Culture : Beauty and the Beast of Apartheid in S. Africa : Amid the bathing-suit and talent contests, there is also bias. A black woman can win and yet lose the crown.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lights were dimmed, the audience held its breath and the master of ceremonies ripped open the envelope. On a card inside was the name of the new People's Miss Johannesburg--"Nani Mokoena!"

A crown was placed on the tall black model's head and photographers snapped pictures of her holding the keys to the Opel Kadette she had won. It was the happiest moment in 20-year-old Nani Mokoena's life.

But by the next day, her warm glow was gone. Pageant officials said there had been a misunderstanding. It seemed that the sponsors were happy to let black women compete for the crown, but they wanted a white woman to wear it.

The pageant was restaged two weeks later, and the judges knew just what to do. A blue-eyed blonde Afrikaner, Mokoena's runner-up the first time, got the crown, the car, the modeling contract and the free trip to Portugal.

That was 1990, but the memory was still fresh when Nani Mokoena and many other black women considered whether to enter the country's most prestigious pageant, Miss South Africa of 1991.

"Many of us thought about taking a chance," Mokoena said, "but why enter and then be made to feel ashamed of yourself?"

In a country with five times as many blacks as whites, only 50 of the 500 Miss South Africa 1991 contestants were black. And although the pageant has been open to all races since it began in 1954, there's never been a black winner.

As Mokoena expected, no blacks were even among the 12 finalists. The panel of nine judges (one of whom was black) chose a tall, blonde 22-year-old actress, Diana Tilden-Davis, as the new Miss South Africa.

The pageant generated only a murmur of disapproval among blacks when Tilden-Davis was crowned in August. But her appearance and third-place finish in the Miss World pageant last month, (South Africa previously had been ostracized from the international stage since 1977) has touched off an ugly debate here over beauty, racism and the legacy of apartheid.

Beauty contests are the latest front in the battle between whites and blacks for future control of South Africa.

Whites had enthusiastically applauded the invitation from the Miss World organizers, who turned away South Africa's entrant in London 14 years ago. Interest in South Africa was so high that the pageant finale in Atlanta last month was broadcast live nationwide here, at 4 a.m. South African time, and rerun that evening for viewers who missed it.

Top government officials, all of whom are white, said Miss South Africa's re-entry into world competition was yet another sign that their promises of reform were ending this country's long isolation. And Tilden-Davis even paused for tips from Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, in a meeting recorded in full color in the local newspapers, before leaving for the United States.

But many blacks weren't so pleased to see the doors swinging open.

"All of a sudden, whites are feeling that absolutely everything is kosher," said Nokwanda Sithole, editor of the black-oriented Tribute Magazine. "They're comfortable that Diana Tilden-Davis is in the Miss World competition, even though she is absolutely not representative of this country."

While most blacks have welcomed President Frederik W. de Klerk's sweeping reform of segregation laws in South Africa and willingness to share power with blacks, they remain an oppressed majority, denied the vote and subjected to widespread poverty and homelessness.

"How we wish we could share in the joy of Miss South Africa," the black daily Sowetan newspaper, the country's largest, said in an editorial. "Sadly, her good performance (in the Miss World pageant) leaves many black South Africans cold."

The African National Congress, the country's largest black opposition group, had given its grudging OK to the Miss World invitation. But the ANC's women's league dissented, saying that the beauty industry "degrades and exploits women" and that "in our view the current white Miss South Africa does not represent the majority of our women."

"South Africa is very, very anxious to prove to the world that all is well here, but it is not true," said Baleka Kgotsitsele, of the ANC Women's League. "There are many things that are still the same, and these beauty pageants are proof of it."

But it was Tilden-Davis herself who ignited the controversy. During a trip by Miss World contestants to South Africa, Miss Nigeria innocently asked the South African queen why more blacks didn't compete for Miss South Africa.

According to Miss Nigeria, Tilden-Davis, whose sister won the crown in 1988, said it was because most black girls become pregnant by the time they are 15. (Miss South Africa contest rules stipulate that only unmarried, childless women under 24 may compete.)

After some weeks of silence, Tilden-Davis denied the remark. She admitted, however, that she had discussed the lack of black contestants in Miss South Africa with Miss Nigeria.

