Miss SA and the truth about sex

Verashni Pillay puzzles over the counter-revolutionary criteria for Miss SA eligibility. (Lauren Clifford-Holmes, M&G)

Verashni Pillay puzzles over the counter-revolutionary criteria for Miss SA eligibility. (Lauren Clifford-Holmes, M&G)

I have a new favourite spokesperson.

Government spin doctors used to have the monopoly on this position, with their penchant for getting caught driving drunk and conducting media interviews while inebriated and in custody. That's dedication for you.

But then along comes one Sue Klerck and the likes of Jackson Mthembu and his ilk were promptly replaced in my affections. The Sun International spokesperson came out with guns blazing at the explosion of curiosity in the formerly interesting event known as Miss South Africa, when questions mounted after the latest title-holder mysteriously withdrew from entering Miss World.

Were there dirty pics doing the rounds? Did she have a bad reputation? Or was she, gasp, preggers? With that impeccable logic that must be unique to the beauty pageant world, Klerck put paid to the last rumour.
"She isn’t pregnant. Because then she must have had sex. And to have sex, you must have a boyfriend, and that’s against the rules of the competition."

I didn't know what surprised me more: the news that Miss South Africa was not allowed a boyfriend (how delightfully Elizabethan! Is she married to her country too?), or the revelation that one could only have sex if one had a boyfriend.

After a lifetime of stern sex education I was struck with a sense of relief. Wonder, even. I wanted to bang down the doors of LoveLife and every safe sex, anti-rape and HIV/Aids prevention activist that had hounded me throughout my life and let them know: "It's okay! You can only have sex if you have a boyfriend! It'll all be fine!"

Sometimes I feel sorry for satirical news sites like Hayibo.com. They could never make up a quote like Klerck's little gem. Nonetheless, if it was more publicity they were after, the hotel and casino chain got it.

The average South African would have been hard-pressed to name our reigning beauty queen before this little incident. Once upon a time, when darkies were finally allowed to enter amid turbulent political times, I was avidly interested in Miss SA. Then the novelty wore off, Sun International took over from Doreen Morris and the reigning Miss SA reliably changed colour most years.

It was the kind of irony that is everywhere post-apartheid South Africa. Sun International, Sol Kerzner's early love child with South African Breweries, built its success off the isolation and desultory regulations of those apartheid creations: "homelands". And here they were, celebrating our democratic diversity in their Miss SA, which, like pageants everywhere, purported to give us an ambassador: a beautiful, clean-living young woman who could represent our country. Just like Miss SA has done since 1956. Except it isn't 1956 anymore and the current rules for would be beauty queens are quaint to the point of offensive.

The reigning Miss SA must: 
• Not be married and never have had a marriage annulled.
• Not be engaged.
• Never have given birth and not be pregnant.
• Not have any visible tattoos.
• Have no criminal record.

And of course, she must be between the ages of 18 and 25. Whose version of perfect femininity is this?

When I was a bit more black and white in my feminism I used to be fiercely anti beauty-pageants. I was even instrumental in getting my university's pageants cancelled, while active in student politics at Rhodes University. But these days I can see the value in a good role model, especially in South Africa.

But here's the thing about role models: they have to be real too. The beauty queens that have been churned out by Miss South Africa have been barely believable: placid, vanilla-flavoured clothes horses all intent on saving the world. The reason? Because while some beauty pageants have been noble in their intent in empowering young women and producing good role models, one major factor has changed: profit.

Whereas pageants like Miss America have traditionally been non-profit, providing young women with scholarships and so on, its flashier counterpart, the Miss USA pageant, part of Miss Universe, is a for-profit enterprise owned by Donald Trump.

A former American beauty queen who sincerely wanted to use the platform to bring attention to a cause close to her heart - healthcare reform in the US - withdrew in disgust when she realised that the pageant world was no longer about role models. It was about product placement.

"The reigning Miss USA hawks everything from suntan lotion to flashy diamonds," she noted in a tell-all essay. "So the formula is simple: the most attractive woman makes the best spokesmodel and, therefore, the best Miss USA."

The same could be said for our Miss South Africa. If they have proven to be increasingly less interesting to the audience it's because the organisation that produces them is more interested in appeasing sponsors. Hence the rules and processes that take the real women who enter, with all their complexities, drive and strength, and turn them into little more than harmless marketing gimmicks.

Will Miss SA every grip the country again, the way it did in those historical early years in our democracy when the first few women of colour took home the crown? Probably not. Because the pageant won't parallel our interests and passions again as it did then. Nor will it even understand women in this country and the challenges they face, if their views on sex are anything to go by.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her columns here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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