We investigate: Was Miss SA 2017 rigged?
Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, Boipelo Mabe, Ad van Heerden (Photo: Gallo)
Cape Town - Ten finalists and semi-finalists have come forward claiming that the Miss South Africa 2017 pageant was rigged in Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters' favour.
The allegations call into question Nel-Peters' relationship with the former National Executive of Miss South Africa, Melinda Bam and fashion stylist, Werner Wessels.
The Juice followed-up on all the allegations and got comment from the Miss South Africa pageant, the contestants making the claims, pageant coach Werner Wessels, and the newly crowned winner herself. (Scroll down to see all the full responses.)
The Sowetan first reported on the "rigging" claims on Wednesday.
After just a few hours of investigation no less than 10 contestants were willing to anonymously speak to The Juice about the pageant and the backstage drama that has now clouded Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters' win.
Miss South Africa spokesperson Claudia Henkel has called these allegations "unfounded" and chalked up reports to the "pressure" of the competition. (Scroll down to see the full response from the pageant.)
According to several finalists and semi-finalists concerns regarding Nel-Peters' preferential treatment were raised as early as regional judging and was even brought up with Claudia Henkel, Sun International and Cell C during the final stages of the competition.
Contestant 1: "I feel that the competition was definitely rigged. We as contestants decided to raise the issue with Claudia, Sun International and the Cell C team. During the meeting they basically just told us that our allegations were not valid and that it [preferential treatment] was not the case."
Contestant 2: "Speculation started during the early days of top 26, when we were still semi-finalists and it got a lot more serious once we started realising favouritism. And that is when some of the girls called a meeting with Sun International and the sponsors.
"She [Claudia Henkel] made it seem as if the crux of that meeting was about the girls doing private charity work during the pageant. But the crux of that meeting was actually about Demi's unfair advantage in the competition. The girls sitting there in that meeting with Demi were not afraid to point that out. We felt frustrated."
CONCERN OVER SOCIAL MEDIA POST:
Contestant 1: "During the first round of regional judging where the auditions were open to the public, Demi had auditioned in Cape Town if I'm not mistaken. And on the official Miss South Africa account was a video of Demi-Leigh saying what she would do if she won the R1 million. The caption stated: We have found our new Miss South Africa.
"The post was quickly removed by the digital team and they said to us, 'oh, it was a fault from the digital team.' And again we found that Sun International was shifting blame, saying that it was a digital error. It was only regional judging and they had already posted something like that. So that for us was a red flag."
Contestant 2: "We spoke about Demi being pushed unfairly on social media. We all handle our own social media accounts and then they post on behalf of us girls on the official Miss South Africa account. They were basically continuously posting about Demi, and the public would respond: 'Where are the other 11 finalist? why are you posting of Demi.'
"We would all read those comments and about a day later the photo would be removed or those comments would be removed."
Contestant 4: "You could see on the social media pages they were constantly focused on Demi. We would ask, but it was pretty obvious how this whole competition would end."
CONCERN OVER INSIDE SCOOPS:
Contestant 1: "Throughout the duration of the pageant she [Demi-Leigh] definitely had a lot of insights about the day, before we would have any insights. She would already know who we were meeting, she would know all these things when we would always be wondering how was she aware of these incidents before we even got briefed?"
CONCERNS OVER A PAGEANT COACH:
Contestant 1: "One of the contestants said that she approached Werner to train her and Werner said he has been training Miss South Africa 2017 since 2015 and he won't be taking on anyone [else] for 2017. His package doesn't just offer styling advice. He gives insights of who they'll be meeting, what to say and what to post on social media.
"I think that deep inside she knows that everyone was very upset at the way things were conducted. And I'm surprised that previous years nobody has ever said anything. We weren't aware that we were allowed to have coaches. And that was part of the meeting that we had with Sun International. We were never told to get mentors or coaches.
"What we find strange is how someone could have coached six consecutive winners. They are not advertising equality or fairness throughout the pageant."
SIDE NOTE: Werner Wessles coached former Miss South Africa Melinda Bam, Marilyn Ramos, Rolene Strauss, Liesl Laurie and Ntando Kunene.
Contestant 2: "He [Werner Wessels] trains you for interviews, he tells you what to say, he tells you how to say it, he approves what goes out on your social media. And the one thing that is preached especially during our workshop weeks as finalists is, authenticity. And if someone is coming in and telling you how to live and how to compete, it's not a true reflection of who you are.
