- When Zozibini Tunzi won Miss South Africa in 2019 and soon after, Miss Universe, her two-time victory inspired many to consider breaking the mould in their own corners of aspiration.
- 18 September marks Zozi's birthday, and in her reigning year as Miss Universe, she has just turned 27.
- To celebrate this birthday, we remind ourselves of the advice she shared with us when she spoke to W24's Afika Jadezweni about what fearlessness looks like to her.
In 2008, former FLOTUS Michelle Obama, inspired young, dark-skinned girls to dream beyond their immediate perimeters. In a documentary about colourism simply titled "Dark Girls", a young girl even says; "There is a black woman who is dark-skinned in the White House. She is not cleaning, not cooking - she is the First Lady."
With dark skin and a fade as her signature hairstyle, Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, mirrors this effect for a generation of young black women and girls, who now see themselves reflected in her.
And she's fully aware of the weight of the crown she wears, as she says "my win wasn't just for me - it meant so much for other people".
But beyond the beauty, there are layers that add to what makes Zozibini Tunzi's character and tenacity so admirable to many. What stands out the most, though, is perhaps her fearlessness (a trait generally associated with Xhosa women, but there are no stats to prove this just yet), and her freedom of being.
W24 got the opportunity to sit down with Zozibini over some afternoon Zoom tea last month, to unpack a few of the matters dearest to her heart.
"Living fearless is liberating. That’s the message we want to impart to the women of South Africa on Women's Day and beyond," said Zozi in conversation with W24 last month. "Despite the turbulence and chaos that surrounds us, we want to encourage women to resist fear, confront it and fight back against it with the ultimate intention of empowering women to realise their indomitable strength."
Maybe dreaming of one day becoming Miss Universe is a dream as seemingly outlandish, yet entertained - as dreaming of becoming president. This is why for our conversation opener with Zozi I posed the question; "before you even dreamed that being Miss Universe was a possibility, what did you want to become?"
To which she matter-of-factly responds, "Growing up, I just knew I wanted to live... sort of in big lights. That's what I wanted. I didn't know exactly what it was, but that's what I wanted."
"I grew up as a child who read a lot, who watched a lot of TV, so I was influenced by a lot of real characters as well as fictional characters. But one thing those characters had in common was that they were great people in the world and that's what I wanted to be," she adds.
Aligned with the dream of achieving greatness, was also the fear of mediocrity, as the pageant queen reveals the following;
"I was always so scared of being called - or thinking of myself - as mediocre. I've always lived by the notion that all of us have a purpose in life and I think it was always my life's mission to find out what my purpose was and I sort of imagined it as... something big. I didn't know what my career would be, but I wanted to have an impact in the world."
Before she took the 2019 Miss SA title, Miss Tunzi had entered the pageant before, after having also entered a presenter search - both of which didn't deter her from trying again. One would say she's an admirable example of failing forward.
"What tells you to try again despite evidence that would tell you otherwise?" I ask as someone who lets rejection, indeed, tell her otherwise.
Zozi chuckles as she admits that it is her "stubborn heart" that tells her to keep trying. But more importantly, for Zozi, everything is about timing. "Sometimes it's just not your time and sometimes you are just being redirected to something else," she says.
And if you think these are just words recycled in every motivational sermon, you need only be cognisant of the fact that this time last year, the name Zozibini Tunzi wasn't a household name, yet today this name is uttered by voices that house admiration for it.
"When I fail at something I take it as a lesson," the Miss Universe title holder adds, reminding me of the words etched into Rihanna's skin - another black woman who hasn't let isolated dark spots discourage her gleaming career; "Never a failure. Always a lesson."
But before she would become the bold face of authenticity and un-apologetic-ness as the first-ever Miss Universe to place a crown on an edgy fade, a young Zozi feared not accomplishing much, saying "I've always feared not accomplishing this life I've imagined for myself."
While many self-soothe and talk themselves out of their apprehensions by telling themselves that if something is meant to happen, it will be so, this global ambassador embraced her misgivings. Of fear, she says "it isn't a bad thing - we can use to push ourselves forward."
"It's okay to be scared. It's okay to be fearful. You have to try and push above it," she adds.
Zozibini grew up always affirmed by her parents and her sisters, but in as much as she has this support, Zozi says "affirmations to [herself] are very important."
"I remind myself that I will hear 'no' in life, I will fail in life, doors will close in life. But I just knew that I just needed one 'yes'," says the Miss SA who won after her second attempt.
