In 1956, South Africa’s fairy godfathers waved a magic wand and created a fantastical platform for young girls to dream the impossible dream of being crowned “the most beautiful woman in the land” (bar the few million Africans and Asians that did not receive the invite to the ball). All they needed was impossible proportions, a Snow White complexion and hair that could defy the Cape Doctor. And so Norma Voster was crowned.
Three years later, another dream girl, Barbie™, was high-heeling her way off the fantasy production line, blessed with tiny feet that magically held up her generous bust and a waist so narrow that she would have to choose between her left and right kidney, were she ever to realise her scientifically-improbable proportions.
Almost three decades later and not much has changed for either dream girls. Like all feisty matriarchs, Barbie™ has battled fierce criticism, a few lowlights (most of them in her hair) and some truly politically incorrect models (remember Becky, Barbie’s first wheelchair doll whose wheelchair couldn’t fit into the Barbie™, Dream House?) in her quest to keep up the demands and tantrums of vocal mothers everywhere. She hasn’t faired very well, but at least we can give her an “E” for effort and hope that she can still marry well. And yet, despite her few flaws and many failings, even Barbie™ got some fancy tats and the infamous “tramp stamp” (a lower back tattoo) with the launch of Totally Tattoo Barbie in 2009. Miss South Africa is still waiting to enjoy the same progressive thinking in her quest to become “a woman who has her own goals and views of her role within society”, which is what the organisers are apparently looking for but too myopic to see.
It’s true that Miss South Africa is not the same pageant it was in its Snow White days. Since 1994, Miss South Africa has made leggy strides in her battle to become politically correct, but not socially so. This year, three beautiful, intelligent semi finalists, namely Kelly Davids, Altina Vries and Aseza Matanzima, were disqualified for having visible tattoos, a long-standing rule of the competition. The fact that Matanzima’s tattoo, which runs across a rib and goes underneath her left arm, is only visible because of the bikinis that the women must wear in their intellectual battle of “my flat stomach versus your toned thighs” is a moot point for pageant organisers who, after all, are just keeping in line with Miss World’s archaic rules. So tattoos are good enough for UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador like Angelina Jolie or members of Congress like Mary Bono Mack, but not for a global role and ambassador like Miss World. Good to know.
Granted, there are only eight rules governing eligibility for Miss South Africa. Officially, that is. I am yet to see a short (below 5.7in), curvaceous (Marilyn curves) or openly lesbian Miss South Africa come out of that horse and pony show (thoroughbreds only please). In fact a lesbian would probably suit the organisers just fine, seeing that contestants should “never have been pregnant, never have given birth and not be pregnant”, let alone have had a marriage annulled or be currently engaged. It’s amazing that such a perfect specimen of brains and beauty would not have been proposed to by their 27th birthday. Imagine poor Piet’s reaction when his girlfriend of five years tells him “Sorry honey, but I’m waiting until I’m crowned Miss South Africa.” One in a million indeed.
We have to give the organisers some credit. In 2013 they announced (via their trendy Facebook page) that “the Miss South Africa pageant has received a dramatic and exciting makeover!” (Exclamation mark theirs not mine). Sounds promising, but I try to keep my expectations realistic. I’m thinking maybe they will open up the questions and voting to Twitter or ask the contestants their opinions on Nkandla and Portaloos or make them spend a week on the streets where they must learn all the words to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” while coming up with solutions for unemployment and homelessness. Isn’t this what it means to be an ambassador of a country with more social ills than wells?
As it turns out, the two changes were superficial. Our ageing princess was just injected with more Botox® to keep her as peppy and frown-free as her first world counterparts. The contest was moved from December to March to ensure Miss SA’s reign is in the same year of her appointment, while Melinda Bam was appointed National Executive of Miss South Africa (Pty) Ltd to help make the pageant more relevant to “a younger generation” (ie create a social media plan). So basically a new brand image instead of a brand new pageant for a new age. I guess Barbie™ is still winning this competition.