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“If anyone should ever ask, I’d describe you as a wealth of Sundays”. I believe it was Alysia Harris who wrote this in her poem titled ‘Waiting’. I borrow these words to describe South Africa’s reigning Miss South Africa (2011) Melinda Bam. Having won the nations favor in the behind-the-scenes show, The Road to Miss SA, and then going on to win the pageant, to relatively few people’s surprise, she has refreshed our perceptions of beauty contests. Despite easily being one of the most beautiful women in the media, her work with multiple charities, business partnerships and academic success speak for themselves.
On a breezy Monday morning, Miss South Africa, Melinda Bam, and I sit warmly in a boardroom at Sun International, Sandton, conversing about the successes and challenges of the children’s home closest to her, Thuthuzela, her new endeavour: preparing to compete in Miss Universe 2012 (bringing clarity to the fabricated ‘scandal’), attaining her Honours degree and her future professional plans. It gets personal as she opens up to me about the death of her father, her mentor and why she will always give glory to God for all of her success. After sitting down and talking to her for more than an hour & a half, I was amazed at the mind beneath her regal crown and the compassionate heart behind that iconic sash! By: Kabelo Khanye.
Kabelo: This December will be a full circle time for you: passing on your crown and title to competing in this years Miss Universe. How would you describe your reign as Miss South Africa?
Melinda: I think my reign has been very different to other Miss South Africa’s so far because I came in a rookie, I didn’t do pageants from a very young age and Miss South Africa was actually the first big pageant I have ever done in my life. So I do consider myself a rookie at this and having a fresh perspective on life and a lot of the things that have happened this year and having a fresh perspective on the pageant, I think that made my year so much different because I thought ‘ok, I’ll bring something new to it’ and I thought every girl’s aim is to revive the Miss South Africa pageant because over this past five, seven years, people haven’t had that ritual of sitting down with the whole family and watching Miss South Africa as I did when I was young. I came in with the expectation of making it something big again, something that is iconic but attainable …
K: … yeah, like a fresh twist …
M: yes, like a fresh twist. Making it new, making it relevant again and I hope that I have done that and so by the end of the year, looking back, that’s definitely one of the things I would have wanted to achieve. As well as my project, I think a Miss South Africa is supposed to have a perfect balance between being a role model, having a public profile but also being very serious bout the work that she does which is Thuthuzela for me, this year. I have got such a passion for the work that I do but I have got a passion for the brand as well.
K: You mention your work with Thuthuzela and I love that you’re involved with kids. What do these kids mean to you?
M: I only got involved with Thuthuzela during The Road to Miss SA and I had various charities that I was involved with in Pretoria and in Durban because I would travel there a lot. Logistically, it was more practical to choose a charity close by as I’m living in Johannesburg. When I got the list of charities to choose from, after I won the boot camp challenge, I knew Thuthuzela was the one I wanted to focus on just because when you work with a house or you work with kids, in particular, you need to feel that connection because if you do it just for the sake of doing it, you’re not going to make a success out of it. But if you do it with a connection and the passion to actually help them, then that will be the driving force of actually making the project a success. So seeing the kids from last year and seeing how they have grown up until now, and not only physically but to also see the transformation in their education, to see their faces light up and also getting to know me as well, I feel that I have become like a second mom to some of the kids. But this year I have been incredibly busy and the one thing I would have wanted was to be able to have spent more time with them. I travel quite often too: Cape Town, Durban, P.E., other countries as well, so it’s difficult to find the time but when I go, I always ensure that I add value.
K: And in a personal way as well because it’s not about the media coverage, it’s about the personal relationships established.
M: Exactly and I think that’s what made Thuthuzela even more precious to me because apart from the relationships that I’ve build and to be able to give those ladies a bursary to go and study and educate themselves, it’s something sustainable. My ultimate goal is to provide them with something tangible in their hands that is going to provide them with that security, which is the home. The ‘Save the Home’ campaign we started at the beginning of the year has been going very well …
K: … their home was actually going to be sold…
M: … yes, it still might be. We are working with CNBC Africa now and things are working much slower than I had expected but at least the funds that we have raised so far have been most valuable …
K: … yeah and you see the difference being made.
