Photo by Veli Nhlapo
These are a few of the iconic women in the South African film, media, and entertainment industry who started off their careers as pageant queens. For years pageantry has been to South Africans what reality TV has been to Americans in terms of cultural impact and popularity. Whether an incubator that turns ordinary women into juggernauts or an avenue that gives extraordinary women a platform they are deserving of, its impact in SA can be traced back to the 1970s.
While social media has emerged as the new platform for launching “It girls”, pageants are scrutinised for their relevance and adaptability to contemporary standards of inclusivity and progress. Notably, Miss South Africa loosened its criteria to embrace all women including trans-women, those who have been married before, and mothers.
On Saturday evening, 19 young hopefuls will be strutting their stuff at the Soweto Theatre, vying for the Miss Soweto crown, now in its 44th year. The pageant’s first home was at the iconic Eyethu Cinema in Mofolo which has recently been transformed into a shopping centre.
We cannot ignore the deep-rooted heritage and impact of the industry on our country. Collin Sithole has been the CEO of Miss Soweto since 2013, having taken over the reins from his father who founded the pageant in 1979.
“Soweto was coming out of the 1979 apartheid uprising and my father felt that women were not taken seriously or recognised so he wanted a platform that would acknowledge women while keeping the flag flying high in Soweto. He wanted women to have an avenue to become all that they wanted to be in business or in the world. For them to have the tools to become prominent women in society,” says Sithole. Today’s former Miss Sowetos are media moguls, activists, actresses on international screens and all-round entrepreneurs.
“Miss South Africa, at the time was only open to white people so our version was Miss Black South Africa which was won by the likes of Cynthia Shange,” the first Black woman to represent SA at the Miss World pageant.
“After democracy when Miss South Africa was open to everyone, Miss Soweto became the starting point for the national pageant. Our finalists would be inaugurated into the top 10 of Miss South Africa,” Sithole says, looking back at a time when a requirement to enter Miss South Africa was to have entered and placed at a provincial or local pageant. This was the case with Basetsana Khumalo who had won Miss Soweto in 1990, Miss Black South Africa and Miss South Africa in 1994, becoming the first Black queen of a newly democratic South Africa.
Miss South Africa 2015 Liesl Laurie is also a former Miss Soweto first princess.
Sithole emphasises that the pageant is more than just glamour and beauty. “We want to show young ladies that come into Miss Soweto that even if they don’t win they must learn from the journey because we give them the skills to enter Miss South Africa.”
With one of the requirements for the pageant being to either be from Soweto or have some lineage when looking for a winner, the pageant looks for women who can empower themselves and the community of Soweto.
“Miss Soweto doesn’t just empower contestants who end up learning how to handle their own business and be brand ambassadors of big companies, it empowers the fashion industry, designers, artists and every single creative sphere.”