OPINION: Covering the Miss Universe Pageant taught me that the world is finally seeing the magnificent power of Black beauty

Writer Ronda Rocha-Penrice talks about the world acknowledging a new standard of beauty and being in the room with several Black beauty queens from across the globe at the Miss Universe pageant.

South African model and public relations professional Zozibini Tunzi (l-r) is the latest pageant beauty to be announced as Miss Universe joining Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris, and Miss America Nia Franklin. (Photos courtesy of Getty Images.)

Vanessa Williams, Halle Berry and Kenya Moore all have this one thing in common having carved a place for themselves as Black women in the national spotlight through the Miss America and Miss USA pageants.

Berry, representing as Miss Ohio USA, didn’t win but, boy, did she make an impression!! Still, for a lot of Black women, pageants have not been the way to go. Speaking for myself, a competition where beauty is what women lead with doesn’t sound super progressive. I never had a burning desire as a journalist to cover a pageant, but when publicists reached out to me to cover Miss Universe hosted at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, I couldn’t say no, especially when I found out that both Miss Iceland and Miss Ireland were Black.

Despite not having a super high interest in this world of white sashes, perfect posture, and coiffed hair, I got up super early a few days before the big day and stood in line at the Marriott Marquis and waited for the majority of the 90 contestants to come out to cover this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

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My main objective was to talk to all of the Black contestants, so I figured my load would be fairly light. It wasn’t. Given the number of countries in the world with a large number of Black nationals, along with countries like Ireland and Iceland with Black queens in full representation, my morning was more than full.

What I found was a group of some of the most incredible women and, in many ways, they were just like the women I admire the most. They were smart, stylish, confident, dynamic and powerful. I just loved them. They opened my mind to considerations of global beauty standards and how those standards are represented or not across the world.

Miss Nigeria and I spoke about Lagos being the center of the universe and her acting foray into Nollywood. More importantly, we discussed how she wanted to show other Nigerian women that they could be more than just a wife and mother, which was a shock to me. I’ve always seen Nigerian women as these dynamic forces in all aspects of life, but Olutosin Itohan Araromi, who is New Jersey-born and splits her time between the NYC metro area and Lagos, informed me that, for women, in the larger Nigerian culture, “sometimes it’s good to just be seen and not be heard.”

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With her MBA in the works, business is one of the areas Miss Nigeria wants to make her biggest impact. She also wants to spread a message to the women of her country that “you don’t have to just be somebody’s pretty Barbie doll [but] actually somebody who can do something in the community.”

My conversations with Miss Iceland and Miss Ireland were both eye-opening experiences. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t think of people of color when I think about these two countries. Miss Ireland, who roomed with Miss USA while in Atlanta, made me think of that side of the world slightly differently. Although her mother is a Black woman from San Francisco and she, herself, was born in D.C., Fionnghuala O’Reilly, who coincidentally works for NASA in Ireland, is also a proud 11th generation Dubliner on her father’s side.

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“I grew up not with a lot of role models, and not a lot of people looked like me in Ireland, but now we have an entire generation of young people who have diverse backgrounds, whether they’re immigrants who have come to the country, or they’re biracial themselves,” said O’Reilly.

Miss Ireland Fionnghuala O’Reilly is Irish on her father’s side. (Photo courtesy of Ronda Racha-Penrice)

“There are a lot of people with diverse backgrounds, and that’s something that our generation and our youth in Ireland are really embracing. I’m very proud to be the first biracial woman representing the country and the very first multicultural Miss Universe Ireland because I think it’s so timely.”

Miss Iceland, who placed in the top 10 during the Miss Universe pageant, told me that she also felt like her presence was a progressive one for her country.

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“Sending me out was a big step forward because we started competing in the 1960s and I’m the first-ever to go who has natural hair or even this dark of a skin tone,” shared Birta Abiba Þórhallsdóttir, who never knew her biological father who is African and whose mother and adopted father are Icelandic.

Birta Abiba Þórhallsdóttir is this year’s Miss Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Ronda Racha Penrice)

Meanwhile, Dominican Republic queen Clauvid Dály and I chatted about an issue that has become very important in the Afro-Latino community.

“The Dominican Republic right now is 70 percent curly and Black and I’m very proud of that,” she said.

Miss Dominican Republic Clauvid Dály talked about the hot button issue percolating in the Afro-Latino community. (Photo courtesy of Ronda Rocha-Penrice.)

“When I won, I got a lot of bullying and a lot of bad comments because of my skin color and because of my curly hair, I’ll be honest, it hurt because when I was a little kid, people used to do that, too. Even though it’s gotten better since I was a kid, there’s still a problem. I think when the Afro Latino community gets together, we can actually fight this, and we are. Like 10 years ago, you couldn’t go out with your curly hair because people would pull it or people wouldn’t let you into certain places. Right now, having curly hair is something you can be proud of.”

It was for these reasons and more why South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi’s win as Miss Universe meant so much to so many Black and brown girls around the world. Her flawless brown skin and cropped natural hair made her simply a breath of fresh air. I saw Tunzi again in the press room following her thrilling win. When I spoke to her Thursday, I loved her but didn’t know she would be the one. In that press room, some of my colleagues and I realized that Tunzi was the fourth mainstream Black pageant winner crowned this year, joining USA Kaliegh Garris, Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris, and Miss America Nia Franklin as global symbols of beauty. And this one was even better because it was undeniably global with an African woman at that. 

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Yes, Black women have won these titles before, but never all four at the same time. So I was standing in a historic moment that will be remembered for years to come and may not ever happen again or, at least, anytime soon. Perhaps it means that, on the grand scale, Black women’s beauty is finally being accepted and praised. Maybe it means our many skin tones, hair textures, and various features will become as normalized as the blond beauty. Either way, this year our beauty and our intelligence is now on display for all the world to see and it’s about damn time.  

Zozibini Tunzi Miss Universe 2019 theGrio.com

Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi, of South Africa, is crowned onstage at the 2019 Miss Universe Pageant at Tyler Perry Studios. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

“Society has been programmed for a very long time in a way that never saw beauty in Black Girl Magic, but now we are slowly moving into a time where, finally, women like myself can find their place in society, find that they are beautiful and, not only that, really just continue to break boundaries that we’ve been told we [could not break] before,” shared our new Miss Universe.

“It’s a beautiful movement, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

And so are we.