M: Yes and we see that oh my goodness, this is something that is waiting to explode into something incredible and that’s going to get rhythm now but at this stage, it is difficult. I am not an expert on the field but I know if you work with people who have the same vision, the same passion with you, you could bring together knowledge and something so much more.
K: And did you know or anticipate that the task was going to be this difficult when you first chose Thuthuzela?
M: No, I didn’t. I thought it was going to be a matter of buying the property and giving the kids a home and then having that said and done there but at the end of the day, we could have bought them the property but it would not have had the more space that we want for them. I don’t think that finding any solution is going to be the most valuable to them. You got to find the right solution in order for them to expand in the long-term as well.
M: We actually started with the tangible preparations two weeks ago and it is so exciting because it is something that I have really been dreaming about since I was in my standard 8 class, in my art class. Instead of drawing the sketches that I was supposed to, I was sketching my Miss Universe gowns …
M: [Laughs] and I remember with Remona’s farewell party, she said that she pranced around the TV and did her entrance for Miss World; I did that with Miss Universe so it’s only natural for me to want to do Miss Universe.
[Melinda later told me that there is no truth to the fabricated stories about an alleged scandal. Her and Remona Moodley (1st Princess) had decided in February, 2012, that Moodley would compete in Miss World and Bam in Miss Universe].
K: And that’s beautiful that she gets to fulfill her dream for Miss World and you, Miss Universe.
M: She’s a good friend of mine and that was one of the best things I could have done this year. We have designed the gowns, we have designed the national costume …
K: And who is the designer?
M: Peter Bondisio and he is absolutely incredible. He is not a well-known designer in the industry because he doesn’t do commercial that often. He has a list of private clients that he always works with but his craft is impeccable and I think it’s a good opportunity to shed some light on new talent that S.A has instead of using the same designers over and over again. Ofcourse I will still use them but there needs to be that new spark in there somewhere. I think the whole packaging around Miss Universe is going to be so different this year because you need to change the formula if you want to have different results. So if you’re going to do what everyone else does, you’re going to have what everybody else has. This is the exciting part because I have a creative mind and my best friend helps me a lot with the planning as well. Another thing that I don’t think they have ever done before is to play on something that includes everyone in South Africa, things that are one of our biggest exports: our minerals, our gold, platinum, diamonds and I think it is something that will translate very glamorously on stage as well. Our national costume is going to an incorporation of gold, diamonds, charcoal and platinum to symbolize all of that. And then we’re going to incorporate in the design the coat of arms, which is something that symbolizes more of South Africa and then we’re going to shoot on the mine itself.
K: This sounds phenomenal.
M: Yes, we want people to understand clearly what this symbolizes and what the vision was. As well as the national gifts, everything is going to be a very cohesive idea because when people see me on stage or at a function and I am wearing something shiny, I want them to know ‘oh, she’s South African!’.
K: It’s about being distinct and standing out. What is your mindset in preparing for Miss Universe? Are you nervous?
M: Yes I am nervous and just as nervous as I was when preparing for Miss SA but I think I am less nervous going into Miss Universe because I know that whatever happens there, I will always be Miss SA. With Miss SA, it was either you win everything or you lose everything. I know that I will remain Miss SA but I want to achieve so much more there as well.
K: And it’s what you want to do because I feel like people could impose their expectations and pressure on you but you seem very keen on your own.
M: Yes, definitely.
K: So in addition to all of your successes, you are also a BCom in Marketing graduate, congratulations for that.
M: Thank you [giggles].
K: Why was it so important for you to further your studies when a lot of people could’ve said you don’t need to?
