Allow me to take you back to February 2020. It’s Zozi’s homecoming. Up until six months prior, no-one had even heard of her. The Gautrain is offering free rides to the airport to meet her. President Cyril Ramaphosa is personally inviting her to attend the State of The Nation Address as his guest. And, Nelson Mandela’s grandson is opening the doors to Tata Madiba’s’ historic home, where she is invited to sit in his grandfather’s favourite armchair. ‘I’m never washing this dress,’ she excitedly captions her Insta post. I wouldn’t wash the dress either.
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This is a big deal, people. It is one of the many things I love about this country – and its people. The immense pride and inclusive support we show for those who fly our flag high is remarkable. And, as the current reigning Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi is only just getting started.
Somewhere in the middle of her whirlwind homecoming tour, we find ourselves in the rooftop suite of Jo’burg’s current ‘it’ hotel, Hallmark House. ICYDK, all the cool kids are hanging here these days (Laduma Ngxokolo, we see you).
Zozi arrives wearing a maxi dress in an African print. Seven enormous bodyguards surround her, including a New York Police Department officer named Dennis. IRL, she is small-framed, yet tall and statuesque. ‘Just the right amount of “laidback” for a Miss Universe,’ says COSMO’s fashion director Cleo Marcopoulos.
She is graceful, yet down to earth. She is the girl next door, but not. She is professional, yet relaxed and approachable.
She has kind-hearted energy – the kinda friendly and accessible energy you get from someone you’ve known your entire life.
She is feeling exhausted (although you’d never know) – the day before, she was at a street parade in her Eastern Cape hometown of Tsolo, and her body is running on no sleep (New York, where Zozi is currently living out her year-long reign, is six hours behind us). We get her a strong coffee and two muffins (one blueberry and one bran because we’re not sure which one she’ll prefer). Zozi eats both. We stan her even more – a girl after our own carb-loving hearts.
Rewind to two weeks before the shoot when I had her on the phone for our interview, a peaceful conversation before the homecoming frenzy hits – Zozi in her Big Apple apartment, me in my office with a big ‘do not disturb sign’ hanging on the door. ‘I love Nandos,’ she says to me. ‘The first thing I plan to eat when I come home is Nandos because they don’t have it here in New York. I want to have vetkoek so badly. And samp, too. But it’s the middle of summer and people don’t eat samp in summer.’
We go back to where it all began. Zozi was a shy, seven-year-old girl and her mom was concerned. ‘I didn’t have a lot of friends and I didn’t play sport either, so I didn’t socialise much, which worried my mom a lot,’ she says. I tell her I find this rather hard to believe. This is not the same Zozi I watched tell gazillions of viewers across the world in the Miss Universe final that women are the most powerful beings on the planet and we should teach young girls to take up space.
Whether you’re here for beauty pageants or not (and yes, there’s a giant question mark around them, but we won’t go there just yet), overcoming shyness is something Zozi credits pageantry with. Her mom entered her in a local church pageant with the hope she’d meet people and make friends. ‘When you enter a pageant, they put you on the spot and they ask you a lot of questions,’ she says. ‘I felt self-confident and I became more curious about the world. I pushed myself to share my opinions, to speak about the things that I read.’
If you, like me, have never entered a pageant nor intend to, don’t worry – Zozi has self-confidence tips for you. ‘I always tell people that everyone’s human; it doesn’t matter who you are,’ she says. ‘You can be the president or you can be Beyoncé. We are all human, so speak to people as normal humans and don’t get intimidated by their titles. That’s the first step to overcoming your shyness.’
Back in 2017, Zozi entered Miss South Africa but didn’t make the top 12. Something made her enter again. Something made her give the middle finger to defeat. I want to know why.
‘The truth about life is that you will hear “no” more than you will ever hear “yes”,’ she says. ‘People will shut their doors on you all the time, more than they will open them. I grew up with this mentality and my parents taught me that the world doesn’t owe you anything. They taught me to work hard for everything I want to accomplish. That is why failure, for me, is just a stepping stone to the next level – if they say “no” here, then try somewhere else.’ It was this unrelenting, defiant self-belief that made Zozi enter again in 2019. That, and her trust in timing (the universe has a plan for us, right?). ‘There’s something about timing that needs to be learnt. It was someone else’s time in 2017 – it was Demi’s time because she went on to become Miss Universe.’
And so, if you take one thing away from this story, let it be to never allow yourself to feel that you are not good enough. And, in Zozi’s words, ‘Own your power. Be ambitious. Show people in the room that you are capable of. Lift up your hand and shout as much as you can.’
By Holly Meadows
Photography: Cedric Nzaka Art direction: Shirley Padi Fashion direction: Cleo Marcopoulos
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