“You would be surprised by how much you can learn from a little four-year old, who is resilient, who is making it through a cancer battle, who is just trying to survive cancer, and there you are complaining about having to wake up at four in the morning, when this little girl is in and out of hospital, is being pricked and prodded, every two seconds, around every corner.”

Liesl Laurie – A Positive Influence

Current Miss South Africa, Liesl Laurie, hands over her crown in March 2016. South Africa Deluxe spoke recently with her about her reign, and her plans for the future.

“I’ve always wanted to be someone influential, and what better way to be influential than to be an ambassador for your country? As a young girl I was raised in a family that was always giving back, we’ve had a non-profit organisation (NPO) for the past twelve years, and I started my own NPO a year before I entered Miss South Africa, and not because it would be strategically a good thing to have, but because that is how I was raised. I remember one day sitting and speaking to my gran and saying to her that the NPO is doing well now, but I need the influence, I need corporates to step up and give me their money, and the easiest way to do that is if you’re well-known, if you’re influential, if your profile is everywhere.”

Liesl shares that the easiest way for her to do that was to do what she always said she wanted to do, and that was enter Miss South Africa. “For me it was important that I first graduated, because I’m someone who speaks very strongly about education to the youth and I wanted to be able to say to them, ‘look I finished my education, I graduated, I made sure I’m an accountant and then I entered Miss South Africa’, and it also made me seem more real to people as well, ‘she’s got her degree, she’s got her head on straight, she’s much older, she knows herself, she knows where she’s going, she’s not going to embarrass us six months down the line.’”

Liesl graduated in April 2014 and entered Miss South Africa in October that same year. By November the judges had narrowed the contestants from about 5,000 to the top 24 and what followed was an intense round of judging and workshop week where the 24 young women are empowered through a series of workshops that teach them about beauty and poise, but also about public relations, social media, how to conduct yourself in interviews and more valuable life skills they will be able to use later as they build their careers. After the workshops there is a further round of judging where contestants are closely watched to see if they took in and applied the little things that were shared with them in workshop week. Liesl says she was grateful for the five month process between entering and her crowning, explaining that it is better to be judged over a longer period of time, rather than on one day, or for a week, “What happens if I’m having a bad week, or a bad hair day, you know, so what if it’s one of those kinds of moments and that’s why I was grateful for that process, because I know they look at everything.”

She smiles, her face lighting up when she admits that she knew she wasn’t always the girl on top, “I was very tom-boyish, I came from the townships, so everything for me was almost like I was winging it, but that was part of my charm, I wasn’t always on point, I wasn’t always a ten-out-of-ten, I was a bit off-beat, I’d trip, I’d say something maybe that people wouldn’t say, but it was what made me likeable, it made me relatable, it made me real, and the public fell in love with me in that sense too. It is all based on five months of intense craziness, and I think if you can handle those five months of television, radio, interviews, being on-screen, being off-screen, being up at four in the morning and going to bed at twelve at night, then you can handle it, they see you can handle being Miss South Africa.”

During her reign, the Miss South Africa team has helped her fulfil the promise of her legacy, “I was already working in my community, I was already working in my country, and what I needed was South Africans and Miss South Africa to help me grow that. So I worked a lot with the organisations I was already working with, and then I had to spread myself even thinner, and help other organisations, because I can’t just feed my little ones over there, I had to now visit other people’s organisations, shed some light on them, and that was mainly what I did. So days would be full because charity events, maybe one or two, and bringing media to those events, so people can know and learn about those charities, then later on in the evening, run back home, dress and freshen up, and then it’s a media event where now people want to talk about your trip, and how your year is going. I always say its 70, even 80 percent hard work, and then it’s 20 percent glitz and glamour, and being able to dress up.”

Some of the charities which she has been involved in over the past year were Reach for a Dream, Babies Behind Bars and her own NPO the Pearl Project. “I worked very closely with Reach for a Dream, I think that was one of the charities that taught me the most during the year. You would be surprised by how much you can learn from a little four-year old, who is resilient, who is making it through a cancer battle, who is just trying to survive cancer, and there you are complaining about having to wake up at four in the morning, when this little girl is in and out of hospital, is being pricked and prodded, every two seconds, around every corner. So Reach for a Dream for me was very special, and will always be a special organisation to me.”
Liesl worked with Babies Behind Bars as an accountant, PA and wherever else she was needed, prior to entering Miss South Africa. The organisation takes care of babies who are born in prison, and live there for the first two years of their lives. The organisation collects medical supplies, clothes, nappies and baby formula and food which are dropped off on collection days by individuals who have purchased from the organisations wish list. “We always ask people to buy exactly what is on the wish list, because that is exactly what the kids need. Like the special kind of formula that a baby that is HIV positive needs, or the kind of formula for a baby that’s struggling with TB needs. It is not always easy for us to visit the prison, but we do try and visit as often as we can, and when we do go in, we paint, we build parks, do those small little things, but your main function is taking care of that child, the medical supplies, the nappies, the toiletries.”

