Zozibini Tunzi wants dark-skinned girls all over the world to see themselves in her as she wears the Miss Universe crown for the next year.
“I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me with my color skin and my kind of hair is not considered beautiful,” Tunzi said during her closing statement in the pageant Sunday. “That stops today. I want children to look at my face and see their own looking back at them.”
Tunzi won the international beauty pageant competing as Miss South Africa on Sunday at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. Tunzi said it was “very special” to her that she won the crown at Tyler Perry Studios, the only major studio complex in the U.S. owned by an African-American.
She said she plans to spend her year as Miss Universe advocating for causes including diversity, children’s education and ending violence against women.
The closing statement was a new addition to this year’s competition, taking the place of the “final look” segment that had been used for multiple years. Each of the top three contestants — Tunzi, Miss Puerto Rico Madison Anderson and Miss Mexico Sofia Aragon — had 15 seconds to explain why they should become Miss Universe. The top 20 contestants out of 90 began the Sunday pageant with an “opening statement” introducing themselves to the judges and the global audience. The top 10 competed in swimsuit and evening gown.
The top five contestants answered an on-stage question before Tunzi, Anderson and Aragon were selected as the top three and each answered the same question — “What should we be teaching young girls today?” — before making their closing statements.
Throughout the Sunday night pageant, Tunzi emphasized the importance of education in children’s lives and teaching young women confidence. Tunzi told the crowd at the Oprah Winfrey Soundstage that she was forced to withdraw from school as a child because her family could no longer afford it. Competing in pageants helped her get back into school and earn a college degree, she said.
Wearing her national costume in Friday night’s costume contest, Tunzi chose to make a statement about violence against women in her country by including letters written by South African women as part of her dress.
Tunzi, 26, is the second South African to win the title in three years and the first black woman to win since 2011. Tunzi’s win makes it the first time ever Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America are all black women.
“It’s about continuing to break boundaries that we’ve been told we can’t,” Tunzi said in a post-pageant press conference.
Before winning Miss South Africa, she earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations and was working on a graduate degree while an intern at advertising and marketing agency Ogilvy.
Tunzi was chosen from a group of 90 women hailing from six continents. The contestants have been in Atlanta since Thanksgiving in preparation for the competition at Tyler Perry Studios.
Host Steve Harvey, who filmed “Family Feud” in Atlanta until 2017 and has a home in the city, was excited the competition took him back to Georgia.
“I’ve been all over the world, to Thailand, to the Philippines, places where I was a stranger in a foreign land,” Harvey said. “But this time, we’re home.”
Tunzi won the crown in a fierce gold and blue metallic gown, with strands of gold beads cascading over her chest and shoulders, creating a regal look. Her short cropped hair drew a stark contrast with the extravagant gown.
Anderson, of Puerto Rico, placed first runner-up and Aragon, of Mexico, placed second runner-up. Miss USA Cheslie Kryst placed in the top 10.
A day before Sunday’s competition, Kryst said she felt calm and prepared. The Friday night preliminary competition brought her back to her days as a college track athlete.
“It felt like when you take that practice run around the track before a meet,” Kryst said.
Tunzi is looking forward to the year ahead, but when asked what she wants to do next, she had a simple answer.
“Hopefully a big steak and mashed potatoes,” Tunzi said. “Then we’ll see what comes after that.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.