On imposter syndrome
Zozi is well-versed in conquering fears. "I have had so many fears in my life. One of the recent ones being that I would be rejected by people as their Miss Universe, that I wasn't enough and would fail because I looked different to any other Miss Universe people were used to."
It can be said that this brand of self-doubt lends itself to imposter syndrome - something many women - especially black women who may be "firsts" or "only-s" in their fields - can relate to.
Experts agree that while fear has its benefits and is a vital response to physical and emotional danger, for women, fear is omnipresent. As author and speaker Monica Berg, explains in her book, Fear Is Not an Option - "Fear is powerful enough to keep us from achieving our goals and living our best lives. Once you decide fear isn’t an option, you are left with only the choice to change - to shift your consciousness, or to take action."
It's evident that Zozi - who told us to "take up space" - also didn't let the invasive whispers of imposter syndrome take up space in her mind and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Instead, she expresses how she "soon realised that what she thought was her weakness was actually her strength".
"I tapped into it and I owned who I am completely. Now I am confident, comfortable and fearless because I turned my fear into a strength."
But how do you spit out the sometimes bitter taste of this fish-out-of-water feeling, while still publicly digesting the fact that you're now a big deal and the rest of the world agrees?
Zozi admits this was no walk in the park.
"When I won Miss South Africa, there were a lot of mixed emotions and comments. On the negative side, people stating that I do not look like a Miss Universe, while others felt happy to see them represented. So there were always two sides to this story," she responds, when asked how black women can take a page out of her book in terms of beating feelings of imposter syndrome.
"I decided to start focusing on the positives of it," she continues. "I decided that what makes me different is my superpower," she reiterates.
It's therefore not surprising that Miss Universe actually has a list of top tips for conquering fear and becoming fearless:
• Learn to understand what your fear is and embrace it. Only then will you be able to push through it.
• Write down your fears so that you can look at them face-to-face. When you are done facing them, prove them wrong.
• It's not as bad you think. These are words I always recite to myself. We always imagine the worst, and most of the time the reality is not as scary as how we imagine it.
• Be optimistic! Always try to change fear into a challenge.
• Give yourself positive affirmations.
With regards to representation, Miss Universe explains that what mattered the most to her when she won was the story of the underdog. "It didn't have to be black women or black people who celebrated my story, but people who have felt like they were not enough in certain places - people who have felt like they were not represented," Zozi says, finally concluding with a motivational rhetorical question as she says; "... that's how I push through my imposter syndrome. If not me, then who else?"
On being your own champion
Little girls across South Africa have either been asking their moms for Zozi fades or Sho braids - a phenomenon that speaks to more than just superficial imitation, but rather illustrates a seed planted in the minds of the women of tomorrow.
Of course, Zozi has a word for these future trailblazers.
"Firstly, [young girls] should believe the power of their dreams," Zozi says, echoing Lupita Nyong'o who accepted an Oscar, a fade as her crown, and said; "young girl, your dreams are valid."
She also advises young girls to always try and look at the positives in life. "Nobody is always going to be in your corner in life. Not everybody is rooting for you - you have to root for yourself first. You have to be your won champion before anybody else."
"But the biggest lesson is that they must know they are enough and know that they belong in spaces," she continues.
"I hope [my success] teaches young people to break the status quo, to go against the grain. There is no such thing as certain things belong to certain people - if you want something to belong to you, then it can belong to you too," she finishes with conviction.
On not fearing imperfection
Beauty queens are perfect, right?
They wake up and the sun shines at the perfect most desirable angle for them; umbrellas are opened above their heads at the sight of a single cloud; and they have full-bodied laughter that is always perfectly timed because ladies don't guffaw - they giggle gently, right?
There are several misconceptions about celebrated, attractive women who are in the public eye - from how they ought to carry themselves to who they should date to what they should find funny. At the dawn of her reign, Miss Universe admits she somewhat pandered to these notions.
But now, Zozibini reveals that she is "perfectly okay and comfortable with not being perfect".
"This is something that I'm learning everyday. When you're Miss Universe you have it in your head that you have to be perfect, and it was something that gave me anxiety every day," she says, before the epiphany that "you know what, I'm not perfect and I don't want anybody think that I'm this perfect person".
Now, as a role model herself, she recalls that looking up to a person through idealistic rose-tinted glasses makes us feel like "we'll never reach where they are and I don't want any young girl or boy looking at me and feeling like [that]".
"I'm comfortable with people seeing my flaws," Zozibini Tunzi concludes.
Listen to the full podcast in the video above.
Additional information and images provided on behalf of 1st for Women.