It would seem Rolene Strauss’ life is full of second chances. Perhaps that’s why she has an abiding philosophy: “Everything happens twice, the first time in your mind and then in reality.”
As a child, she imagined herself one day winning the Miss World pageant. They would call her name, place the crown on her head and she would float on stage smiling and waving like a queen.
At age 22, it happened. For real.
From a petri dish to the world stage, it has been an interesting journey.
“I’m a test-tube baby,” says the beauty from Volksrust, Mpumalanga, South Africa.
Her mother, a nurse, had struggled to conceive. After five years and several failed attempts, she and Strauss’ dad, a doctor, turned to modern medicine, deciding to give fate a second chance.
In 1992, Strauss was the product of the first successful EIFT in-vitro fertilization procedure in the medical facility at the University of the Free State in the Free State province of South Africa.
As destiny would have it, ironically, after high school, this was the world Strauss would come back to, to study medicine.
“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. Maybe because of the fact that I was a test-tube baby, maybe because of the fact that my parents were very passionate about health,” she says.
A year after she was born, Strauss’ parents naturally conceived her younger brother, who her mother Theresa says was “sent from heaven”, while her daughter, who she calls Lolla, was mischievous and climbed trees as a child.
“Rolene was adventurous…and even as a child, the person with the strongest will and mind we knew. She excelled in everything she did. The way we remember Rolene, as a curly-haired girl, is the exact way she is today. Just a little more mature,” says Theresa.
In 2011, 19-year-old Strauss acted on her dreams, took a leap of faith and entered the Miss South Africa competition.
Paledi Segapo, a judge on the Miss South Africa 2011 panel, describes Strauss as a “late bloomer”.
“When she entered [for the first time], she didn’t seem like a strong contender, very innocent and fragile,” said Segapo in an interview on eNCA.com in December last year.
That first time, Strauss was placed in the top five.
“I remember standing there and when they didn’t call my name it was almost a relief,” she had said in an interview with Top Billing last year.
No, this was not the end, but a new beginning. Strauss thereafter enrolled for medicine at the University of the Free State.
In her fourth year, she put her studies on hold and gave her beauty pageant dream another shot. More confident and well-prepared, this time she took home the crown (March 2014).
There was more to come.
The Miss South Africa competition was merely a dress-rehearsal for the world stage.
Cool as a breeze
In December 2014, Strauss embarked on an even bigger journey as one of 120 contestants at the Miss World pageant in London. The contestants from around the world were all vying for the diamond-sapphire-turquoise crown that would place them in history books alongside the likes of Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994) and Nigerian Agbani Darego (Africa’s first black woman to win Miss World in 2001).
Strauss smiles as she thinks back to her time in London.
“The thing I will always remember from this experience is the different cultures I got to experience. We ate Thai food every night in [Maeya Nonthawan Thongleng] Miss Thailand’s room. The US is very popular for their sweets, so Miss USA [Elizabeth Safrit] brought a lot of sweets for us to try… Miss Australia [Courtney Thorpe] was probably my best friend – people actually said that we look alike. It’s so funny because she’s amazing at doing make-up and I was good at doing hair so we helped each other for the final.”
On the night of the pageant, Strauss was as cool as a light breeze on a hot summer’s day.
“I was so relaxed. I had the same feeling I had on the Miss South Africa stage. I remember looking into the audience, I saw my parents there. My mom was very relaxed but my dad was so stressed…I wouldn’t say I expected to win but I was ready.”
That night, Strauss took home the Miss World crown and became the third South African to win the competition. Past winners were Durbanite Penny Coelen in 1958 and Anneline Kriel in 1974.
Strauss floated on stage, wearing a light pink off-shoulder gown. The crowd’s gaze fixed on her treasured crown, no one had even noticed her Miss South Africa sash had slipped to the bottom of her dress.
“It was a childhood dream that came true and as big an honor as it is, it is still a responsibility…But it’s also not the destination; it’s the beginning of a new journey,” she says.
A New life
While some may think beauty pageants are merely platforms to objectify women, Strauss sees it differently.
“If you look at beauty, it fades. What we are working on is a legacy that will last beyond our lives. If you really look at what Miss World has achieved in raising millions of dollars for charities, you’ll see that we’re making a big difference in people’s lives.”
After the London win, she arrived in Johannesburg to a hero’s welcome as thousands of fans, celebrities and supporters gathered to welcome South Africa’s newest pride.
Many who followed her journey on various social media platforms felt they already knew her.
“As soon as I hit the ground in South Africa, it has been quite hectic. I expected a few people to be there but not at all as it was. They had a choir singing. One of the girls who I gave a wheelchair to during my reign as Miss South Africa was there. I’m overwhelmed by the support.”
After hours of photographs, handshakes, hugs and gifts, Strauss sat through a number of press interviews at The Maslow Hotel in Sandton.
When it came to the final interview of the day, you wouldn’t have blamed her for wanting to kick off her heels, slump on the couch and replay recorded responses from her previous interviews.
Yet, when she opened the door of her hotel-room for this interview, she showed no signs of fatigue. She shone in a short bright yellow dress, sparkling heels and the crown intact on her head. What’s her secret?
Fan Of A Princess
“I actually do my own hair and make-up which comes in handy because I don’t always have someone. I have someone who helps with styling, Werner Wessels, and he’s been helping me [from] before I became Miss South Africa. My style is kind of the way you tell a story without people being able to speak to you. My style icon is Princess Kate Middleton,” she says.
At the end of 2015, when Strauss’ Miss World reign ends, it will be back to medical school, university lectures, late-night study sessions and patients.
“It’s part of who I am, part of what I want to be. I want to be able to practice and I also want to start a business that focuses on women’s health…I like the holistic approach to women’s health and my health because I believe that your mind and body are interlinked and connected so if you look after you mind you automatically look after your body, also vice versa.”
Before she hits the books, Strauss has an exciting year ahead traveling to 50 countries, starting with China, India and the Philippines. She will also be working on various ventures including the ‘Beauty with a purpose’ project that raises money for humanitarian projects across the world and, as stated on her blog, a biography titled Life is a Garden.
“In life, you get a lot of platforms to do good, to reach for your dreams and have a positive influence on other people’s lives as well. Whether it’s through education, being a doctor, or others have the platform of being good at sports. That way, I’ve received the platform of Miss World and I’m going to use it to do good,” says Strauss.
Diplomatic passport in hand, her heels in her bag and the crown never too far away, she is ready to make the most of all the chances life has gifted her.
Download issues of Forbes Africa
- Single Digital Issue: James Mwangi Cover - Forbes Africa Aug/Sep2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa June/July 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa April 2020 - 30 Under 30 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa March 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa February 2020 R50.00