Black Women Reign at Beauty Pageants: South African crowned Miss Universe 2019

Black Women Reign at Beauty Pageants

Original Author:  NYTimes
Original Publications: New York Times
Date: 22 December 2019

When Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa was named Miss Universe on Sunday, her crowning signified a milestone: the first year that five of the major beauty pageants had simultaneously awarded the top prize to a black woman.

Toni-Ann Singh of Jamaica was crowned Miss World on Saturday, marking the first time that black women have simultaneously held the titles of five of the world’s top beauty pageants.

Her victory underscored what was already a watershed year in pageantry, which for decades struggled with racism, segregation and gender stereotyping.

Last week, when Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa was named Miss Universe, it was the first time five major pageant crowns were held by black women. And when Kaliegh Garris won Miss Teen USA in April and Cheslie Kryst won Miss USA in May — joining Nia Franklin, who was named the 2019 Miss America last year — it was the first time three of the titles were held by black women.

Pageants have long been criticized for their antiquated beauty standards and, in many cases, outright racism or gender stereotyping. Last year, the Miss America Organization announced it would scrap both the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition. And while black women have been winners in the past — notably Vanessa Williams, who in 1984 was the first black woman to be named Miss America — they have never been as successful as this year.

Supporters of the women — Ms. Tunzi, Cheslie Kryst (this year’s Miss USA), Kaliegh Garris (Miss Teen USA) and Nia Franklin (Miss America) — say the recognition sends a powerful message that today’s beauty standards are evolving beyond Barbie-lite, or an era when contestants were prized solely for smooth hair, light skin color and thin lips.

“Finally the universe is giving value to black skin,” read an Instagram post from Leila Lopes, a former Miss Angola who was crowned Miss Universe in 2011. Oprah also praised Ms. Tunzi for her leadership. But perhaps the new Miss Universe put it best in her closing address on Sunday night.

Together, their wins showed how the competitions have evolved from typically only validating features associated with white women, like lighter skin and straight hair. That evolution could influence communities globally, where blackness is rarely held as the standard of beauty, Noliwe Rooks, professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, said on Sunday.

The fact that five of the winners of major beauty pageants are “identifiably black women really does say something about a level of comfort of black skin in the public,” said Professor Rooks, who recently taught a course on race, fashion and gender.

Pageants have recently sought to put more emphasis on the offstage lives of their contestants, highlighting their accomplishments and charity work instead of only their appearances.

Last year, the Miss America Organization announced it would end the swimsuit contest, among other changes.

Pageants have also expanded who is allowed to participate. The Miss Universe Organization, which runs Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, for example, began allowing transgender women as contestants in 2012.

Many have long criticized the underrepresentation of black women in the competitions.

Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to win the Miss America title in 1984.

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