'This is definitely a start' - Differently abled model on her 2nd princess win at Miss Free State

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Esihle Mhluzi (second from far right) was crowned Second Princess at the Miss Free State pageant. (Image supplied)
Esihle Mhluzi (second from far right) was crowned Second Princess at the Miss Free State pageant. (Image supplied)
  • Despite progressive mindsets creating space for more inclusive practices to occur within the beauty and modelling industries, conventional standards of beauty still prevail.
  • These standards have, however, not deterred a Bloemfontein-based differently-abled model to infiltrate the industry, and succeed in it. 
  • When we received news that Esihle Mhluzi secured a victory as the 2nd princess at the Miss Free State pageant, we reached out for a chat about what this moment means for her. 

The body positivity conversation is not only limited to weight, but the inclusion of all kinds of bodies, particularly those often not deemed conventionally "attractive, let alone "normal".

On any given ideal day in the beauty industry and the world of pageantry; plus-size, differently abled, and transgender people would all be able to participate in the same pageants and beauty campaigns as conventionally "attractive" people.

And would do so without the need for separate, peripheral competitions to be created for them or for beauty brands to make an event - expectant of applause - of it. Unfortunately, we're not there yet, no matter how progressive we may think we are.

Without taking anything away from her own efforts and excellence, this is perhaps why Bloemfontein-based Esihle Mhluzi's determination to infiltrate and change the face of the modelling space is a remarkable story. 

Ahead of the postponed (due to Covid restrictions) 2020 Miss Free State pageant, the 23-year-old boldly said; "The narrative I want to put forward is that girls like me can still access glory."   

Fast forward to 2021, and her words continue to beckon a long-coming reality. And as the first physically impaired model to rank at the Miss Free State pageant over the weekend, she'll be the first to usher it in.

READ MORE: Eastern Cape born Esihle Mhluzi is creating access for physically impaired models and students 

When we received news that Esihle secured a victory as the 2nd princess at the Miss Free State pageant, we reached out for a chat about what this moment means for her.

But first, allow us to re-introduce you to Esihle Mhluzi;

She is a Law student at the University of the Free State, a business-minded woman with a strong passion and desire to advocate for the marginalised.

With a strong background in writing, public speaking and student leadership, the 23-year-old says her position as an impaired woman in society compels her to be an advocate for other young girls who aspire to disrupt the status quo.

So far, Esihle has achieved this through her work as a member on the board of directors of an NGO in her hometown (King Williams Town) in the Eastern Cape, as a NTOMBAM ambassador, and as the Chairperson for the Universal Access Council at the University of the Free State.   

"I believe that this is definitely a start," Esihle says of her 2nd place ranking at the weekend's pageant.

"I hope that the young girls that I stand on behalf of can finally see their faces reflected in mine. I think there is no other way I could have motivated differently-abled bodies to take up space and demand their seat at the table than this moment right here.

"This is the moment we have been waiting for and I accept as true that we have infiltrated a space that was not designed to accommodate us, and I will continue to do so until ALL the doors are knocked open," she continues. 

READ MORE: Months after Victoria’s Secret CEO resigns, the lingerie company has cast their first-ever openly transgender model  

The Law student tells us she was "very confident" that the work and effort she had put in would not go in vain.

"People who had been following my journey up until that point will vouch that I deserved all the glory I had accessed on that night," she says.

"I propel resilience according to my own standards. What I epitomise and that which I stand for speaks for itself. My brilliance and power need no introduction and that is a truth I had inculcated within myself from a very young age."   

miss free state
Image supplied by Esihle Mhluzi 

The fire under Esihle's admirable conviction is an even more spirited support system. 

She tells us that the response to her victory was "very heartwarming". 

"It reminded me of why this movement is so important and the amount of people who are dependent on my dreams coming true," she explains before sharing three of her favourite congratulatory messages with us; 

“You winning is so much sweeter because it was achieved on a non-disable platform where you had to thrive under the same rigorous standards to come out on top. Your crowning reminds us that the future is now. We no longer have to give ableism a few more decades to play out or sneak us in one by one in these spaces. Inclusion can and must happen in our time while we can enjoy it, it cannot solely be reserved for future generations. We deserve it too.”
“Thank you for being courageously you and reminding us all to chase after every dream. To see you win a title of a pageant that is historically exclusionary to us and cement disabled people firmly in the centre as equal, is exactly what South Africa needs! Continue to push the envelope, continue to remind everyone that we belong in every space and continue to live boldly as you are. You are more than enough and worthy! The world is ready, and this is only the beginning; give them hell. You’re charting a new world order and the disability community is indebted to you for it. May you continue to inspire hope and change.”
“You are what we have been waiting for. Because of you, we finally feel seen. Siyabulela Bhaca elihle, our faces are reflected in yours.”

To conclude our catch-up with the Miss Free State 2nd Princess, we ask; Is there anything you wish the pageant – and others like it – could do differently to accommodate entrants with disabilities?  

To which she very decisively says; "They definitely need to create a safer and more inclusive space from the start."

"Pageants need to evolve with the times and not seek to be all encompassing only when a differently-abled person chooses to enter. It is something that ought to exist in that space in an effort to encourage and inculcate more diversity in those spaces. Stop wanting to play it safe. Moreover, it is not about whether these pageants are ready to include us in these spaces - we are ready and that is all that should matter; the world will have to adjust." 

READ MORE: WATCH | Here's the first ever beauty pageant for survivors of disfigurement and visible differences 

During our last conversation, this model had told us that "as soon as the Miss SA organisation is ready to disrupt existing [ideals] of what beauty is assumed to be, and allow for a wider array of bodies to be celebrated," she would gladly enter the pageant.

Her tune has not changed, as this week she echoed the sentiment, saying; "I believe that this is the beginning of endless victories. With that said, I definitely will pursue more prominent pageants such as Miss Mamelodi Sundowns and Miss South Africa should I feel the time is right for that." 

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