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Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi on her activism and why she refused to wear a wig

Zozibini Tunzi makes history at Miss Universe
Zozibini Tunzi makes history at Miss Universe... 06:27

When Zozibini Tunzi was named Miss Universe on stage in front of 89 other contestants last week, she initially did not know how to react. "My mind went blank for a few seconds," she told CBS News' Michelle Miller.

The 26-year-old from South Africa had achieved a dream title she hoped would inspire girls who look like her. But when Tunzi, who touts natural beauty, was preparing to enter Miss Universe, her beauty was questioned. "Before I went into the pageant, people did ask, are you going to you know, put in a weave or a wig?" she said.

"That's what we've been used to and what we've been seeing beauty pageants to be. And for me, what I thought was, if I put on a weave, then it means I don't believe in the beauty of, you know, my natural hair. So I decided to keep it this way because I really wanted to send out a message of this is beautiful, too. It's different, but it's beautiful," she said.

In an interview on the "CBS This Morning" podcast, Tunzi spoke about her activism, natural hair and the significance of her historic win.

Listen to this episode on ART19

On the stigma attached to natural hair: "Have you ever Googled professional hairstyles and non-professional hairstyles?"

In July, California became the first state to enact the CROWN Act — a ban on discrimination against black students and employees over their natural hairstyles. New York state introduced similar measures soon after.

Tunzi hopes that her win will emphasize that natural hair is beautiful, too. "Isn't it incredible how, you know, people have to fight to look like themselves. It's so crazy to me," she said. "Have you ever Googled professional hairstyles and non-professional hairstyles? You will be shocked at it."

On being among the first five black women to win major pageant crowns

Tunzi joins Miss World Toni-Ann Singh, Miss America Nia Franklin, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst and Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris to make history together as the first five black women to wear the crowns at the same time.

"It just says how much, how far we've come as the world. And for me, I think most importantly, I remember saying this morning that, you know, people need to see something in order to start believing in it," Tunzi said.

"We saw it happening with, you know, your first black president in the United States. People didn't know that a black person can be president. But he did it and now it gives so much hope for more young black people to know that they can do it, too," she said. "It gives people that permission to know that they have the space to be able to do things, now that they've seen us do it. And the world now knows that."

Miss Universe
Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, of South Africa, poses for photos with her crown after an interview in New York on Wednesday, December 11, 2019.  Mark Lennihan / AP

Why her win is bigger than race: "Black or white, or women or men or young or old, they can all take something from it"

While her win was a historic milestone for black women in beauty pageants, Tunzi also believes that her victory is bigger than race. 

"I think everyone can take from it in the sense that people can start believing that they can do things that they've been told they can't do before and things that they've probably told themselves that they can't do before," she said. "You know, people who are different, who have been told you cannot be in a certain type of space because you look this kind of way or because it's never been done before. I think it's just a breaking of status quo."

On growing up in post-apartheid South Africa

Tunzi, who is part of the first generation of her family to grow up under a democratic government and after apartheid ended in South Africa, had a happy childhood, growing up with her three sisters and her parents.

"They always knew it was going to be, you know, a challenge bringing up girls into the world, because it is quite a crazy in a cruel world for women. So they were very cautious in teaching myself and my and my sisters to believe in ourselves and to believe in our in our power and to not let people, you know, shut us down or change our opinions about the world," she recalled.
 
"It's incredible that I'm like the first generation really to experience the freedoms that, you know, people who came before me fought for. They died having not even lived to see it. And it makes me so proud to be able to stand here today representing a whole country who in the past didn't recognize, you know, black people even as humans," she said.

"For them to send me out as their representative. To say, we're sending her out to Miss Universe to represent us, means so much for my country just because of our history and where we come from. My grandmother probably never thought she would see a day where, you know, a young black woman would be seen as a leader, which is incredible." 

On her activism: "I called on men to direct messages of support to South African women"

Tunzi is an activist against gender violence and she is working with the United Nations on their "HeforShe" campaign. "It's young men standing up for women and saying, 'Let's bridge the gap of inequality and then look at women as our equals,'" she explained.
 
As part of her advocacy, she launched the "Miss South Africa Love Letter" campaign. "I called on men to direct messages of support, you know, to South African women of love. And to just send light because a lot had been happening in our country. A lot of gender-based violence, a lot of femicides. And I was like, let's just start, you know, creating a narrative where we're more supportive and loving of each other." 
 
When Tunzi took the stage for the national costume contest during Miss Universe, she had letters sent from men printed and put on the ribbons that made up her skirt. She called her creation the "wave of love."
 
Now that the competition is over, Tunzi will spend the next year living in New York City with Miss USA, working on initiatives important to the Miss Universe organization and projects that she is passionate about.
 
"I'm so excited to see what's going to happen. I really just want to leave a blank page just to see, you know, what the universe has for me. I know whatever I do, I know I want it to be purposeful. And so I'm ready to see what that will be," she said.

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