Black Beauty

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Bridget Masinga is sitting here, all coy and girlish. We are talking about how her life has changed since reaching the finals of Miss South Africa (she ended up with the second princess sash). She is laughing as she re-tells this story about misbehaving in Sun City (``a three month paid holliday’’ is how she puts it).

We’re at Primi Piatti � the one next to the Y-fm offices near the escalators to the Zone. As we sit there, throngs of people are walking up and down those escalators, some pointing at this black goddess with the cherubic cheeks and the legs that go on like railway tracks. But she doesn’t seem to notice.

And then it suddenly dawns on me, looking at this woman who many believe should have been the 00 Miss SA I’m thinking, thank God she didn’t win.

See, Bridget can still pursue her social upliftment projects (she’s just come back from Kenya to build a relationship with the Women for Women organisation which helps abused women move from being ``victims to survivors to active citizens’’).

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She can accept offers for TV gigs (there’s a couple in the pipeline, she promises).

She can bask in the sun at a caf� for this interview without worrying about missing her next sponsor obligations or appearance at the opening of another envelope.

She wouldnt be able to sit there wearing something sexy but casual like jeans and a t-shirt � she’d be forced to ‘dress like a beauty queen’ with some stupid ballgown. And besides that, she might feel forced to keep flashing that Colgate (read, fake, forced, superficial) smile. And, shell have to be wearing that damned sash. And damn would that be a drag.

So, I say, thank God that Cindy Nell got the title. Good for you Pretoria princess with the too-good-to-be-true Cindy Crawford mole and sparkly eyes. Because Bridget might not have got the crown - but she sure as hell got something more street cred. By the bucket-loads.

And now shes free from chaperones (hello guys, that means theres no grumpy aging spinsters to smooth-talk before you can even home in), no sash to make you feel you need the Presidents permission. And best part (well for me, as a paid-scribbler), she can answer my questions without having them screened first.

Things like Is there a man in your life? (``Craig! Well actually there is someone…’’[Damn!]).

So I guess hitting the town together won’t be on the agenda? (``I am actually a home-body. I like spending time chilling at home’’).

BRIDGET was of cause seen by many different people in many quarters as the perfect new styled reality TV kinda Miss SA beauty queen. She defiantly wore her hair natural, she spoke her mind (Im a pittbull in a skirt is a headline I remember seeing in a Sunday newspaper that I will never forget in a hurry) and she was cool. Y cool.

So you can’t help wondering what Julia Morley, the ugly sister to the Cinderellas of the Miss World pageant, would have thought of her. Would Mrs Morley take one look at the Afro-sista and send her back to Darkest on the next plane?

Well, judging by her track-record, that’s the sort of thing Mrs Morley is famous for doing.

Two years ago in Sun City she even rubbed Ernest Adjovi from the Koras up the wrong way. But that had nothing on what happened when Mrs Morley picked a place on the world map and decided that Nigeria - Abuja to be exact - had a nice ring to it as the next stop on her Miss World roadshow. So she announced to the world press that thats where the pageant in 00 would take place. And herded off her charges to the humid shores of the Nigeria capital.

Then all hell broke lose.

First there was the issue about a woman called Amina Lawal, who had given birth to a child outside marriage and was subsequently sentenced in March last year to be buried up to her neck and pelted with heavy rocks until she died. The sentence was passed by the northern state of Katsina under Sharia Muslim law and due to be carried out in 004. But Mrs Morley knew nothing about such practices.

To tell you the truth, before I left [for Nigeria] I thought Sharia was a girls name, she ingeniously told Vanity Fair magazine in an interview recently. I got into big-shit trouble because I hardly realised what I was letting myself into. Thats the honest truth.

But while the woman who coined the term beauty with a purpose for her pageant claims she was reassured by the Nigerian authorities that Amina would never be killed - and that Nigeria was safe - maybe her decision had less to do with safety and more to do to with money, as in the $10-million a Nigerian media company promised she would get if the pageant took place there.

So, in the Holy Month of Ramadan, 0 flat bellies peeping out of tight jeans set foot on the tarmac of a country half of whose population is Muslim.

Needless to say their reception bit chilly - despite the 0 degree humidity.

Then influential Nigerian newspaper ThisDay publishes a story in which its young female writer says this about Mrs Morleys young charges ``What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them...’’

And then the shit really hits the fan. Riots break out.

``Down with beauty’’ the rioters chant. ``Miss World is sin! Allahu Akbar!’’ Churches and mosques razed to the ground. Bystanders necklaced with burning tires. First 15 people die. Then 50. And finally 50 dead.