M: I have always liked studying and I think that is something I have my parents to thank for because they have always made my studies interesting for me and they have allowed me to choose the subjects I wanted to do in school. Quite frankly, I felt like the jack of all trades at school: there were so many things that I was interested in but I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on. And then I went to varsity and I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I knew I had a very big interest in Business so I knew I couldn’t go wrong with a BCom as well as Marketing because I know I have a creative mind and that is one line of business you can actually marry into the corporate environment. I started studying Marketing and in my first year I absolutely hated it because it had Stats [Statistics] and Accounting and things that I didn’t take at school. I mean I had Maths, Biology, Art and Drama and I did well at school but I ended up doing subjects [in varsity] that I thought I would never take. After I finished with my studies, I knew that I am a very competitive person so whatever I do in life, I seek to do it well and I believe that’s why I graduated with Honors as well. It was important to me to finish my degree and still travel because I believe there are certain things you can’t learn by simply being book smart. You have to have skills …
K: … and experiences …
M: … yes, and experience different cultures to be able to be agile in a diverse society. So when I went to China, I think that is one of the best things I could have done because during that six months I learned so much more than I did in my four-year degree.
K: Wow and what were some of the things that you got up to in China?
M: I did a little bit of marketing for a freelance agency in Hong Kong and then I did some modeling in China. It was quite interesting living with Brazilians and Russians and Americans and then speaking with the Chinese people who don’t speak English. I then had to learn a little bit of Mandarin. If you throw yourself in the deep end, you’ll find that you will always learn faster. My whole life has led up to me being prepared for Miss SA and being made for bigger things because if I had to detract from one of those things: my studies or China or just my mindset and my been-throughs, then I wouldn’t have been as ready as I was for Miss SA and for Miss Universe.
K: Powerful. You touched on art and I have seen some of your sketches and drawings. Would you consider displaying some of your art and selling it?
M: Definitely. I wish I had more time this year and capturing Thuthuzela in some of my paintings and having it auctioned off to raise money. My road with Thuthuzela doesn’t end when I hand over my crown.
K: That’s brilliant.
M: If you pour your heart and soul into a passion that is such a big part of you, you’ll always reap the rewards and hopefully I will do it in a time and space where I can do my best in it.
K: Yeah and how long have you been sketching?
M: Probably since I was 6, it’s the furthest memory I can remember.
K: Powerful women, such as Basetsana Khumalo, have been crowned Miss SA as well and have gone on to do incredible work. After all the pageantry, what’s next for you professionally?
M: Professionally, like I mentioned, my work with Thuthuzela isn’t done. As well as a company I have been working with the Business for Empowerment Trust (BET), BET Business and Black Seed: this is an organization where they take the funds generated from BEE points and they filter it down to worthy causes and they want me to be an ambassador for those causes. One of those causes is a leadership and empowerment conference and I will be speaking to young entrepreneurs: encouraging them to start their own businesses. Apart from that, I know I want to further my studies but I also know I can’t just disappear for a whole year to go back to being a full-time student because it’s important to the brand of Miss SA that I continue doing work, even after my reign. Otherwise, you’ll be forgotten and I don’t want to be that.
K: And just on that point, you’ve got so many passions like so many other young people who want to do so many things. How do you strike balance?
M: I think people have this misconception that they need to do one thing for the rest of their life. I read a statistic the other day that said our parent’s generation, started in one job and finished it until now. We are to fluctuate between 6 jobs in our lifetime of which 4 of them don’t even exist yet!
K: [Laughs] wow!
M: I mean if you think about that, do what makes you happy now. Whatever is going to be fruitful now, don’t leave a second to be wasted, as long as you’re doing something and at least you’re not stagnant but you’re moving forward.
K: I agree, continuously altering yourself.
M: Yes, and people will ask ‘what is your life dream?’, I don’t have one life dream: with the realization of one dream, you set another one and that’s the process of moving forward. I don’t want something that is stagnant, fixed and routine. I want something that is ever-changing. People need to know that we’re born into a generation where we are supposed to have more passions in life because there are so many opportunities to follow-up on each and every one of them. You don’t have to choose one.