"I think that message is common between all of us: That we don't think a worthy winner took that title. And I don't think that it's sitting well with the girls. It doesn't make you a worthy winner just because you are trained by him. As far as I know, Demi had a personal relationship with Werner, Melinda [Bam] and Rolene [Strauss]. And as far as I know Werner had been training Demi for a number of years."
Contestant 4: "We became aware of the internal influences or insights that he might have, that is not accessible to us. How does it happen that all the girls that he coaches wins? They explained to us that it is just a coincidence. And that for us was not a fair or reasonable response. Her stylist [Werner Wessels] had a relationship with a sponsor. Werner was styling one of the judges, who judged two of the official judging rounds. That type of relationship by association made it uncomfortable."
CONCERNS OVER CHARITY EVENT:
Contestants 4: "I experienced moments where it felt like an unfair competition, favouring Demi-Leigh. There was an instance where we had an event scheduled for Demi-Leigh on our itinerary. The itinerary is scheduled by the production company but they have a relationship with Sun International. An event was scheduled for Demi-Leigh specifying that all the girls are to join her.
"Given that we had made it to top 12 we were notified that there were strict rules put in place, going into top 12. You are not as flexible with your time and you can't easily go do your own thing. But her being assigned a scheduled event in our itinerary, it raised eyebrows. As we also had our own preferred private events that we could have attended. So when we saw that her own private event was scheduled for everyone to attend it made us question the advantage towards her. When we raised this in conversation, we were told that we were allowed to go do our own events, when it was previously said that we can't."
Contestant 5: "What puzzles me a lot was that the girls got an invitation from Sun International saying that they were supposed to attend a charity event hosted by Demi. And it did not make sense to me. 12 girls are competing, why is it essential for the girls to attend one person's charity event. I could see that there was a bit of a problem. Several of the girls approached the organisers and asked if they could attend charity events in their personal capacity, and they were told no."
MISS SA PAGEANT OFFICIAL RESPONSE:
In an e-mail response to The Juice's questions, Claudia Henkel wrote: "These allegations are unfounded. The caliber of contestants in this year's competition was exceptionally high and the contestants undoubtedly felt the pressure. As with many competitions, there can be only one winner and inevitably someone will end up disappointed, which is understandable.
"The judging of the contestants, which includes both the public vote and the judges vote, is supervised by independent auditors. All meetings between the judges were supervised by a representative from the audit firm."
WERNER WESSELS RESPONDS:
Speaking to The Juice stylist Werner Wessels labelled accusations that he gave Demi-Leigh "insights" into the competition as "false."
Here is Werner's full statement regarding the allegations made against him:
"I met Demi when she was 15 which was in 2011 and yes it usually takes me a year to work with the girls. I teach them everything that I feel they need to know about pageants. Various make-up techniques, how to do their hair for different occasions, I put together a wardrobe for them that is appropriate for different events. My role is is there to make these girls present themselves in the best way possible to judges.
"I have been very fortunate to have started with Melinda Bam, who has been my best friend since high school. We had this dream of her competing in Miss South Africa and I told her that I would help her as soon as I had a degree in BA Fashion and I would put together her styling. We just thought it would be a fun thing to do as best friends. And then she won and she did really well.
"Then people started contacting me for consultations and then it turned into the this thing where Rolene Strauss contacted me before she entered Miss South Africa and I started with her, and then Liesl Laurie contacted me the next year and then Ntando Kunene after that. As well as other various finalists I've walked the road with.
"This is something I do as an independent pageant trainer. This is my job, this is my passion and this is what I love to do. And I am very fortunate to have been this successful this far.
"The winning streak is attributed to that nobody does what I do in this country, as extensively as I do it. I have applied my model of training to countries like the Philippines, Venezuela and the USA.
"I've been very fortunate to train Miss America for the Miss World pageant in 2015. I apply my model of training like they do in those countries and in those countries you don't enter a pageant without a pageant coach. Because it is such a big business there. And because it isn't something that is so well-known here, people think that there must be something wrong.
"It is really unfortunate that people are spinning this into something negative when I'm really just wanting to deliver the country with more Jo-Ann Strauss', Basetsana Kumalo's more Cindy Nel's and hopefully Rolene Strauss'."
CLAUDIA HENKEL RESPONDS:
Did Demi-Leigh receive preferential treatment during the competition?
No. Every contestant was treated equally.
Did Demi-Leigh have an unfair advantage with Werner Wessels as her coach?
