EXCLUSIVE: After a year and a half, the reign of South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi is coming to an end.
The Miss Universe competition is returning with a live telecast on Sunday at Florida’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. The 27-year-old, who was crowned Miss Universe in December 2019, has worn the crown longer than anyone else.
At the time, a total of 90 countries participated in the contest, which was hosted by Steve Harvey. Tunzi’s triumph was the second for South Africa in Miss Universe. South Africa’s Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters was crowned in 2017.
Tunzi spoke to Fox News about what’s next for her, being Miss Universe during the coronavirus pandemic and how she dealt with trolls on social media.
Fox News: How does it feel to know that your reign is coming to an end?
Zozibini Tunzi: It’s a bittersweet feeling. I’ve been Miss Universe for a year and a half now, the longest-reigning Miss Universe. And so I feel like this title has been with me forever. It started feeling like it’s a part of me. Therefore, I’m feeling like I’m letting go of that part. So that does feel a little sad. But I’m also excited because now I get to move on to the next chapter of my life. It’s like putting a period on the end of this chapter and jumping onto a fresh page and doing something new. It is bittersweet but I’m more excited than I am sad.
Fox News: What’s next for you?
Tunzi: I will be returning home to South Africa. I have so much work waiting for me there. I will be doing a lot of work on television. And I’m trying out for music as well. I’m testing the waters. And of course, I want to continue my humanitarian work because that’s a huge part of who I am.
Fox News: You had a completely different experience as Miss Universe thanks to 2020. What was that like for you?
Tunzi: I mean, 2020 was a different experience for all of us *laughs*. It really took our plans and turn them upside down. Everyone knows that a huge part of this job is traveling to different countries and getting involved with work. It was tough at first when I came to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill that part of my job. But with this platform, we still can make a positive change in this world. And that part wasn’t taken away. My voice wasn’t taken away. I was able to do it from home and virtually. And in that way, I was all around the world. I did all the things I wanted to do, share the messages I wanted to share. So it was a different experience, but an impactful one.
Fox News: What was the biggest challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it?
Tunzi: Definitely being away from home and not being with my family. That was certainly the biggest challenge. I had to mentally prepare myself to do the job while being isolated in an apartment and not being able to really go out and interact with people. I think that was one of the hardest parts for me. And just wishing I could be out there doing more in person. That was frustrating for me as well. The pandemic in itself was my biggest challenge. But I wanted to create a virtual network of people where we can be together at home.
I wanted to create a platform where we could all come together and share our experiences, share what we were going through. I felt people were lonely and frustrated and going through so many things. It quickly grew into this talk show thing happening on Instagram where I would bring in different people from different countries and workspaces. I had psychologists in where we would discuss mental health. I had medical doctors, women from the United Nations, lawyers – just so many people to educate all of us during this time. I think that’s how I dealt with it. I thought, “If I can’t go out there, I’m going to bring people to be here with us.”
Fox News: Let’s go back to that very moment when you realized you had won Miss Universe. What was going through your mind when that tiara was placed on your head?
Tunzi: It’s very difficult to describe. Even to this day, I can never really tell people how it was at that moment. It’s such an overwhelming feeling of, firstly, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I just did that.” Secondly, it’s pride. You feel so much pride. They don’t call out your name, but they call out your country and you’re wearing your country across your chess. So it’s not just a win for you, it’s a win for everyone at home. I knew everyone in South Africa was watching and living in this moment with me.
It’s an out-of-body experience and I don’t think I can ever fully explain what it’s like. Words and things just move so quickly. I think you start getting used to it maybe a week later. That’s when you can finally sit down, breathe and take it all in. But for those first few seconds, it’s like a blackout of too many emotions happening at the same time.
Fox News: You wanted to raise awareness on gender-based violence. Why did you choose this cause specifically?
Tunzi: I have always been big on gender equality and gender-based violence falls within that space. I particularly chose that cause because of the gender-based violence and femicide statistics from South Africa, where I’m from. It’s a huge part of my community. So I felt like if I was going to go on this huge platform, it would be very important for me to use my voice to make sure that I use it for the protection of women. That was my biggest reason.
My conversations with men have been interesting because it’s women who are going through this abuse. And so you have to sit down with men and try to get them to understand why they are a huge part of the problem… But at the same time, it’s been very enlightening because there are so many men who are willing to come to the table and have this conversation. And we need more men in the conversations to have as allies in this fight… And gender-based violence is not a woman problem. It’s a humanity problem. So everyone should be pulling their weight so we can work together… But there are men who are out there trying to do their part.
