A few weeks ago, my editor forwarded an e-mail from a New York public relations firm asking if we’d interview Miss Universe 1999 when she was in town for a “hair show.” Trying not to act too eager, I counted to two before running to Jan’s office to volunteer.. She looked at me rather skeptically, as an editor should, wondering if I was the best reporter to cover this important breaking story.
“What experience do you have in matters of beauty, hair color and makeup that might make you qualified for this assignment?” she asked..
“Um,” I stammered. “I used to have to blow-dry my long hair in high school, I once put makeup over a pimple and I look at the covers of beauty magazines when I’m in the grocery checkout lines.”
She wasn’t impressed.
“I’m also your boss,” I suggested with a smile.
As the day approached and as I read more about Mpule Kwelagobe, I grew a little nervous. She had been crowned Miss Botswana a few months out of high school and a few months later crowned Miss Universe, and had since traveled to more than a dozen countries; I realized I wasn’t even exactly sure where in Africa Botswana was. I slinked back into Jan’s office.
“I’m having trouble coming up with questions to ask Miss Universe. What if she doesn’t speak much English? I don’t even know what language they speak in Botswana,” I said.
She scribbled a few questions on a pad and dismissed me, saying, “You’d better not disappoint me, Schroder!”
My son, Thomas, was going to be in town that day, so I asked him if he would like to accompany me and ask a few questions. “Maybe you should leave this to me, Pop,” he said. “After all, I am only four years younger than her. You are old enough to be her …”
“Her photographer,” I said. “That’s it. You ask her questions and I’ll take photographs.”
As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Mpule spoke fluent English with a charming British accent. Botswana is the second-richest country in Africa and a former British colony, and she had excelled in the British-style schools. Mpule was a live wire and loved to talk.
She talked about how she had postponed attending the University of South Africa on an engineering scholarship to be the first representative from her country ever to enter the Miss Universe pageant. She told us about the infighting at the pageants, the host newspaper in Trinidad that said she would never win, about how she was the first winner to ever walk away with a commercial contract such as hers with Clairol. She is most passionate about the scourge of AIDS, which affects 1 out of 5 young people on her continent, and how she hopes to fight it.
When she left Botswana for the pageant in May 1999, 10 people saw her off at the airport. When she returned, 250,000 people – nearly her entire country – were at the stadium to cheer her. “More people than turned out to see Bill Clinton or Pope John Paul or Nelson Mandela,” she said with pride. Recently, the political parties in her country have been asking her to run for office, but she has put them off.
“I want to return to college in a couple of years and then, perhaps when I turn 25 or 30, I will run for president of my country. You will have to come and visit my country then,” she said.
Thomas looked at me, no doubt hoping I would book travel reservations on the spot.
“You’ve got my vote,” I told her. Thomas and I walked away with photos, autographs and a heightened respect for Botswana. As if she hasn’t won enough awards, Mpule has earned a permanent spot on Thomas’s personal Web site.
Photos: Left, Chris with Miss Universe, Mpule Kwelagobe, and Thomas with her, right. I think she’s happier with Thomas … what do you think?