K: So I was speaking to one of my friends, Veronica Cho, who is the South-Korean delegate for the G(20)irls Summit and she told me a shocking statistic, that 1 in every 3 women in the world will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. What do you believe are the major challenges women in South Africa, and the rest of the world, are faced with?
M: I’ll come back to something that is not necessarily a tangible challenge. There are so many things that women experience on a daily basis that are so unjust, whether it be in a corporate environment or at home, or still being a young girl or an older woman. People are more susceptible to certain challenges if they don’t realize that being a woman is strength. We don’t need to fall victim to a lot of these challenges and yes you will and there will be certain things in life that you cannot control but as long as you know that being a woman is your strength and that you’re not less than a man. I heard the most amazing talk from Liza Bevere and she likened a woman to a lioness and that people will limit us to being a mama bear or a chimpanzee being caring at home, of which I think is the biggest rubbish, and I saw this book at a book store that said ‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’ and I have never heard of such a load of rubbish in my life. I was so upset picking up this book and it took me back to this lady who said she likens us women to a lioness because we live in a society where women want to be considered equals to men and there’s no animal that will make a man feel more powerful than a lion and there’s no animal that will make a woman prouder to be a woman than a lioness. You have to hunt together, strategize together.
K: I have also learned that it’s the lioness that hunts …
M: Yes, exactly. The lion will not fight with the lioness but other lions. I think it’s a matter of taking certain principles back to nature and observing how things work in harmony, I think that is something to strive for. Women need to know that we don’t need to sacrifice what makes us women. You will never be fruitful in life if you sacrifice in essence who you are. I did a painting back when I was in high school of my sister, representing a woman, shaving herself. The message of this painting is that we are losing our femininity and our womanhood to try to fit into a mans world and in the process we will find that we will never feel like enough. This is the balance I seek to strike with my Miss SA position: that you can be fully woman and still be enough.
K: And in the same breath, what do you think are some of the successes that have been attained with regards to women’s issues?
M: I think if you look into the saying ‘you strike a woman, you strike a rock’, if you look into the history of Women’s Day, we have come so far: you see women in CEO positions, you see women in government, and I think that those women are beacons of hope to those around them who believe that they are living in an unjust society. We are here to grow leaps and bounds and striving towards the balance where men have equal respect as women do for men.
K: You’re also a successful model …
M: Yes [laughs] …
K: … many young girls strive to have the kind of success that you have had. What I have noticed now is that girls have become more eager for that specific kind of fame and a lot of those girls become victims to dangerous people who take advantage of their ambitions. What guidance would you give these young girls?
M: It goes back to the principal of being in the age that you’re supposed to be in now. If you’re in school, be a student. If you’re in varsity, be a student with other aspirations and business ventures. But never try to live years ahead of yourself because then you’ll find yourself in over your head. You need to learn certain life lessons before you can go into certain markets or have certain experiences in life. Had I started modeling back when I was in high school, I don’t know if I would have had the backbone to say no to some of the offers I have said no to. In this industry, you have 14 and 16-year-old girls traveling the world alone and experiencing things that they never should and earning money that you don’t even expect to when you’re 30 years old. I think it’s a fake industry to be in and so as soon as you’ve experienced certain life lessons, you know where to draw the line. People will respect you for it. I have been asked to take my clothes off for photo shoots but because I never stepped over that line I drew for myself, people in this industry do respect me for it and people will still work with me. You will also find that those kinds of offers will come less and less if you start drawing those boundaries. I wouldn’t tell girls to take their tops off to every photographer that wants an “arty” photograph, thinking this could be my first break. You will know when it is your big break because it will come with the securities of a big break. I am a Christian girl, so my values are at the core of who I am and I know that certain things in life will come to challenge you but they’re there to grow you as well.
