Africa: "I am Ready To Fight With Angolans To End Dictatorship," Says Angolan-Born Miss Universe, Leila Lopes
By Arao Ameny for SaharaTV, New York
New York, New York (SaharaTV) —On Jan. 28, Lelia Lopes, 25, native of Angola, the second black African woman to win the Miss Universe pageant came to SaharaTV to talk about Angola, her charity work and new life in New York City. She is only the second black African to win Miss Universe, after Botswana’s Mpule Kwelagobe won in 1999.
Out of 89 contestants, Lopes was chosen to participate in a round of 16 contestants until she was finally chosen as the winner in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Sept. 12 2011. “When I first was called to be the first 16, I confess I was a little bit sad because we were almost 10 girls from Africa,” she said. “I was the only one but then I thought okay, this is my opportunity to win. Maybe this is a sign to say that this is my time.”
It was at this time she said that she chose to fight for all the African girls in the competition.
Living in a country that has been ravaged with almost 30 years of war, Lopes said as a child she was not immuned to the fact that her country was at war. “At the age of 7, I was conscious of the fact that her country was at war,” she said. “I grew up in Angola in the south, which is the most attacked area so I could hear the noises [of the guns booming in air].”
When the war ended in 2002, Lopes was around 15, the young girl’s life changed dramatically. The prospect of her country was finally changing.
In 2007, she moved to England to study at the university. In 2010, she started doing beauty pageants.
She met a pageant organizer in England who organizes pageants for Angolan girls living in England. “I was invited to compete and I said yes. I won the competition for Miss Angola UK. Then I was invited to Angola for the Miss Angola pageant and I also won and that is what qualified us for Miss Universe 2011,” she said, smiling.
Lopes said she made the decision to drop out of the university in order to focus on beauty pageantry. “You cannot do too many things at the same time,” She explained.
Lopes said she had to drop out of the university to prepare herself for Miss Universe, saying that she wanted to pursue a different opportunity. “I was Miss Angola, a good Miss Angola and now Miss Universe too but it does not mean I am not good at school. I felt I wanted to do something more, something bigger, “She said.
Lopes said that she has always admired women with power and beauty who are able to use both to help others. “When they can put all these good things together and do good things for the good of the people, I thought I could do the same. I thought I could use my beauty for the goodwill of the people,” Lopes said.
The Angolan native said that she is sad when people only see the glamorous life of a beauty queen because as she asserts “There is more a girl can do besides being this sexy person that everybody sees. I do a lot of charity work.”
When asked by SaharaTV if she would join a protest to kick out the 40-year ruling president of Angola, Lopes said that if it was something she believed could make a change, she would make it, adding that even if she lost her crown as Miss Universe, she would do it for the Angolan people.
Currently, Lopes works with HIV/ AIDs causes and wants to create more awareness about prevention all over the world, including her homeland.
"In Angola, we have a lot of problems. If there is something I can do to help solve these problems, I will do it," She said.
She said there is a misconception that girls in pageants do not want to get on causes. “It’s not that they do not like it, they may have not have the opportunity to do it,” Lopes added.
On racism in the pageant, “I heard a lot of good things about me and everyone was calling me beautiful, kind and educated. In my competition, I did not see anything like this.” Lopes said she did not experience racism during the competition and was not aware of it. Lopes said that it was common for individuals were not satisfied that their girl won to make rude comments but reiterated that she did not experience racism in the Miss Universe contest.
Lopes is currently an ambassador for HIV causes and working to help youth. “I go to hospitals to visit children. For HIV causes, I’ve been traveling, talking about HIV discrimination, protection, testing and creating awareness about this big disease,” She said.
Lopes said that she hopes people, especially in her native Angola, will learn to see pageants differently. She said that some see her as an example, while some see her only as a sex figure.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” She said, “But I want I have to work in order to change the way people think because even in my country, they used to think that pageant girls only exist to go to events or take pictures but I want people to know I am different.”
On the continent of Africa, she said she wants to fight for environmental causes. “I think education is still our problem. When we have education, we can develop ideas. We see Asian countries, they are developing more; they can create things,” She said. “If we have more scientists, more teachers, more doctors, we [Africa] will be capable to do more.”
When she is not working, Lopes delivers provisions for individuals who are not able to be mobile. She is currently working with two New York-based organizations, God’s Love we Deliver, which delivers meals to immobile individuals; and Gay Men’s health crisis, which helps men with living with HIV/AIDs. Lopes works with both non-profits organizations to provide food and uplift spirits of the organizations’ clients.
On life in New York, Lopes said that sometimes people on the street may recognize her and ask her where she from, to which she quickly responds, “Angola, Africa.”
“I just laugh sometimes, especially when the taxi drivers from Africa, say ‘we are so proud of you and you do not even need to pay’…We even take pictures,” She said laughingly.
Lopes emphasized that she is determined to do everything she can for the people of Angola, for Africans, hoping that will be an inspiration to others, especially young girls.
“It is very important to dream. I always say I am not here for the fame because I think I have something to tell.” Lopes aspires to be like Princess Diana or Oprah, women who she says, believed in themselves and did valuable work to change people’s lives.
Arao Ameny, a Ugandan-born journalist, wrote this report for SaharaTV. You may contact her on Twitter @araoameny.