As a child, Etsanyi Beauty Tukura used to sneak into her mother’s room, go to her mirror, and dab her makeup, emulating the beautiful women she saw on magazine covers. “I remember Agbani Darego,” she tells me on a phone call last October. “Everyone was shouting when she was on TV. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be her.” It was 2001 and Darego, a Nigerian, had just been crowned Miss World, the first Black person and African to hold the title, marking a turning point in racialized perceptions of Black beauty.
Tukura was only five years old then, but her dreams had been set in motion. In primary school, she won her first pageant. And eighteen years after watching Darego, in November 2019, Tukura, then 22, was crowned Miss Nigeria, the 43rd Queen from the country’s oldest and best-known pageant.
It came with a N3 million cash prize, a car, a fully furnished apartment for the duration of her reign, a full scholarship to study anywhere in the country, and opportunities for endorsement deals from major brands. Because the lockdown prevented the holding of a ceremony in 2020, she has now held the crown for two years.
Miss Nigeria was created in 1957, by the country’s oldest newspaper Daily Times, as a photo contest. Young women sent photos of themselves to the paper’s headquarters in Lagos, where successful finalists were invited to a live finale at Lagos Island Club. The first winner, Grace Atinuke Oyelude, received a prize money of £200.
The 1960 edition was styled “Miss Independence” and was won by Rosemary Anieze. The competition went international after that, with winners Yemi Idowu and Edna Park qualifying, respectively, for the semifinals of Miss United Nations in 1963 and Miss Universe in 1964.
After Folio Holdings Limited acquired Daily Times in 2005, the company looked to reinvent Miss Nigeria, and five years later, the pageant found a new role in female empowerment. Inspired by Miss America, it rebranded itself as a scholarship programme. Later, it ended its swimsuit contest. Briefly, it ran a reality show, The Making of a Queen, in which contestants completed tasks. And to honor its long history, it eschewed an annual marker—Miss Nigeria 2019—for a numerical one—the 43rd Miss Nigeria.
Now managed by Green Girls Company Limited, a girls’ development initiative and fellow Folio Holdings and Folio Media Group subsidiary, the pageant is committed to providing its Queens with enough visibility to “be agents of change,” to advocate for social issues. The 38th Queen, Ezinne Akudo Anyaoha, for example, went on to set up an anti-sexual violence initiative, The Eight Foundation. (Anyaoha would later be named Creative Director of the pageant.)
While its biggest rival, Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN), remains stylish and sends its winners to represent the country at Miss World and Miss Universe, Miss Nigeria has refocused instead on substance: social change. Tukura’s platform is advocacy for the girl child.
“Miss Nigeria is more about public service,” she tells me. “We partner with other NGOs to pursue our own core values: empowerment, education. It is literally a fulltime job.”
It is Tukura’s third beauty crown; after her first in primary school, she held a state crown, Most Beautiful Girl Taraba, while studying Law at Afebabalola University, Ado-Ekiti. “I couldn’t do much with the crown, I was in school then,” she says. “During holidays, I tried to connect with my local community and do one or two things. I didn’t maximize it.”
It was in the final months of her law degree that she contested for Miss Nigeria, and, a month after graduating, she won.
Before the pandemic, Tukura, in her role, led a campaign against plastic pollution. Through a partnership with the educational and health non-profit Glow Care Foundation, she visited schools in Makoko and Ajegunle, both in Lagos, to facilitate access to sanitary pads.
“Girls in rural areas can’t go to school because they lack pads,” she says, “because they haven’t been made to understand what it means being a woman, why they should take care of themselves at that time of the month. We gave them reusable pads. If we gave disposable, they might not be able to afford it when we are gone.”
On the International Day of the Girl Child, the Miss Nigeria organisation partnered with the capacity building group Whispering Hope Africa Initiative to launch Girls Lead Club, a nationwide scheme to sensitize and protect girls. “We advise them on how to stay safe in a world in which being female comes with danger,” Tukura explains, “link them up with mentors, tell them to stay in school and delay marriage, and give them the help they need to do amazing things for themselves.”
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When the organisation visits communities, Tukura speaks to the community leaders. “The people are more inclined to listen to their own people than outsiders. We sensitize the community and parents on what they stand to gain from [the girls] learning skills and being in school. With girl-brides, they have the chance to go back to school or to raise their children.”