Miss Canada flees. Then Miss South Korea. And finally, Mrs Morley gives in and charters a jumbo jet to get all the beauty queens back to the civilization of a grey and somber London.

Then theres all the other jinx and high dramas which have beset this beauty pageant business over the years. Our own Miss Teen was a fiasco in year one when Charnelle Dennis fell pregnant during her reign and handed over her crown with her body ill disguised in a dress that made her look like a white, melting marshmallow to hide her ballooning tummy. And last years winner Sally-Ann Kopa, the daughter of a domestic worker, had to struggle with the organisers to finally get her four-wheel drive and still hasnt seen all the money that was promised to her.

Miss World, on the otherhand has been beset by feminists storming its stages and dousing bikini-clad contestants with tomatoes and floor in 170 and contended in 17 with one contestant (Gay Mei-Lin from Hong Kong) who it turned out, was actually born with one asset not required on the selection criteria a penis.

But what does this all mean for us in Mzanzi, where we are probably up there with our Latin and Indian brothers - and sisters - with being obsessed with beauty queens.

Well, beauty pageants are always ratings winners. And if you were to pick one group of people - other than politicians and ex-Simunye presenters - who are devoid of talent but get gazillions of column inches devoted to them in gossip columns and weekend supplements and magazine spreads then it would have to be beauty queens. They have taken over our TV screens, infiltrated our stores but thankfully they havent taken over the airwaves just yet.

Were always looking for another beauty queen who can follow in the footsteps of Penny Colen-Ray and Annelize Kriel to bring the crown back home. Beauty queen aficionados seem to come out of the woodwork as soon as its beauty pageant season (I know a Sunday newspaper reporter who can tell you the crown holders for the past two decades and his eyes positively glint everytime Miss South Africa is mentioned. Bassie, he says, she almost won it (meaning Miss Universe, I think). Did you know Im related to Jacqui...)

But maybe theres a naivete there that we will have a chance again. Or maybe Im just plain skeptical. But now really guys, do you really think we stand a chance. See, the way I see it, beauty pageants used to be about perving women in bikinis, morphed into some sort of do-gooder charity cases (albeit with long silky legs) and now its become a sort of politically correct roadshow sans geriatric politicos. A kinda United Nations of pretty faces with lithe bodies where, luckily, the United States doesnt threaten to scratch the other queens if their boobs are bigger or if someone stole her nail file.

How else do you explain why a Miss World pageant tarnished by an ignorance of Sharia law eventually sees a dark haired Muslim beauty, Azra Akin (Miss Turkey; favourite hobbies belly dancing and playing the flute) walking off the crown on December .

Coincidence? I think not. You can see Mrs Morley running it through her mind okay, weve had a few Indians, a black. Now we need a Muslim. And next, maybe an Asian...

Its sortof like a concerted effort to court the impoverished nations of the world. And, interestingly, all this new colour to a usually lily-white pageant comes at a time when TV audiences in the western world are at an all time low, while viewers in Third World countries are at an all time high.

And you can see why. Beauty pageants are about fairytales, of rags to riches dreams materialised. Beauty queens meet kings and Presidents, become TV presenters and soap opera actresses and Bollywood starlets. Many start their own PR companies - while others bring out clothing lines and some even sit on the boards of stock-exchange listed multinationals!

If you ask me, its politics which is what has been behind the locations of these OTT productions.

Thats why it made sense for post-apartheid SA to become a host country, and then the country with the biggest African population on the continent and now, this year China (the country with the largest population on the planet, which is rising as the worlds next superpower - and potential new market for all of the wests excesses) is set to be the next location.(Ironically, at the time of going to press Mrs Morley has become beset with a new crisis after the Sars outbreak threatened to scuttle her plans yet again!).

But don’t think it’s just the beauty queen business that has needed a face-lift. When it comes to the fashion industry, you can’t help but notice that trends might come and go, but the faces seem to stay the same.

When Vogue magazine published it’s millennium edition in November 1, it featured what it called it’s `model army’, an 11 page spread of 41 belles from ``sweet 16 to glorious sixtysomethings these are Vogue’s favourite faces’’; a sort of encyclopaedia of the most important models of the past 1000 years according to the fashion bible if you like. But here’s the rub there were just three black faces Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Iman.

One school of thought about these sort of anormalities is the fact that the fashion tzars of the western world don’t have a lot of black models to chose from. That maybe if they were given a larger smorgasbord of black beauties, the international catwalks would gradually change its complexion.

