Miss Universe South Africa Zozibini Tunzi was crowned after speaking out on climate change, women's empowerment and diversity

By Rachel DeSantis
December 11, 2019 04:11 PM
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Miss Universe South Africa Zozibini Tunzi may have won her crown on Sunday by being thoughtful, poised and steadfast while discussing her wide-ranging platforms, but there’s still one person who can render the pageant queen starstruck: Oprah Winfrey.

“She gave me a shoutout and I could not believe it!” a giddy Tunzi tells PEOPLE. “It was such an amazing moment for me to hear her acknowledge me and know that I’m actually a person that exists to her.”

Being a person that exists to the masses is something Tunzi, 26, may need to get used to following her Miss Universe win, in which she bested 89 other contestants from around the globe.

The South African beauty, from the Eastern Cape town of Tsolo, stood out among her competitors thanks to her elegance and eloquence as she spoke of causes near and dear to her heart, including climate change, women’s empowerment and diversity.

Though she made her moment in the spotlight look easy, Tunzi says it probably only seemed that way because she treated her on-the-spot answers as conversations, and simply as opportunities for her to speak out on topics she feels strongly about.

Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi, of South Africa, appears at a press conference following the 2019 Miss Universe Pageant at Tyler Perry Studios on December 08, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia
Credit: Paras Griffin/Getty

“I didn’t feel like I was being put to a test or [host Steve Harvey] was trying to catch me out,” she says. “It was just a conversation for me. I think that’s why it felt natural.”

Standing out among those topics was Tunzi’s dedication to embracing the beauty of her skin and hair, things she told the crowd in her closing statement were never considered beautiful when she was growing up.

“I think as a black woman, we have a lot of colorism going on around us, and we have a lot of racism as well,” she tells PEOPLE. “Growing up, we’re living in a society where you open a magazine and you don’t see any people who look like you on television or even in corporate spaces. … But now we are slowly moving into a world that is more inclusive and shows so much more representation.”

Zozibini Tunzi Miss Universe Competition, Show, Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta, USA - 08 Dec 2019
Zozibini Tunzi
| Credit: Frank Micelotta/Fox/Picturegroup/Shutterstock

Part of Tunzi’s platform, she says, is being a leading force in that movement, and using her title to transform the way young girls see themselves in the mirror.

“When those girls look at me, I want them to see it, and I want them to feel it because I know a lot of people didn’t get that opportunity growing up and I want them to live in a different world where everyone matters, where everyone is smart, where everyone is beautiful, where everyone is capable,” she says.

Tunzi — who started doing pageants at age 7 after her mom signed her up as a means of boosting her shy daughter’s self-confidence — is already tackling her Miss Universe duties head-on, but says that title or no title, she remains dedicated to living a “purposeful life” in any way she can.

Zozibini Tunzi during the Miss South Africa 2019 beauty pageant grand finale at the Time Square Sun Arena on August 09, 2019 in Pretoria, South Africa
Zozibini Tunzi
| Credit: Oupa Bopape/Gallo

“I think just being my authentic self and standing for everything that I believe in, and standing for all the causes that I believe in will be enough,” she says. “I think if I’m authentic to myself, then I will have done half the job already.”

Though she admits she’s had little time to sleep since Sunday night, Tunzi says she’s looking forward to doing so in her new Big Apple apartment, a perk of winning Miss Universe.

“I have such a great view of New York and I just keep telling people it’s like we see it in the movies!” she says of her new pad, which is paid for by the competition during her reign. “’Cause that’s where we grow up seeing New York. There’s about a thousand movies about it, there’s about a thousand articles about it, and it doesn’t lie. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”

Zozibini Tunzi Miss Universe Competition, Show, Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta, USA - 08 Dec 2019
Zozibini Tunzi
| Credit: Derek White/Shutterstock

With three days down and nearly a full year left to go, Tunzi says she knows things are about to change “drastically,” but that she’s more excited than ever to be able to share her passions with a platform that now spans the globe.

“I can’t say what it’s going to be like, but I know I’m ready for whatever it is that comes with this journey, and I’m ready to embrace it,” she says. “And I know that I’m going to love every minute of it.”