K: And I saw this morning that you tweeted Jeremiah 29:11 …
M: Yes, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for hope and a future. I know that everything I have received this year, I have received because I am willing to give God the glory for it. And I know that nothing will come my way if I don’t do it because God has asked me ‘can I trust you with my fame?’. I know it’s not mine, so I know if I continue giving it back to Him, He will continue blessing me. I know that I will reach the calling.
K: Going back to your morals and values, do you think that it is important to choose your environment, that is: to choose the people you surround yourself with?
M: Definitely. I think you need to choose the people you let into your life very wisely but not necessarily the circles that you move in because if I come back to my principles, life isn’t supposed to be convenient and comfortable. You are not supposed to be in your comfort zone 24/7 because how are you supposed to be a fisherman of men? How are you supposed to go out into the world and show people God’s love and His light if you’re only going to surround yourself with a small Christian family? You are supposed to have that to feed you on a daily basis and have that sense of security but that should give you the courage to know that wherever you go, whoever you might meet, whoever might cross your path, if we become friends or not, that you’ll have the values that are embedded into who you are and that will speak louder than anything else. I am not a girl who is going to hit people over the head with a bible [laughs] …
K: [Laughs] …
M: please don’t label me as that because I know that what is inside of me speaks so loud that I never have to open my mouth.
K: Do you have a mentor or people who you look up to for guidance?
M: Yes, my grandfather is definitely a mentor for me just because he has always been so grounded and the wisdom he has built up over the years. It comes with age [laughs] because I think if you sit on a porch and are retired, you get to reflect and have introspection on so many things that we will never ever have time to do in a day or in ten days …
K: [Laughs] because we are so busy chasing our many passions.
M: [Laughs] exactly. Learning from him is amazing: whether it is about relationships or interpersonal skills or just about your passion or pushing on. He is one of the biggest and best influences, along with my mom. They have always supported me and known when to say the right things. Always told me when to keep my mouth shut and there’s very few people you will allow to have that role in your life …
K: That reverence …
K: Did you have any fears about fame and being on this platform?
M: I think everyone goes into it with the intention of making it big and doing the best job ever. My biggest fear was that when I got it, people could look back and say ‘someone else should have had it’, ‘maybe she didn’t do well enough’, but that was a fear I had the day I entered. It was a brief moment. From then, I dint allow fear to have a place in my mindset or my thought process because nothing positive can be built off of something that is motivated by fear, ever! I remember the first day I decided to enter, and it still brings tears to my eyes, I sat in China and I had the entry form on my lap and I said to God, ‘ok, this is it. Please don’t let me waste my time’ [Laughs]
K: [Laughs] because it is a lot of time.
M: [Laughs] yes. I wrote down and said, ‘thank you for everything that I have been through in my life and for allowing me to associate and relate with so many people. Thank you for the challenges that I have had because I know that they have made me stronger to handle the challenges of the future’. I said ‘thank you’ for so many different things and at the end of it I said ‘I know that I am strong, I know that I am courageous, I know that I am determined, I know that I am beautiful, I know that I will be your daughter always and I know that I am already Miss South Africa’.
K: And this is before you even won?
M: I wrote that on the 11th of June, the day I sent my entry form off to China.
K: That is incredible!
M: You can’t pinpoint the value of speaking life into your own future and I have realized the value of that time and time again, over my reign. It doesn’t matter what challenges I come across, I know that if I speak positively into my future, somewhere the seeds will be planted and I will reap the fruits. Every time I have a sense of fear, I want to replace it with something positive. See it as a challenge, as something you can change, pin point where the fear is coming from and addressing it instead of saying that ‘I am a victim of being afraid’.
K: That’s exactly it. I feel as though a lot of people, including a lot of us young people, have a victim mentality. Isn’t it important to know that you should be responsible for yourself, to be responsible enough to speak positively into your life and not to see things happening to you but for you?
