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High heels and crutches

”Give him the look! Flirt with the cameraman … he’s a hunk, show him you want him!”

Phumzile Fakazi, one of the organisers of Miss Confidence South Africa, a beauty pageant for women with physical disabilities, is trying to rally a camera-shy contestant.

Meanwhile, Sharon Legodi (20) from Dube is posing along one of the steep lanes of the swanky Westcliff Hotel complex. In her glittering blue dress with black roses on its form-fitting bustier, she is trying hard not to lose her balance. It’s not that easy when the right part of your body is partially handicapped.

Legodi is one of the 12 contestants in the 10th Miss Confidence pageant for disabled women, which will take place on November 13. The winner will serve as an ambassador for the disabled community for a year.

One of the activities before the event is the creation of a Miss Confidence calendar. The 12 contestants — together with two stylists, two make-up artists and a professional fashion photographer — gathered at the Westcliff in Johannesburg for this week’s photo shoot, which was not without its challenges.

Challenge
While the stylists and make-up artists spent about one-and-a-half hours preparing the women for the camera, the shoot itself took place on the vertiginous slopes of the Westcliff — not an ideal landscape for people on crutches and wheelchairs.

The luxurious hotel room with a balcony where the women were to be transformed into models was only accessible by stairs, meaning that contestants in wheelchairs had to be carried up to the room.

Legodi, who is partially paralysed and drags her right leg when she walks, fell ill when she was a baby and was in a coma for five days. ”After my coma my right part of the body didn’t work any more,” she says.

She believes it’s encouraging that the disabled are getting more attention. ”Most people don’t even understand people with disabilities. In a small community it’s sometimes hard. When I was young they used to call me names, saying, ‘You are mad.’ I cried, but now I even laugh at them.”

Legodi goes through plenty of pairs of shoes. ”Some people say to me, ‘You don’t know how to wear your shoes.’ I react by saying, ‘You don’t have to buy them.”’

Stiletto heels
For most of the candidates, humour is often an easy way of dealing with their disabilities.

”At least I don’t have to walk on high stiletto heels,” says contestant Jeanett Mashigo (23) to another candidate on crutches, pointing to a bunch of high-heeled shoes on the ground.

Sitting in her wheelchair in front of a mirror while a stylist works on her hair, Mashigo is worried about the stylist cutting it. But 30 minutes later she is very confident about her newly curled coiffure.

Mashigo had polio when she was two years old. Three years ago she swapped her crutches for a wheelchair.

”I believe in myself and I want to express that,” she explains. ”I enjoy being disabled. Sometimes I even thank God for it. I appreciate it. It’s there for a purpose. If I was able-[bodied], I don’t think it would have given me more chances. I want to become a magistrate. It’s a lot of hard work, but I believe I can do it.”

‘All woman’
One of the pageant’s goals is to create public awareness about people with physical disabilities and to enable disabled people to be recognised and respected for their unique capabilities and strengths.

Nxalati Hlongwane, one of the organisers of the pageant, says: ”It’s all about the mindset of people and how we perceive them. You hardly ever see a celebrity with a disability. People with disabilities should come out with confidence and show their talent.”

This year’s theme is I’m All Woman.

”Yes, you are disabled, but you’re still all woman,” Hlongwane says.

Disabled South Africans still face a significant amount of discrimination, she adds. ”You see this hotel, with all the stairs. We must carry people down. People in wheelchairs can’t take taxis.”

However, in the 10 years of the event, she thinks much has changed. ”There is less shame. Mostly in rural communities there is still shame if your child cannot walk. They hide it [the child] in the house, not letting it out in the world.”

She also thinks people are becoming more accommodating, and companies more willing to hire disabled people.

However, it is not easy to find sponsors for the pageant. According to the organisers, the cost of the gala event is R3,8-million, but it doesn’t have any sponsors so far. ”We are desperately looking for money,” says Fakazi.

Glitter and glamour
After being dressed in a dark green dress and made up, it’s time for Mashigo’s photo shoot. Having been carried up many stairs, she is posing elegantly on a wooden bench.

For fashion photographer Siphiwe Mhlambi, it’s a special occasion. ”I shoot them in a fashion way, but I also bring in their disability. I combine it with glitter and glamour and their personality. I want to show [them that] with your handicap you are special; I don’t take that away from them,” he says.

After a whole day of modelling, most of the contestants are exhausted.

Legodi, who has to be photographed again because there was a technical problem with the first set of pictures, strikes a pose again.

However, she has now ditched the silver stilettos, opting instead for soft and comfortable hotel slippers.

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Imke Van Hoorn
Guest Author

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