Miss South Africa: From union to democracy

Nechama Brodie looks at the legacy of South Africa’s beauty queens

Historically, the spectacle of a pageant was used as a means of expressing national, religious or communal identity.

The occasion may have ranged from fertility rites and harvest festivals to military victory parades. Beauty pageants were a natural extension of this, alone or as part of a larger celebration, allowing communities to affirm their standards and values in the physical form of the pageant winner. A forerunner of modern democracy, a beauty pageant represented the chance for any entrant, commoner or noble, to become queen for a day.

There were, of course, less charitable interpretations of these social events, such as the search for a beautiful mate.

One of the oldest recorded “beauty pageants” must be that of Jewish heroine Esther who, chosen as the new queen for the king of Persia from a stream of other hopefuls, used her beauty and feminine wiles to prevent the mass execution of the resident Jewish population. The event is now celebrated as the Jewish festival of Purim.

The modern beauty pageant, as we know it, began to emerge in the late 19th century. The principle remained the same: a pageant winner was expected to embody the ideals of her society. At the turn of the century this meant a woman who would go on to be a good wife and mother and who scorned the use of make-up. By the Nineties, beauty queens were expected to be goal-oriented, usually with a degree or a career, and a superhuman interest in charitable or social causes.

South African beauty pageants have undergone similar transformations since their introduction nearly a century ago.

As a result of the grand apartheid-induced colour farce, there were often several women who could lay claim to the title of national beauty at any given time: there was Miss South Africa (white); Miss Africa South (black); yet another Miss South Africa (black; sponsored by the South African Non-White Cultural Syndicate); Miss RSA (between 1975 and 1984, sponsored by Rapport) and even Miss Universe South Africa (1995 to 1997, before the franchise was reawarded to Miss South Africa).

South Africa’s earliest reported pageant took place in 1910 when four women met in Cape Town to compete for the dubious title of Miss Union. The ladies had each been selected by a prominent “gentleman” from their respective provinces.

Throughout the “teens” and into the Twenties national beauty contests persisted, sponsored by magazine titles like Stage & Cinema, with grand prizes of brief movie contracts and a chance to meet the stars. A Miss South Africa contest held in 1926, organised by SA Lady’s Pictorial, managed to crown a winner, but was banned by the Cape Town city council the following year for being undignified and unbecoming.

Numerous competitions followed in the Thirties and Forties, with pageant fever only being halted by the events of World War II. The contests resumed in full force in 1948, with two different pageants offering women the chance to become “Miss South Africa”.

The first offered a first prize that included a trip to Hollywood, New York, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Canada, and a 1,5 carat diamond ring. The winner, crowned by then prime minister Jan Smuts, was Bloemfontein resident Avelyn Macaskill.

The second competition, with a different sponsor, offered a six-month film contract and the possibility of being photographed with the stars in Hollywood.

Black women were not eligible for these contests and were restricted to beauty competitions organised by publications like Drum magazine. Later, competitions like Miss Black South Africa, Miss Africa South and local beauty pageants like Miss Soweto made compromised provision for South Africa’s “non-whites”, with the winners of Miss Africa South going on to represent South Africa at the Miss World pageant alongside the white Miss South Africa winner! The ban against black entrants was lifted by 1978, but the issue was only partially resolved in the early Nineties.

The introduction of the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants in the 1950s brought some consistency to the (white) beauty pageants, with only one official winner being crowned.

In 1952, Catherine Higgins was the first woman to represent South Africa at the Miss Universe pageant, where she got as far as the semi-finals. South Africa’s most successful pageant entrant during the Fifties was undoubtedly Penny Coelen, who won the Miss World title in 1958.

In the Seventies, South Africa’s racial duplicity often left organisers with some astonishing results: at the 1970 Miss World contest, Miss Africa South (Pearl Jansen) came second, while Miss South Africa (Jillian Jessup) placed fifth. The event was protested against by Britain’s Liberal Party, who claimed that the two entrants propagated the policies of apartheid. In that same year, in Johannesburg, schoolteacher Kazeka Ntantala was also voted Miss South Africa, but her overseas tours were cancelled due to lack of funds.

By 1976, nine contestants chose to withdraw from the Miss World pageant, in protest against South Africa’s presence. These were the titleholders from India, Mauritius, Liberia, Malaysia, Phillippines, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Swaziland and Yugoslavia. The following year, five countries withdrew again. Notwithstanding their reported aversion to politics, contest organisers Eric and Julia Morley decided to ban South Africa from the pageant.

Despite the problems with Miss World, Afrikaans newspaper Rapport secured the rights to send a representative to Miss Universe in 1975, resulting in the launch of a separate national beauty contest titled “Miss RSA”.

Margaret Gardiner, who won Miss RSA in 1978, went on to win the Miss Universe pageant that year; while her crown was noticeably more ridiculous than that of Miss World, it was considered a boost for national pride. The Rapport pageant changed its name to Miss SA in 1982, reasoning that it was the only contest to hold the franchise to an international contest. The decision resulted in there being two Miss South Africas in 1982 and 1984, although South Africans were banned from entering Miss Universe after 1984. The two pageants eventually joined forces in 1985.

South Africa was readmitted to the Miss World pageant in 1991 and Miss Universe in 1995. The contest for the latter was held separately from Miss South Africa until 1998 and was known as Miss Universe South Africa.

This year’s Miss South Africa pageant, titled “Beauty Under African Skies”, celebrates the diversity of all of its entrants: 16 girls chosen from around the country, from Sandton to Stellenbosch, Welkom to Westonaria will compete for a lucrative crown as well as the chance to enter both the Miss Universe and the Miss World pageants in the future. Despite rumours of apathetic audiences, the ceremony is expected to draw in excess of six-million viewers when it airs on e.tv on December 9. And while the dream of being a beauty queen is a subject of derision for some, with prizes of more than R1-million on offer, the odds are definitely better than the Lotto.

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