M: Yes and one of the reasons I consider my grandfather my mentor is because he said this to me when I was a very young girl, going through a very difficult time losing my dad and words that have had the most influence over my daily thought processes from a very young age up until now. He said to me that ‘you are not a product of your circumstances; you are a product of your choice’. It doesn’t matter what you are going through, it doesn’t matter what challenges come to your path, you have the final decision of how you are going to react to it and based on your reaction, you invite positivity or negativity into your life. He said this over and over to me when I was so frustrated and maybe that’s why I don’t remember any recent negativity in my life. I don’t know, maybe a psychologist can tell me what kind of psycho babble that is [laughs]
M: I don’t want to focus on anything negative in my life.
K: Many young people also lose loved ones close to them, as you lost your father. What would you tell someone who’s had the same painful experience?
M: Yes it is painful and I think losing someone closest to you is inevitable in life: everyone will go through it at some stage or another. But you write your story every single day, you can decide whether you’re writing a tragedy or a thriller or a romance or a comedy, a drama or an inspirational movie. You can decide to make it part of your story and to make it one of victory and something that will add value to you, as opposed to feeling at a loss for the rest of your life. The lessons I had learned after have shaped me into who I am now, so how can I ever say that it would have been better if I still had my real dad because I live life in victory now [smiles].
K: Yeah [smiles]. What lessons has fame taught you?
M: One of the lessons is that you’re first impressions might be you’re last impressions. You can never cease the time to get to know someone.
K: And you are more aware of this more especially in your position as Miss SA with so many young girls looking up to you?
M: Hold me to this: I will never be too busy if someone wants a second of my time. I never want to be. [Laughs] I am enjoying this. I love interviews that are more like conversations.
K: [Laughs] this is what I seek to do.
K: Ok, what does faith mean to you?
M: Faith means being comfortable with the unknown. [Giggles] I think this whole year is a leap of faith for me because I have learned to have being out of my comfort zone as my best friend. As soon as you are comfortable with that, there are no limits to what you can do in life. It’s having that security that my family will always be there for me, that God will always protect me wherever I go and that whatever happens in life, should happen because it’s a step closer to where I am supposed to be. I think having faith into where you are supposed to be in life and having faith in your future, your calling and your destiny, it’s probably one of the most powerful things because then you are a receiver of life. You stand open to whatever happens to you and you are open to challenges and you’re willing to fight for something bigger or being open to certain things, like if it’s a time of trouble, then I need to stick through it.
K: And this reminds me of a revelation I once had, that Lord don’t remove the mountain before me but make me a better hiker. I think this is what faith is, being able to be more than a conqueror.
M: Yes and I heard something similar, that ‘sometimes we believe and have faith that God will remove the mountain in front of us but sometimes He believes that we will be able to get over that mountain’.
K: So what message do you want your life to convey, one day many years from now and you’re reflecting on your life, perhaps on a porch, like your grandfather?
M: I would like to know that my life was honest and that I never built up any pretense and that wherever I went, I ceased the time to make a difference. I want to be known as someone who was a change agent for everything around me and not to have regrets.
K: As we speak, team South Africa is at the London Olympics …
M: … so jealous [laughs] …
K: [Laughs] and they’ll be bringing home at least 3 gold medals …
M: … and a silver, and hopefully when Caster runs as well, she will also bring us a gold.
K: And I mean Oscar was running last night, making history.
M: Yes and I even sent out a tweet last night saying he is determination defined.
M: And I mean if you look at everything he has gone through in his life, and I am not talking about him being born a double amputee but to be able to change other people’s mindsets about not victimizing him because of it, I think that is determination. To go through the court cases and to fight and live the dream that he wanted, which is the Olympics, I think everyone stood in awe of him after seeing him on the field and not just South Africa, but the whole world. I thought that was absolutely incredible. I sat with goosebumps in front of the television.
K: What’s your message to them?
M: To know that whatever their passion is, it’s South Africa’s passion. If they want to do well, push even harder, we will have their back.
K: The final question, my favorite question. What is the one truth that you hold on to?
M: I like that. The one truth that I hold on to is that my God loves me. Everything is interchangeable, everything can fluctuate but that is the one thing that is constant.
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