Fox News: Your win was significant because you kept your hair natural. Can you tell us more about that?
Tunzi: When I think about women, I think about the importance of autonomy and being able to do whatever it is that we want with our bodies and not being policed by people, not being told how we should look or be. If a woman feels comfortable having her natural, short, Afro hair, let them. If they want to put on a weave, let them. It was never a competition of which is better. And the hair that women of color have has been so politicized. If you Google, “What does professional hair look like?” It doesn’t look like Black women’s hair. So this is saying that our hair is not professional. If you look at a lot of beauty campaigns from the past, it has always been straight hair with no coils.
So for me, it was very important to keep my hair because I believe my hair is as beautiful as any other hair. I’ve had short, natural hair for about five years now. And I remember there were questions about whether I would change my hair or not for the competition. My answer was always, “If I change my hair just for the purpose of this competition, then that means I’m saying that my hair is not good enough to be on a beauty platform. If I change my hair, that means I’m admitting and saying to people that this is not pageant hair and I shouldn’t be on stage.” So I felt it was so important to keep it because this is how it grows out of my head. And I want women to feel comfortable in being however they choose to be.
If a young girl sees themselves in me and therefore they become more accepting of themselves, then I’m happy. And that’s why I decided to stay this way. If I change my hairstyle, it’s because I want to, not because I’m forced to. Not because it isn’t beautiful enough to be on Miss Universe’s head.
Fox News: Growing up, you didn’t see women in fashion magazines who looked like you. How much of an impact did that have on you?
Tunzi: If you look at the beauty industry, or even just the media, there wasn’t really a variety of women… it was almost always the same. Growing up, it did bother me. Because I felt, if I don’t look like her, then that means I will never amount to anything like that. I will never amount to a certain type of beauty because it doesn’t seem to exist for me. We can’t be what we can’t see. We need to be inspired by people.
That’s why it’s so important to make sure we have representation and diversity in beauty and the media. It’s very important for everyone to see themselves. It’s like having the very first woman of color being the Vice President of the United States. Being able to see it, you can envision it for yourself and say, “If she can do it, I can do it too.” So it did have a huge impact on how I grew up. I think it made a huge impact on who I am today because I wanted to fight to be that woman who is in the magazines, on television. That way, no young girl would feel how I felt not seeing myself being represented correctly in media spaces.
Fox News: It seemed like initially, not everyone instantly welcomed your appearance on social media. How did you cope with the criticism?
Tunzi: Yes, the word was that there were certain people who weren’t as accepting [of my win] because I guess they were used to a certain type of woman that they thought was beautiful. So I think when I came in, it was very uncomfortable for them to accept this change because it wasn’t something that they were used to. It was difficult at first because I am strong, but I’m still human. So certain things, at some point, get to me.
At first, those negative comments really bothered me. But at the same time, it was those negative comments that kept me going. Because I thought to myself, “These people don’t think I belong here. And if I stay here and do my best, they will get used to seeing me. And then that means more women who are different… will be able to come in as well.”
When you enter a space, you need to open the door, even if it’s just a little, so that other women can come after you and occupy the space. Then eventually, it won’t be so new and shocking to people. Some trolls did want to push me back because they felt I’m not supposed to be here. But that’s exactly why I am supposed to be here. I belong here as much as anybody else. And as much as I had trolls, I had even more supporters. So I had to remind myself that I was making an impact and there were so many people who appreciated my being here. That’s what really kept me going during that time, reminding myself why I started, why I wanted to be Miss Universe.
Fox News: Some people believe beauty pageants are outdated. What would you tell those people?
Tunzi: Firstly, I would tell them they are not crazy to feel the way that they feel. A lot of beauty pageants started out as just swimsuit competitions. And maybe those people felt like they weren’t making an impact in the world. And so, they are not crazy to feel that way. However, I’d also tell them that beauty pageants, like everything else, evolves.
It has evolved and they have become so much more than just the physical. We have had so many women come on this platform and then achieve so many incredible things. They’ve used their voices to influence positive change in this world and raise awareness on important causes. They’re empowering communities who may be overlooked. They are lending their voices to those communities and providing a helping hand. Pageants have evolved. We’ve seen incredible women go on and lead.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.