The new Miss Universe is taking her crown around the world with hopes of inspiring and empowering women. And she’s taking down critics of the Miss Universe pageant along the way.
Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, who hails from South Africa and was crowned on Sunday night, thinks beauty pageants like Miss Universe are more relevant than ever.
“I see this as a platform that I’ve got to make a meaningful difference in the lives of women and men,” she told HuffPost Wednesday in New York at Build Series (the interview program is part of Oath, HuffPost’s parent company). “I got the opportunity to be a role model for women and men from all around the world. And I got this opportunity to be a role model to young girls. To me this is a very big honor, but it’s even an even bigger responsibility.”
Nel-Peters said she’s ready to take on that responsibility over the next year, especially now that she’s armed with a plan to help empower women. It all stems back to June when she was on her way to an event in her home country. In “broad daylight,” Nel-Peters said, three men carjacked her and held her at gunpoint.
“When I got out of the car …they tried shoving me back in the car,” she recalled, saying three guns were pointed directly in her face. “And that’s when I decided that … the second destination would most probably not get better than the first. So, I made a decision there. I took a [self-defense] course before that happened, which taught me how to think and keep a clear mind in a situation like that. And the one thing they told me was if you’re in a life-threatening situation like I was, the throat is a very sensitive place that you can hit and that’s something that can completely put somebody off. So, I punched the guy in the throat as hard as I could and it gave a window of opportunity to run away.”
Although she managed to escape, Nel-Peters said she felt the effects of the attack for months. During that time, though, she also felt something else: the need to help other women.
“My phone got stolen in the whole carjacking and when I got a new phone and logged on to my Instagram account I got over 2,000 messages from South African women,” she said.
The women all asked the same thing: What was the self-defense course you took, and where can I take it?
Shortly afterward, Nel-Peters created the Unbreakable campaign, where she teams with self-defense experts to educate and train women in South Africa on how to handle threatening situations, including sexual harassment and assault.
“I think violence against women ... is such a big thing that women face all over the world,” she said, adding, “I’ve heard a lot of women sharing their stories with me that they are too ashamed to stand up and talk about it because they feel like they did something wrong. And in reality, they didn’t. A woman should be able to be who and whatever she wants to be and she should be respected for that.”
During her one-year reign, Nel-Peters plans to make her Unbreakable campaign a global one, trying to show critics that Miss Universe is more than just a pretty face.
Watch the full Build Series interview below.