Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi Isn’t Letting a Pandemic Slow Her Down

When South Africa's Zozibini Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe on December 8th, 2019, she was done so with the expectation and excitement to soon spread inspiration, goodwill, and advocacy to numerous communities around the world. 

That comes with the crown, but, with a worldwide pandemic, sheltering in place, and widespread civil unrest, 2020 had other plans for the pageant winner.

“Everyone, including me, came into 2020 and said, ‘this is my year!’ the 26-year-old tells Shondaland. “I always joked that I knew my reign would be different and unique. I never saw this coming at all! Still, I am a very flexible person; someone who is able to adapt to change.”

Which is all to say that, when COVID-19 hit, Tunzi acknowledges “stumbling” a bit while also recognizing that “this is nothing that anyone ever wants to ever go through. But I am able to adjust pretty well to it and I think I am doing okay.”

Via the internet, Tunzi has managed to stay engaged and active in her role as Miss Universe.

Using my voice, being honest 100 percent of the time — I am hoping that has inspired people to be a better version of themselves.

“We are so fortunate to be living in a digital age now. I feel it would have been a huge challenge and a big problem if this happened in the 1990s. I am still able to speak to people in the comfort of my own home. Ideally, I would love to be out there doing the work physically, but unfortunately, that can’t happen right now. But I have actually probably reached many more people than I would have in person, because now the message spreads much faster.”

As a way to help spread that message, The Miss Universe organization started the platform #UniverseUnited, creating a virtual community where people and fans of the pageant world can connect. The campaign creates a positive space for anyone wanting to share how they feel during this time of uncertainty.
Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi Isn’t Letting a Pandemic Slow Her Down

“We found that many individuals were feeling really lonely,” Tunzi says about the isolation many have felt over the last three months. “Others were not fortunate enough to have people around them during this time. And so, we wanted people to feel involved, like they are not alone.”

In addition to providing a virtual space of wellness, it’s also become somewhat of a classroom for Tunzi and the other conferenced-in participants. “We started having live Instagram and Zoom interviews with so many people from different industries who would just come in and speak about what is happening in the world,” Tunzi says. “We had women from the United Nations. I have spoken to writers, journalists, executives in the corporate space, etc. who have given life to the situation that is happening. It’s not only been an inspirational, fun platform, but also an educational one as well. And we use these opportunities to raise money so that we could take a portion and send it to the World Health Organization.”

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Battling misconceptions about beauty pageants

Despite being able to point to any number of the ways Tunzi and her fellow pageant contestants commit themselves to doing good in the world, Tunzi admits that there is still an unfair amount of judgment placed on the pageant world and the women who compete in them. While many people perceive the pageants as antiquated and anti-feminist, Tunzi sees them as a vehicle for female leadership.

“The pageant world is one of the few platforms that give women a voice to be able to speak about world issues, to be able to grow as human beings and give help where they can,” she says. “For a lot of women, there are very few chances for that kind of opportunity.”

Further, Tunzi advocates for pageants as spaces where women are free to explore all the facets that make up the beautiful complexities of womanhood.

“Society has always had a tendency of thinking women can be just one thing, of boxing women in. But it’s not just true — I have met a lot of great, accomplished women while competing, with different stories and backgrounds, wanting to change their lives. And in the process, using their platforms to advocate for different social issues. That is fantastic to see.”
And while pageants are still tethered to physical representation, Tunzi doesn’t see that as a bad thing. On the contrary, as both the first Black woman from South Africa to win the Miss Universe crown and the first contestant ever to win the title wearing her natural hair, Tunzi — who also joined Toni-Ann Singh as Miss World, Kaliegh Garris as Miss Teen USA, Cheslie Kryst as Miss USA, and Nia Franklin as Miss America make history as the first Black women to hold every crown for the world's top beauty pageants — values pageants’ ability to illustrate shifts away from traditional beauty standards. “People’s ideas of beauty have evolved over the past 50 years and that is now being reflected within the pageant world,” she says. “In the past, Black people weren’t even allowed to participate in some pageants. Now here I am, with my natural Black hair. Change is here!”

Inspiration in an unsettled world

Being a force for good has meant a lot to Tunzi, whose authentic, poignant words about representation, inclusion, and female leadership won her the prestigious title. Her greatest hope going forward: to inspire her communities.

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Since the pandemic crisis started, Tunzi has been working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Women South Africa. She also ongoingly speaks out about gender equality, one of her major platforms both during and outside of Miss Universe. “I use my platform a lot to speak about gender equality and post often about that on my social media as well,” Tunzi says. “That is the one initiative that I have been able to stand true with, even during this time. I stand by this initiative always. I have been working on the #HeForShe initiative, which calls on both genders to stand together in the fight for gender equality.”

Indeed, it’s that spirit of bridging divides, coupled with an unflinching dedication to her causes, that has kept Tunzi motivated during uncertain times.

“Using my voice, being honest 100 percent of the time — I am hoping that has inspired people to be a better version of themselves,” Tunzi says. “To start believing in their dreams and know that anything is achievable and is possible if we work hard towards it. I want them to stand for and fight for something.”

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Never has such a message been more necessary than now, during not just the pandemic, but also the new spate of racial violence and subsequent protests that are sweeping the US. Tunzi says she feels particularly called to speak up on racial inequality because, as a native South African, it’s something she’s all too familiar with.

“It’s very unfortunate; this is something that South Africa has lived through,” she says. “Especially during the apartheid era, we saw many protests, a lot of Black people dying in this fight for equality, against racism. It reminds me of that time, when Black people are still protesting for the same things their ancestors were protesting for.”

She continues: “One person may argue that Black people in America are a minority and maybe that’s why they go through this. But that’s not true, because South Africans have been through it and, even as a majority in our country, we are still fighting our own systemic racism and oppression even today. Even after we got our freedom and democracy and our first Black president, we still have things we face as a Black community and people of color.”

Ultimately, no matter what is happening in the world, Tunzi realizes that she owes positivity and hopefulness to her platform as the reigning Miss Universe — thus, that’s what she leads with.

“It’s the people that can heal the world,” she says. “I don’t think the world can heal itself. If we are saying that, then it means we are just going to sit back and hope that love can fix everything. We need to be realistic in believing that it’s people who need to change the rules. and I think a way in which it can change is to have the youth speaking about it. They are the ones who, essentially, are going to be the leaders of the future. If we as young people start educating ourselves amongst each other, then we might have a fighting chance.”

Susan L. Hornik is a veteran entertainment and lifestyle journalist, with bylines in Men’s Health, LA Weekly, LA Times, and The Washington Times. While she lives in Los Angeles, her heart and soul will always remain in her hometown, New York.
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