“To that little girl in St. Thomas, Jamaica and all the girls around the world — please believe in yourself,” Singh wrote on Twitter. “Please know that you are worthy and capable of achieving your dreams. This crown is not mine but yours. You have a PURPOSE.”
Singh, 23, graduated from Florida State University with degrees in psychology and women’s studies and plans to attend medical school.
These pageants have always struggled to reflect onstage the diverse array of women who make up the world’s population — women with hair, skin and bodies that do not conform to the ones that have traditionally dominated beauty contests. For decades in the United States, contestants were exclusively white because women of color were not allowed to participate.
In 1970, the year that a deeply divided South Africa sent a black representative and a white representative to Miss World, Jennifer Hosten of Grenada took the title, becoming the first Black woman to win. In 1977, Janelle Commissiong, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, was crowned the first black Miss Universe. Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to win the Miss America title; she was crowned Miss America 1984 in 1983. In 1990, Carole Anne-Marie Gist became the first black Miss USA. Janel Bishop broke the last barrier when she was named Miss Teen USA 1991, the first black winner of the pageant.
The franchises have evolved over time, becoming more and more inclusive — on the basis of race, sexual orientation and religious affiliation — even as the pageant world continues to grapple with core criticism over female objectification.
Still, the slate of 2019 winners in the United States and across the globe shows how far these contests have come, a milestone summarized in the powerful speech that Tunzi, of South Africa, gave Dec. 8 just before she was crowned Miss Universe.
“I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered beautiful,” Tunzi told the crowd last week. “I think it is time that stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face. And I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.”
Tunzi wore her hair natural and cropped close to her head, a common hairstyle out in the world but not on the pageant stage. In an interview with Insider, Tunzi said she cut her hair after growing tired of sitting for hours in salon chairs and had worn it natural for three years before last week’s contest. But as Miss Universe approached, Tunzi said, friends and advisers encouraged her to revert to a more traditional pageant look.
“It was so strange because even a lot of people I knew, people that were my friends, were like, ‘Sis, we love you, but we’re just saying, maybe you should put on a wig or buy a weave,'” Tunzi told Insider.
She refused, she said, not because she believes wigs or weaves are wrong but because wearing her hair natural felt most authentic for her. “My message is not to say to all women, ‘Cut your hair, take off your weaves,’ no!” Tunzi told Insider. “My message is, ‘You are who you are.’ And if that’s your true authentic self, then don’t be shy about it.”
Miss USA and Teen USA also wore their crowns atop natural curls. Garris, who attended high school in Connecticut, told Elle that she will “always compete with my natural hair.”
When she won Miss USA in the spring, Kryst said in an interview with Refinery 29 that she hopes the prevalence of women with natural hair this year will empower others. “You can wear your hair the way that it’s growing out of your head proudly out in the world,” she said.
As the number of black winners of beauty pageants rose throughout the year, peaking with five total after Saturday’s Miss World event, other powerful black women took notice. Oprah Winfrey tweeted about Tunzi’s speech, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) praised Kryst, Garris and Franklin, who won Miss America. “You are trailblazers,” Harris said.
Franklin, an opera singer with a master’s degree in music composition from the University of North Carolina, said music helped her find self-assurance.
“I grew up at a predominantly Caucasian school and there was only five percent minority, and I felt out of place so much because of the color of my skin,” Franklin said during the Miss America competition. “But growing up, I found my love of arts, and through music that helped me to feel positive about myself and about who I was.”
All five title-holding women represent a range of professional backgrounds and experiences. Kryst is an attorney with a law degree and an MBA from Wake Forest University who is working to reshape the criminal justice system. Tunzi has raised awareness of climate change and gender-based violence. Garris started the We Are People 1st organization, which aims to educate others about people, like her sister, who live with disabilities. Franklin has advocated for the preservation of arts education in school. And Singh, the most recent winner, wants to be a doctor.