When three-year-old Werner Wessels watched pageants with his family, he bolted out of the room when it was time to crown the winner.
“I just couldn’t handle the noise when the winner was announced,” he said over a video conversation earlier this week.
“And this still happens, but now it’s during the Q&A section of the pageants.
“I have to wear my earpods because I can’t deal with the anxiety it brings.”
Wessels is the man who has injected new life into Miss SA and made it an international pageant powerhouse.
He has had a direct hand in producing a Miss World, two Miss Universes and also a Miss Universe runner-up.
How you may ask? Well, have you watched Miss Congeniality and recall Michael Caine’s character?
He was the trainer who got Sandra Bullock’s character’s into shape for the pageant and succeeded in making her a worthy competitor.
Werner is similar to that character.
I first came across Wessels in 2012 when he worked with Melinda Bam, Miss SA 2011, during her participation at Miss Universe.
“Melinda is my best friend and I was helping her out preparing for Miss Universe. I didn’t even really know this was a job,” he said.
While Bam didn’t win Universe, she was still the fan favourite and many were shocked when she didn’t make it to the Top 5.
But it was also a career-making opportunity for the former journalism and fashion student Wessels.
Since then he has become one of the world’s most successful pageant coaches and directors.
Wessels did just as well with his contestant at Miss Universe 2020 - Natasha Joubert.
Joubert, who was the second runner-up at Miss SA 2020, was chosen to represent South Africa at Miss Universe.
With SA’s Zozibini Tunzi being the previous titleholder, it has made Joubert one of the most-watched delegates at the pageant.
The world’s attention was on her to accomplish the almost impossible - a back-to-back win at Miss Universe.
Joubert made the cut until the top 21.
South Africa , let’s have a standing ovation for our Miss Universe South Africa @natashajoub 🇿🇦— Miss South Africa (@Official_MissSA) May 17, 2021
You are bold, resilient, authentic and unapologetic! We will will forever be proud of you and what you have achieved on your @MissUniverse journey! pic.twitter.com/E2KbMzSJ4w
While most would be stressed out about the stress their contestant is under, Wessels had confidence in Natasha.
“I’m actually not freaking out that I am not in Miami with Natasha,” Wessels said.
“The moment we found out where it was going to be held, we knew we won’t be going with her, so it was always at the back of our minds that we might not go because of Covid and so we revised our training plan and the way we do things to make provision for that.”
With a lot of attention on her the moment she was announced as the chosen delegate for the pageant, Wessels knew that they had their work cut out for them in the preparations.
“When it comes to the training this year, it was similar to what I have done in the past, but it also focused mostly on a holistic stance of who she is, and what she will present at Miss Universe.
“It was all about getting her to that place where she will be confident enough to be herself.
“She told me how she wanted to be the best version of herself.
“And that if she doesn’t win, then it’s fine.
“She said she wants to be better than she has ever been before and I think she has shown that in the last couple of days at Miss Universe.
“To be completely honest, I have never had a girl who was this dedicated and worked as hard as she did during prep.
“It was astounding to see.
“She’s a changed woman and she has realised her own power and what she brings to the table.
“She is confident, secure, able, ready, committed and focused and it’s the most wonderful thing to see.”
With Covid-19 putting a hamper on plans, things had to be different and that included getting Joubert to Miami safely.
The plan was to get her to another country for quarantine purposes for two weeks before going to the US.
Luckily the odds were in her favour and they got a special exemption letter from the US to say she can fly direct just as long she has isolated and tests negative.
The contestants had to isolate for a full day when they arrived in Miami and are tested daily for the virus.
“There’s a strict policy in that if anyone tests positive, they will not be allowed to compete,” adds Wessels.
A few years ago pageants were still seen as sexist and anti-feminist.
Many were also criticising the women taking part in the competitions.
However, that feeling has changed and it’s partly because of the stance that South Africa has taken when it comes to pageants and made them empowerment opportunities.
Instead of talking about ‘world peace’ and focusing on beauty and fashion, our pageant queens have been about making statements that reflect their lived experiences.
From Demi-Leigh Tebow’s Unbreakable campaign which was about making sure women are able to protect themselves against attackers, Tamaryn Green’s TB awareness campaign and Zozibini Tunzi’s anti-GBV campaign, the country has changed pageant culture and influenced other nations to also make sure their delegates are focusing on the issues affecting their community.
“I love that women get to showcase their beauty, but they are also multifaceted beings and so why not show that to the full capacity?
“I fell in love with these women, their dreams and the things that are important to them.
“It felt like such a disservice that women were not allowed to show all their sides.
“We kind of forced the international pageant world to show women and how multifaceted they are.
“And now everyone who takes part in the pageants has to have a social project.”
Usually, Wessels would be in Miami with Joubert helping her prepare for the pageant, however, it’s not the case this year.
This has then meant that Wessels has had to change his body clock to be on the Miami time zone, so he is able to be at her beck and call any time she needs help.
“So it’s checking in, offering assistance during the day so she knows she’s not alone. We are available to her 24/7.
“For everything, she may need including encouragement and also debrief about what happened on the day.
“We talk everything through.
“She also gets to vent, which allows her to get up the next day with a blank slate and ready to tackle any challenge.
“So essentially I play father, therapist, coach, pageant director.
“I try to be there as much as I possibly can for everything that she may need from me.”
Already ranking high in the betting lists and hot picks, Joubert was also a favourite of other contestants who have gravitated towards her and sometimes clamouring to be seen next to her as it will up their popularity with fans.
“Natasha is just herself.
“She is not putting on a show and naturally, people gravitate towards that.
“People can see genuine people.
“They see her as a friend more than the competition.”