Few countries in the world, with the possible exception of the United States, take beauty pageants as seriously as South Africans, black as well as white. Tens of thousands of young white girls aspire to modeling careers, and many black girls also see the glamour industry as a ticket out of the townships, to fame and fortune.

South African women parade before crowds at hundreds of pageants, from white towns and black townships to shopping malls and nightclubs. The country crowns a Miss Wheat Festival, Miss Queen of the Maize, and Miss Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There's also Miss Portuguese Community, Miss China, Miss Lebanon, Miss Cape Festival, Miss Wag Queen, Miss Radio Ciskei, Miss Blue Route Mall, Miss Soweto, Miss South African Black Taxi Association, and Miss Western Transvaal Model of the Year.

There's an all-black Miss Hollywood pageant, in which the contestants impersonate their favorite American stars, from Aretha Franklin to Janet Jackson. A favorite, chosen by three entrants last year, was Diana Ross. And there's even a Miss Gay South Africa, in which men impersonate women.

American beauty pageants regularly are broadcast on state-run television here, and beauty queens from Europe, Latin America and the United States are treated like, well, visiting royalty when they venture into South Africa.

The most important pageant, though, is Miss South Africa, co-sponsored by the English-language Sunday Times newspaper and the Afrikaans-language weekly Rapport. Although mixed-race women, known in South Africa as Colored, have done reasonably well in the pageant, black women have rarely placed among the finalists.

The reason that so few blacks enter the pageant or make it to the finals is a matter of intense debate in the glamour industry in South Africa as well as on the radio talk shows.

"I've no idea why," said Barbara Dunn, a Miss South Africa spokeswoman. "We wish we knew. There's no answer."

But many other people in South Africa think they know the answer.

"Miss South Africa is seen as a white contest, and I think most blacks would just not bother to enter," said Sithole, the Tribute Magazine editor.

Christopher Nolan, manager of Bon Models, the only all-black modeling agency in the country, said: "The feeling is that, if you are black, you might get to be first princess, but you're not going to wear the crown."

What happened to Nani Mokoena in the 1990 People's Miss Johannesburg pageant "is what we blacks expect to happen in South Africa," Mokoena said. "When you have big prizes, no black girl can win. There is no way the sponsors want to see a black child over a white child."

The bias against black women is evident in much of the advertising industry in South Africa. Editors of black-oriented magazines say advertisers believe that black people are more likely to buy clothes and other goods if they are displayed on white models.

"I don't think that's true at all, but clients have told me that to my face," said editor Sithole, who is black. "We've just been fed those images year after year."

But there are deeper reasons for the poor performance of blacks in pageants such as Miss South Africa. And most stem from the lack of opportunities available to black children.

Education is one factor. Government spending per pupil on white education has for decades far surpassed the amount spent on educating blacks.

As a result, white girls have access to ballet and dance classes at school, something unheard of in black schools. Overcrowding and shortages of supplies and books in black schools mean that black women tend not to be as articulate in English as white women.

Nakedi Ribane, a former model and now owner of a modeling school, says the different environment in which white and black girls have grown up puts blacks at a disadvantage from the moment they are born.

"Black girls grow up in a very rough environment, townships without paved roads and without parks," said Ribane, who is black. By the time they are teen-agers, she says, many black women already have scars from housework, scars that show more prominently on black skin than white skin.

"When your knees are black from scrubbing floors, you can't compete with a white girl who's had a maid all her life," Ribane said.

Largely as a result, only about 5% of the models in South Africa are black, and many of those are foreigners from Europe or North America.

But black models believe the biggest hurdle to blacks in multiracial beauty pageants in South Africa is the attitude of many whites, which many believe was reflected in Tilden-Davis' alleged remark about teen-age pregnancies.

"Whites in this country don't have respect for black people," Ribane said. "They are patronizing and they say very demeaning things. As far as they are concerned, all blacks are like their servants. And they think that all black people want is to have babies."

After losing the People's Miss Johannesburg title, Nani Mokoena returned to work as a full-time model, supporting her mother and four brothers and sisters in a black township near Johannesburg. She says she's lost the desire to enter beauty pageants, even though they hold the key to overseas travel and lucrative modeling assignments.

"It's quite discouraging for black girls to enter these pageants," Mokoena said. "The organizers make a lot of excuses. They say black girls are not intelligent, that we can't represent the country. But one thing with South Africa, whites still close all opportunities for blacks."

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