Liesl started the Pearl Project in July 2014, “I started it because I was a young girl in Eldorado Park, growing up with her grandmother, and a very difficult childhood. And when I looked at it, there were five girlfriends, that I had, and we were each in a similar circumstance, which meant that 90 percent of kids in Eldorado Park pretty much had the same life, and you look at the five girls, and maybe only two out of the five girls make it somewhere, maybe even one, sometimes none. Some fall pregnant at 16, are drug addict by 21 or selling her body, any of those things, because you grow up with that mind set, because it’s happening all around you so, ‘Might as well also do it,’ so I thought, I need to speak to these young girls.”

She explains that it’s mainly just a mind shift that you’re trying to get from these young girls, and while you might not get through to all of them, you might reach one or two. She started off small, visiting local schools and aftercare centres and talking to the girls. As it grew bigger and bigger, she approached her friends for sponsorship, “I spoke to my friends and said ‘You know you guys have done so well for yourselves, you’re all working now, now you need to give back to the community. And so my NPO was funded by all my friends, who all used to give me R1, 500 a month, and we would make little bracelets. My little sister, she is very arty, made bracelets every time I visited a school, and so at each school I would speak to 150 girls, and she would make 150 pearl bracelets.”

She chose the name Pearl because of the process of the formation of a pearl – no two are ever alike, and this is the message she imparts to the young girls she speaks to, “I give them seven lessons, and it’s based on my life, I put up pictures of me as a little girl, of me as a teenager, I tell them the reasons I chose the friends that I have, and we get to the Pearl Project, and I tell them no two girls will ever be the same, so stop trying to be like mom, or be like your sister, or be like Liesl, be like you. I say to them in Miss South Africa, I was weird, I was off-beat, I was not necessarily what they wanted from a Miss South Africa, but I used it, it was my charm, it was what made me unique, and so if you can teach these girls to be grateful, and happy about who they are, their self-image and to understand that their dreams are valid, even if they’re living in a shack in someone’s yard, then that’s where we need to shift those minds to because that’s where we get our next lawyers, and doctors, hairdressers, beauticians, and not just a little girl that grows up thinking ‘oh at 16 I’ll just start sleeping around and then we’ll see what happens there.’ For me that’s the project that is closest to my heart, it’s the one that I started and I believe the reason that I have appealed to so many of the kids from the smaller townships is because I’m a township girl and it links in automatically because I can remember when I was younger, and someone came to speak to us at school, I was like, ‘Hmm, but what does she know?’ When I walk in, I’m like, ‘I live down the road from you, in the hood, I grew up there, I have lived there all my life, and that’s what gets these girls so captivated, they are really listening because, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’” She says that although it was hard growing up, she’s grateful for all her experiences because they now act as inspiration to other young girls.

Her message to the girls she speaks to is a worthwhile one for everyone to hear, “You’re not a product of circumstance, you’re a product of choice. It’s especially important for young kids to hear that. What’s your problem, my mom was an addict, and your mom? Oh she doesn’t have a job, shame. It’s your choices, study for your exams, get the bursary, those are your choices, nobody else can do well at school for you, nobody else can put you in university, sometimes you need to put it to them like that.” For Liesl these are not just hollow words either. Her first year at university was sponsored by financial aid, and when someone suggested she started modelling and that she could make a lot of money doing it, she leapt at the opportunity to earn the money to pay for her studies.

She did a number of campaigns for Jet and Edgars, as well as some television commercials and she says it did pay well, which enabled her not only to pay for her studies, but to help her family a lot. One of the greatest lessons she learnt from her grandmother, who she shares is her best friend and her rock, was when she went to the first modelling agency. They told her she was too thin, had bad skin, and it left her hurt and in tears. Her grandmother’s words were, “Not everyone is going to like you.” She says that advice has helped her through so many things, from going on castings, to job interviews, to the Miss South Africa pageant. It’s given her the confidence to walk in and say, “This is me, if you like me great, if you don’t someone else will, there are other castings.” It’s made her more resilient and more confident in herself.

In December 2015, Liesl was crowned Miss World Africa at the Miss World pageant in China, and once her reign as Miss South Africa ends she will take up the duties expected of her in that capacity. Instead of merely focusing on South Africa, she will be travelling the African continent, sharing her story and bringing the organisations that need it most into the national and international spotlight. She speaks positively of the past year, sharing that if she had to hand over her crown tomorrow, she wouldn’t be upset, because she has successfully accomplished everything she set out to do almost a year ago, and she’s excited to move onto  the next phase of her journey.

– Lindsay Grubb –