The Miss Nigeria organisation’s mission complicates questions about the place of beauty pageants in a changing world. With feminism came a logical argument: the spectacle of women’s beauty, the popular valuation of femininity based on physical appearance, has sexist undertones.
The year Tukura became Miss Nigeria, 2019, was also a major moment of upheaval in the deeply Eurocentric global pageantry system. That year, five major beauty contests crowned Black women: Nia Franklin became Miss America, Kaliegh Garris became Miss Teen USA, Cheslie Kryst became Miss USA, and, on the international level, South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi became Miss Universe and Jamaica’s Toni-Ann Singh became Miss World. The moment, celebrated as a watershed in calls for diversity, proved how significant pageants have remained on the global stage.
But in Nigerian cultural life, beauty pageants face a diminishing role. In our fast-paced, Internet-led world, the standards for stardom have lowered and celebrities are minted much quicker. On social media, the traditional first-tier celebrity of movie stars and musicians are matched in sheer popularity by a vast category of content-creators and opinion-givers called “Influencers.”
In the country, this shift has granted second-tier fame-making power to, above all, the Big Brother Naija reality show. Gone are the days when a Bianca Onoh, Regina Askia, Nike Oshinowo, or Darego automatically became first-tier celebrities by being beauty queens. A Nigerian beauty queen today, if they played as paragons of class and not controversy, would struggle to be even second-tier. Former contestants, though, have been able to earn celebrity in their own right, like the blogger Linda Ikeji, who vied for the 33rd Miss Nigeria crown in 2003.
“Beauty Queens are still very much necessary,” Tukura responds. “It is a way of fighting stereotypes about women. Every time the Beauty Queen is at a function, she is also changing the narrative. This gave me the opportunity to be a role model, increase my chances for personal development as a human being. It tells me my voice matters. I can speak and be heard. My opinions matter.”
Miss Nigeria, she says, is a feminist organisation. “Yes, we preach equality. Miss Nigeria is all about feminism, advocating for the rights of women, progress in communities.”
Coming from the country’s mostly conservative north, Tukura’s strength of voice signifies so much. In 2002, a year after she as a child watched Darego become Miss World, the Nigerian government’s decision to host the global contest caused complaints from Muslims, and after the journalist Isioma Daniel published a satirical piece with a comment on Prophet Muhammed, it shockingly snowballed into a riot, into attacks on Christians and the burning of This Day newspaper’s office in Kaduna. The paper issued an apology. The Sharia government of Zamfara State issued a fatwa on Isioma Daniel, and although it divided Muslim leaders and the federal government rejected it as “unconstitutional” and “null and void,” she had to flee the country.
Tukura is the fifth northerner to be Queen, after Grace Oyelude, the first queen; Alice Alache Akla Adepe, the seventh; Binta Sukai, the 24th; and Mildred Peace Ehiguese, the 40th.
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Tukura wants to give young girls the opportunity to see themselves. “I accept criticism. I tell young girls, it doesn’t define you. You need to figure out who you are going to become. It’s the most important thing, knowing what you represent before you contest.”
She herself draws strength from what other women represent. “Catriona Gray [Miss Universe 2019], I love how expressive she is, how she shows her creative side as much as her advocacy, her kindness, her beauty. She is relatable. You look at her and see a young girl living her dream.”
Zonzibini Tunzi, Miss Universe 2020, is “Amazing. A natural. What attracted me to her was her reply about women taking up space. I love that she rocks her natural hair. I’d love to meet her one day.” She continues: “When I saw the American elections, Kamala Harris winning. Okonjo-Iweala. Amazing. I see myself becoming anything I choose to become as long as I work for it.”
As the first Miss Nigeria to serve two terms, Tukura sees a positive chance to do more with her platform of education and empowerment. “Education has expanded my horizon,” she tells me. “Being a Northern girl, I can go farther. I can dream and reach where I want to because I am exposed. Education is about being informed about life, about things and how they work. I stopped getting money from my parents from a young age. I can’t stop encouraging girls to learn a skill. Issues the girl child faces can be linked to poverty. The way to stop that is to equip them with means. Give them a tool and they can use it for life.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.