Zozibini Tunzi, the South African winner of 2019’s Miss Universe pageant, sees her new title as an opportunity to lift others up every day.
“I want to wake up and do more than just serve myself,” she said.
Tunzi came onto the stage of the William Pitt Union Assembly Room for An Evening with Miss Universe, hosted by the Pitt Program Council and the Black Action Society, to speak with Pitt students about her life as Miss Universe and the work she’s doing while holding the title. Tunzi said she expects to pursue activism in race and gender issues during this time, until the next Miss Universe is crowned in December. The room was packed — mostly with young women — to hear what she had to say.
Tunzi, an avid Harry Potter fan — and Gryffindor — started with expressing her amazement over Cathy’s uncanny likeness to Hogwarts and praised her visit to Phipps Conservatory, but also used her time onstage to talk about issues important to her as the first black Miss Universe since 2011.
As the first black winner of Miss Universe to sport her natural hair, Tunzi said she felt a great responsibility while wearing the crown — especially when she landed back in South Africa after her win and found herself face-to-face with a roaring crowd on the tarmac.
“When I walked out those doors and saw all those girls with crowns,” she said. “[I realized] it’s not just about me, it’s about everyone. People who’ve felt different in these spaces.”
Tunzi’s win has made ripples in her home country and around the world, particularly for women of color who face racist and colorist beauty standards from the beauty industry every day. Melanie Faulkner, a first-year biology major, said it was impactful for her whole family to see Tunzi win.
“I mean I’m black and so for my family, I remember when she won it was like a big thing for us, so just really wanted to see her here at Pitt,” Faulkner said.
Ellie Simmons, a sophomore marketing major and lecture director of the PPC, said the impact Tunzi has is why she wanted to bring her to Pitt, especially to round out the end of February’s Black History Month.
“We were thinking about who would be our end-all-be-all, our best person to bring in and Ms. Tunzi just stuck out to me so much,” she said. “She really uses her social media and her platforms to promote those things and I just thought that she would just be a wonderful person to round out our Black History Month with.”
Tunzi, who is an avid reader — currently reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” — said her encounters with amazing people of color around the world have inspired her to do good. She also said that black people have achieved so much because of the hardship they face.
“It’s quite incredible what black people have achieved by overcoming what they have overcome … black excellence never dies,” she said.
Tunzi champions many issues affecting women and people of color around the globe, but focuses chiefly on natural beauty and fighting against gender-based violence. Simmons said this was one of Tonzi’s platforms that really stood out to her.
“Fighting against gender-based violence, particularly in South Africa, is why she brought up that platform because it’s [a] very prevalent problem from where she grew up,” she said.
The rate of gender-based violence in South Africa, femicide, is some of the highest in the world. Tunzi grew up in a small village in South Africa, where family and community was emphasized. She was introduced into pageantry by her mother in an attempt to get her shy daughter to come out of her shell.
Tunzi spoke on a moment in her pageant history when she was asked what women in South Africa have to smile about. Rather than lie, Tunzi said she had to speak the truth about the day-to-day violence in South Africa, even if it would bring the mood down at the event.
Encouraging women to speak their truth is one of the things Tunzi said is most important for her tenure as Miss Universe. She said women for so long have been taught to be seen and not heard, unlike men who are expected to take up space. According to Tunzi, women need to speak up, especially now.
“When you enter a room,” she said. “Take up the whole space, don’t be shy about it.”
Aanchal Totwani, a first-year neuroscience major, said this message, about believing in the power of one’s self, has a lot of merit to it and really stuck with her.
“What everyone else says doesn’t matter. You know yourself better than anyone else ever will and that stuck with me because it’s just true, and using that you can do so much more than you think you can,” she said.
Simmons said that in the ever-growing world of social media, which can bring out negative feelings, especially for young people, Tunzi can serve as a role model to fight against this negative type of thinking about oneself.
“This is another person that they [college students] can look up to,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh here’s another amazing role model I can have, who doesn’t have to be the same person over and over again.’ This woman really sticks out as a woman of color and a great person in general.”
Tunzi herself struggles with unplugging from social media, especially Instagram, since her phone is always buzzing. Most of the attention she gets on social media is love, but she said there are always trolls lingering in her comments and direct messages, which she’s deemed “keyboard warriors.”
Tunzi, who maintains the idea of love and community from her childhood years in her village upbringing, said she sees a poignant truth in the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” However, she also said it’s not just a village, it takes love — which may be hard to find but is more important than anything else.
“Love is not a myth to me, love is not a story. It’s something that I grew up on,” she said.