Thus, worthy efforts like the Face of Africa modelling contest arrived to right this, intent on produce a new crop of African models who can hold their own on the world stage. Oluchi Onweagba, the first winner in 18, became a runaway success, rapidly becoming an international catwalk star and today she is one of the world’s top ten supermodels. Oluchi’s success seemingly proved this theory. But a few years down the line, though, Face of Africa seems to have unraveled, apparently due to a lack of sponsors for the venture. And Oluchi’s successors have failed to emulate her success. Benvinda Mundenge of Namibia, the 1 winner, was sent packing after her hip size ballooned while the 000 winner Nombulelo Mazibuko and one of her runner-ups Lerato Moloi � both from South Africa � suffered a similar fate last year, apparently told by their bosses at the American modelling agency that they could never work in New York because they were too big and ‘didn’t have a professional look’.

Scratching underneath the surface, though, and the words of Naomi Campbell keep resonating.

``If the modelling industry looks into a mirror, then it prefers seeing a white face there,’’ she once said.

That same month that Vogue unveiled its millennium issue, a BBC documentary on the modelling industry showed footage of senior staff at the Elite modelling agency (which at the time represented Campbell) calling blacks ``niggers’’ and saying that Africa would be a great country if they were all white.

In one exchange a chaperone for Elite models explains that black women are rarely used in the capital of the fashion world, Milan.

``In Milano they can never use a black girl or an oriental. Very few,’’ one of the executives was heard to say during the programme.

The racist comments shed new light on complaints about the `narrow mindedness’ of the industry made by Naomi Campbell in 16. It was that year that she made the allegation that racism was behind her removal from a Vogue cover in favour of a white model.

``This business is about selling - and blonde and blue-eyed girls are what sells,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, supermodel Iman once complained that she earned four times less than her white counterparts.

Go to any fashion show in the world’s so-called fashion capitals of New York, London, Paris or Milan and you will be lucky to see more than two black models strutting their way down the ramp in a show � unless of cause it is a presentation of a black designer like Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs or Ozwald Boateng.

It’s the sort of thing not vocalised in the multi-million dollar frock business, but modelling successes like Naomi, Alek, Iman � and now Oluchi - are an anomaly, the kind of token nod to the darker hued sistas of the world.

Even the manner in which the industry writes about black models borders on the crude and demeaning. Naomi has been labelled a `black panther’ while Iman, who was actually a diplomat’s daughter fluent in three languages when she was discovered in Somalia the 170s � was touted as an illiterate shepardess who could not speak English!

The stark reality is that commercial viability is the bottom line in any industry. And when the couturier houses of the world was to sell clothes, the best way to do so is on the bodies of white models. That’s because most of their clients relate to someone who has the same skin colour as them, allowing them to visualise just how they might look in that same evening gown or jeans or skirt.

But now that you’ve heard the doom and gloom, listen up there’s light glimmer at the end of that tunnel. It seems that, after centuries of wrongs, the fashion and beauty worlds � just like Mrs Morley’s Miss World � are finally realising that we all don’t need to look the same, act the same or be the same that there’s beauty in difference. And the mighty dollar is all behind this change in mindset yet again!

Take the monolithic L’Oreal cosmetic and haircare company. A few years ago we were beset with images of blonde and blue-eyed supermodels in their ad campaigns. If you’re an accountant, this makes sense because a decade ago 75% of the company’s $5.5 billion in annual sales came from Europe (according to Fortune magazine). But last year Europe only accounted for 4% of the group’s $1.7-billion in revenues. (One of L’Oreal’s brands Soft Sheen, for instance, has seen 0% of its R00-million in sales come from South Africa). And maybe that shift in sales has a lot to do with the fact that L’Oreal might have French actress Catherine Deneuve as the official face of the company’s main French brands, SA girl Primrose Molantoa is the face of L’Oreal in South Africa, creating an ad campaign which is more relatable to the market the brand is aiming to sell to.

As Lindsay Owen-Jones, CEO of L’Oreal, explains succinctly about the diversification of the faces of the brand ``We realised that people of African origin, whenever they were in the world, were a huge potential business.’’

Certainly a shift in mindset about African beauty is reaping rewards. Take Andi Manxiwa, the -year old winner of the Y-Mag model competition (the brainchild of modelling industry guru Jan Malan and supported by model boss Paul Diamond). She has been able to compete in the prestigious Ford Supermodel of the World competition where she was placed in the top 0 of contestants from 5 countries. She has secured editorial shoots with a number of magazines overseas including one for Self magazine in Mexico � and she’s snared a two year modelling contract with the Ford modelling agency!


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