is absolutely scandalous," said Evelyn Williams, the 1974 Miss Africa South contestant at Miss World to SowetanLIVE.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (centre) as Jennifer Hosten, and Loreece Harrison (far right) as Pearl Jensen in Missbehaviour

It took the release of the 2020 film Misbehaviour for Pearl Jansen to get the recognition she deserved. Misbehaviour tells the story of the 1970 Miss World pageant and stars British actress Loreece Harrison as Pearl.

♛Buuuu♛ — Loreece Harrison in Misbehaviour (2020) dir....

Although Pearl is a supporting character in the film, she appears in the end credits and walked the red carpet and did press for the film. Perhaps the time has come that we give Pearl and all the other Miss Africa South and Miss Black South Africa the same recognition that we give to women who wore the crown during apartheid.