Johannesburg – I met Sasha-Lee for the first time on Wednesday. I had seen her on social media, watched her on the Miss SA stage in August last year, and even kept an eye on her performance at the Miss World competition as part of our extensive pageant coverage, but this was the first time I was actually going to chat with her.
It didn't feel like it though – she has this air of familiarity, and as soon as I walk into the meeting room at the Maslow Hotel in Joburg she greets me with a smile and a hug.
My eye is immediately drawn to her colourful, and almost blinding in the right light, headpiece. It's the Buhle crown – newly designed for the 2019 Miss South Africa competition. While it was initially given to Zozibini Tunzi, it now rests on the head of Sasha-Lee who has taken over as the new Miss SA.
A quick explainer for the pageant rookies:
After winning the Miss Universe title on 8 December, Zozibini Tunzi could no longer perform her duties as Miss South Africa, meaning that the crown should go to the runner-up – in this case, Sasha-Lee.
It's a second chance at the title, and it looks good on her. She jokes as she tells me that it's taken some getting used to.
I take note of her demeanour as we begin to talk. She's soft-spoken and kind, but also strong-willed and passionate – like the calm and the storm all at once.
"I thought that it was easy. It isn't," she says when I ask how her perception of the international competition has changed.
Taking place in London, the Miss World coronation ceremony was scheduled for 14 December, but contestants arrived in the UK three weeks earlier to partake in several challenges that would affect their final scores.
"Miss World, I would say, is the holistic approach to what beauty is," Sasha-Lee explains.
"We have talent [competitions], we have the sports challenge, which, mind you, I came ninth, but I celebrated because that was a really good achievement for me," she laughs, adding: "There's also the head-to-head challenge, and multi-media – there's various facets of the competition, and it just goes into celebrating the different parts of a person."
However, the "core" of Miss World, she believes, is the Beauty with a Purpose campaign. Every participant is tasked with taking on a cause that is close to their hearts. For Sasha, that meant being a voice for sexual assault survivors. But first, she had to brave the uncomfortable and speak her truth before millions.
"The most difficult part was having to recommit to my story. Having the courage to speak about sexual abuse on that platform. Courage is very much about acting in spite of fear and understanding that moment is not about you, but it was still difficult recommitting to my story and speaking about what was close to me and what I wanted to tackle in the larger space of things."
Sasha-Lee was sexually assaulted as a child, a revelation she first made during the final question and answer segment of the Miss SA competition. I sat in the audience that night, and like many, I was caught off guard by the 26-year-old's sudden admission.
She tells me now that it was not sudden at all. Speaking out about what she had been through was always part of her plan. "I've said this before, I didn't really care what the final question was going to be, but I knew my answer because it's something that people neglect to speak about and something that I knew was necessary for us at the time.
"I didn't want to enter Miss South Africa at a time where I hadn't healed, and I wasn't comfortable enough to speak about this, because this was important. This goes beyond beauty, this goes beyond being an ambassador, this goes into the homes of the everyday South African and goes to assist them in speaking their truth and breaking the chains of silence, shame, and fear. That is my duty as Miss South Africa."
Though tough, that experience brought her to one realisation - "I am so much stronger than I thought I was".
Before leaving for Miss World, Sasha-Lee established her #ItsNotYourFault campaign which aims to provide support for victims of sexual assault through the distribution of "rape comfort packs".
Her work on this project will continue as she takes on her new role.
"I think, given the current crisis that we're in, every 26 seconds this [rape] is a reality for women, and that is the story that I need to focus primarily on because it's not something that we speak about. So that's the space I'm needed in, that's what I'm going to hone in on for the duration of my reign.
"I want people to remember me for the idea that nothing is impossible, or that your darkest moments can give birth to the lightest and the brightest. Me being on this platform transcends the issue of plus-size, it transcends the issue of sexual abuse. This is a matter of hope for every single South African because we all have our own story."