'I get 12 new daughters every year': Meet Mama J, guardian and 'mom' to SA's beauty queens

By Marisa Fockema
19 March 2016

After 10 years as the Miss SA contestants' carer, confidant and friend, Mama J has some stories to tell...

The most beautiful women in the land have cried on her shoulder on occasion – and she’s privy to their deepest secrets and greatest joys. Meet Jeanitta Simpson, aka “Mama J” – guardian and “mom”of nine Miss South Africas and One Miss World.

Sixty-seven-year-old Jeanitta has been the chaperone of this beauty pageant’s finalists for 10 years. She ensure they get to all their appointments and work sessions on time. And she’s on hand all day and everyday to guide, protect and support her lovely young charges.

We meet her in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. While we’re chatting she’s also making sure that three of the contestants get onto a bus for an interview with chat-show host Gareth Cliff. Only when the bus have departed is she’s happy to go back inside to where the other finalists are having their hair done.

Read more: One of these 12 beauties will be the next Miss South Africa

She got her nickname from the first group of women she took under her wing, she tells us. When she introduced herself, one of them said: “That’s a very long name, can’t we rather just call you Mama J?” And that’s what she’s been called ever since.

“When we went to the sevens rugby tournament in Cape Town last year I wanted to book us in at the hotel but couldn’t find my name anywhere. Then I said: ‘Perhaps you should look for Mama J’. True’s Bob, there it was in the register ? ‘Mama J’.”

In the course of her duties she’s met well-known personalities like golf legend Gary Player and hotel king Sol Kerzner. And when the new Miss South Africa is crowned on 19 March, she’ll be the 10th beauty she’s gone the course with for months. Her duties include supporting the winner in the initial stages to handle the pressure of media interview, for example.

Today she still remains friends with many of the previous winners, like Melinda Bam and our 2014 Miss World, Rolene Strauss. They love chatting on the phone. “After such a long time together you also realise how much they mean to you,” Jeanitta says.

Read more: Rolene Strauss looked absolutely beautiful on her wedding day

In the meantime many of her “daughters” have also become engaged, got married and had children.

She can’t imagine the Miss South Africa contest without Mama J, former Miss SA Melinda Bam said in a message to YOU.  PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu She can’t imagine the Miss South Africa contest without Mama J, former Miss SA Melinda Bam said in a message to YOU. PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu

Jeanitta has been married to James (72) for 45 years and they live in Johannesburg. They have three children, Sean (45), Charmian Pearce (44) and Bernadine (38), and four grandchildren.

But how did she come to have such an extensive  “brood”?

She tells us she used to be part of the pageant’s production team that’s responsible behind the scenes for putting together the entire competition. She was the team member who also saw to it that, when it was needed, there were headache tablets and cups of tea on hand.

“One day I got a call from the director of the production team who said: ‘We need you to help with the girls.’ I protested: ‘But I’m not qualified for that.’ He just said: ‘But you’re a mom and grandmother – those are the only qualifications you need’!”

She accepted and didn’t disappoint those who showed so much confidence in her. “I found it an exciting challenge and I look forward now to meeting my new family every year.”

She’s astounded by the personal growth of the finalists in the short time they’re part of the pageant. “They arrive here as young girls, learn an enormous amount during the process and eventually blossom as wonderful adults.”

While we’re chatting she’s also making sure that three of the contestants get onto a bus for an interview with chat-show host Gareth Cliff. PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu While we’re chatting she’s also making sure that three of the contestants get onto a bus for an interview with chat-show host Gareth Cliff. PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu

Each year’s 26 contestants are whittled down to 12 finalists, which is the group she has to see through to the crowning. The finalists attend workshops for a week to two weeks every month on etiquette, finances and the media. “They get a comprehensive overview of all aspects of Miss South Africa and also learn valuable life lessons,” Jeanitta explains.

Read more: Basetsana Kumalo no longer Miss SA judge after ‘unfortunate accident’

“When they arrive they initially take a step back because I’m strict at the beginning . . . But after the competition they’re hardly at home. Then come the messages about how much they miss me.”

Over the years there have been anxious moments. Like the time a finalist’s zip broke just before an interview. “Fortunately I always have a needlework kit on hand, and I sewed the dress while it was on her. After the interview we cut her out of the dress.”

She comforts the women after a bad day when they’re tired, or when they’re homesick. She says one group, exhausted after a long day’s rehearsals, decided to have vitamin B12 injections for energy.

“When we got to the chemist there was no one to administer the injections. I said one of our finalists was studying to become a doctor. She gave the injections.” Yes, it was Rolene Strauss!

“The women lined up to receive their injections. It was special for everyone because Rolene did it.”

Is it difficult to keep men away from all the beautiful girls? “They’re just people and can look and take photos,” Jeanitta says. “But that’s where it ends.”

A chance-taker at a golf day once wrote his number on a golf ball for a finalist. “Two days later we saw him with his wife in a restaurant. You don’t want to get a bad name as a nasty person and you try to handle situations diplomatically. I walked past him and whispered, ‘Í didn’t know you had a wife’.”

Do the lovely young women ever get bitchy towards one another?

“It happens seldom,” Jeanitta says. “We become like a family. You can’t make bad friends because your enemy could be your roommate tomorrow. The women usually remain good friends long after the competition.”

Mama J and this year's "brood". PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu Mama J and this year's "brood". PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu

The highlight of her career was when Rolene was crowned Miss World in 2014. “I love all the women equally but I was very proud when she came home with the crown,” Jeanitta says.

“She’s my Afrikaans daughter. When she walks into a room it’s as if a light has been switched on.”

Read more: Tissues at the ready! Watch Rolene crowned Miss World 2014

She’s also fond of the present Miss South Africa, Liesl Laurie. “She has the loveliest smile. When I look at photos of her I can hear her giggly laugh.”

But no, she doesn’t have a favourite. “How can a mother have a favourite child? Every year I’m proud of all 12 of my lovely daughters”

During the first phase of the competition, when there are 26 participants, Jeanitta is assisted by another chaperone. When the 12 finalists are chosen she works with them unassisted.

Jeanitta smiles as she recalls how one group organised an informal prize-giving night for her and the other chaperone.

Jeanitta's real daughters phone frequently and say, “”We want our Mama J at home.” PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu Jeanitta's real daughters phone frequently and say, “”We want our Mama J at home.” PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu

“They wrote a speech for me and read it. I won the prize for the most loving person who always cares. It was special.”

Every year on her birthday she receives a cake and flowers from the girls.

Her real daughters phone frequently and say, “”We want our Mama J at home.” At home she enjoys gardening or doing needlework. And there’s no talk of retiring yet.

“I’ve asked the women what will become of me when I can’t do the work any more. They said, ‘Then we’ll have to push you around in a wheelchair’.”

She laughs again, clearly happy with the answer. “Imagine it, 12 lovely women coming down the road pushing Mama J in a wheelchair!”

  • Miss SA takes place at Carnival City on Saturday and will be televised on M-Net (DStv Channel 101) and Mzansi Magic (DStv Channel 161) from 5 pm to 7 pm.

Find Love!

Men
Women