Miss Universe explains why sporting her natural hair on stage was so important

When it comes to beauty pageants, 2019 has undeniably been a year for black women.

In September 2018, North Carolina native Nia Imani Franklin, a classically trained opera singer, was crowned Miss America 2019 after she stunned audiences and judges alike with her rendition of "Quando me'n vo'," a soprano aria from Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's opera "La bohème."

Seven months later, in April 2019, 19-year-old Kaliegh Garris, of Connecticut, snagged the Miss Teen USA 2019 crown while earning praise for rocking her natural hair.

The momentum for black women continued the following month, when North Carolina civil litigation attorney Cheslie Kryst won the Miss USA 2019 title. In fact, Kryst's victory marked the first time all three titles — Miss America, Miss Teen USA and Miss USA — were owned by black women, a point not lost on critics, who have accused beauty pageants of being historically racist and segregational.

On Dec. 8, Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi added to the growing list of black beauty queens by securing the title of Miss Universe 2019. That win, however, did not come without its own set of challenges. Multiple reports revealed that Tunzi had been told by "a lot of people" to wear a wig instead of sporting her natural hair.

"The minute I said I was entering a beauty pageant, they said, 'Okay, are you going to put on a weave?'" Tunzi told In The Know. "Am I going to grow my hair out? Am I going to put on a wig on top of it? Because I think that's just how pageant standards have been in their minds."

Tunzi, who admitted to Insider in a separate interview that she had long been tired of spending hours in a salon, said that she, instead, wanted to take ownership of black beauty standards and change people's perceptions of them — mostly because of what she had personally gone through.

"Growing up in a world that lacked inclusion and representation, I'm looking at movies, opening up a magazine and not seeing a woman who looks like myself," she explained. "That does a lot to the mind because it makes you feel like you're not represented in the world."

Tunzi chose to cut her hair approximately three years ago, but the decision didn't come without hesitation. In the moments leading up to the Miss Universe competition, she said she did question whether she could hold her own against 89 other contestants on stage. Eventually, she was able to find peace with herself.

"Because I was on the Miss Universe stage, just the stage that is considered to have the most beautiful women in the world ... and intelligent women in the world, according to my opinion, I was like, 'Beauty can be the way that I'm looking right now,'" she said.

The move to embrace her natural beauty paid off, with a huge win on one of the world's biggest stages, earning her endless praise on social media.

"She said she wanted young girls to see their faces reflected in hers," one person tweeted. "Sis Zozi, your dream is fulfilled because I see myself in you and thank you so much. You are so beautiful.. I'm not growing my hair period. "

Ultimately, Tunzi said she hopes her win empowers other women to be comfortable with themselves.

"When you walk into a room, don't be scared to express yourself and to show people how you feel and to teach them things and to learn from them as well because, you know, they are the future of this world," she said.

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