During the lead up to Miss South Africa, all contestants were put through a week of workshops. Individual coaches were not provided for by the organisers, however contestants were allowed to hire (at their own cost) a coach if they wanted to.
Did Demi-Leigh have insight into the competition that nobody else had?
It is important to note that many of the contestants have personal relationships with contestants from previous years and would have had some insight into the pageant. In fact a number of this year's contestants participated previously so did not only have insight but experience. One contestant for instance has a relative who is well-known in the entertainment industry and who at some point was involved in the pageant.
Is it true that Demi-Leigh hosted a charity event during the final stages of the competition when other contestants were told they couldn't do the same?Absolutely not, this specific topic was addressed with all contestants in the presence of the sponsors and auditors long before the pageant. We specifically indicated to all contestants that should they wish to attend a charity event that they had been supporting, that would be allowed. A number of other finalists attended their own charity events throughout the competition.
Could Demi-Leigh's personal relationship with Melinda Bam and Rolene Strauss influence the outcome of the competition in any way?
These relationships have no bearing on the outcome of the pageant as neither were involved nor could influence the results. Again, many of this year's finalists personally know winners and contestants from previous years.
DEMI-LEIGH NEL-PETERS RESPONDS:
When asked if she received any preferential treatment throughout the pageant she said, "definitely not." She feels "heartbroken" by the allegations made against her and wishes everyone would rather focus on the positive instead of bringing each other down.
Regarding claims that concerns about her alleged unfair advantage were raised early on she says:
"Yes, these concerns were raised and the meeting did take place and everything you've asked me in this interview was discussed. Sun International and Cell C explained to them that there is absolutely nothing wrong with appointing a coach and everyone is allowed to attend their charity events. The only concern the sponsors had was that these things had to be discussed with them first and we get permission to attend charity events."
Regarding claims that she was the only contestant allowed to attend a charity event she says:
"My charity event landed on the call sheet, which maybe wasn't the right thing to do. But the only reason it was on the call sheet was so that if any of the girls wanted to attend they knew to bring clothes for that. It was made very clear that the event was to be confirmed. Sun International later said that nobody was obliged to go. Nobody ended up coming to the charity event.
"My heart is pure, I had the best intentions and I didn't want to upset anyone by that. It does make me sad, it's definitely not nice. I would have loved to work with the girls. But after something like this, how to you trust anyone? I've forgiven everyone and I hope that they find peace.
"The Miss South Africa schedule changes all the time. My charity event was scheduled seven months in advance and couldn't let anyone down. They gave me permission to attend, because I didn't have anything else on that evening. There were other girls who had charity events, even weddings and private events that they attended. It definitely wasn't just me. Everyone had an equal opportunity."
Regarding her relationship with Werner Wessels she says:
"Having Werner as coach definitely helped me to be better prepared, to be better groomed and just to be best version of myself. I decided to appoint Werner. I've known him since I was 16, he is a stylist by profession and I've done modelling since I was 16. I know him through the industry and I asked him to help me with Miss South Africa. Because I didn't want to look back on the competition and think, 'Demi you could have been better prepared. You could have been better groomed.' That is the reason I appointed him.
"Maybe it did give me an advantage but any girl was allowed to appoint a coach. I wasn't the only girl with a coach.
"Werner did not give me any unfair insights into the competition, not at all. He is an independent stylist. He works for himself and he has no affiliation with Sun International. In fact, they have no contact.
"I knew more than what he did. I would tell him what was on the itinerary and that was the relationship. I told him what was going on. He really had no inside information whatsoever."
Regarding her relationship with Melinda Bam and Rolene Strauss she says:
"I don't have a personal relationship with Melinda Bam or Rolene Strauss. I attended a women's workshop with Melinda Bam about two years ago. I met her there because she met all the girls who attended the event. We took photos as normal. And I never saw her after that, but we did become friends after the pageant. And I'm thankful for her being there for me through this time."
Demi-Leigh talks about how she feels following these claims:
"When I entered this competition one of my goals was to make good friends, being a business woman and an entrepreneur myself I thought these could be women that I could walk a road with. It breaks my heart to know that there are girls that would do something like this, and in Afrikaans there is a saying, 'wat so laag sal daal' (that will stoop so low.) And it is not something you would expect from girls that have so much going for them and that are so successful in their own way already.
"I feel that it is competition, and there can only be one winner. There are some great things going for all of these girls. And I wish we would rather focus on the positive instead of bringing each other down."