5th place – Margaret Gardiner, South Africa
(Our judges are: Greg Borowski, Willian Prendiz de Jurado, Edwin Toledo (Times of Beauty), Ricardo Guiraldes (Chilean Charm), Julio Rodriguez (Belleza Venezolana), Alberto Dubal (Miss Memorabilia), Jimmy Harris (Beauty School), Pepe Medel, Jean-Marie Vandecasteele, Andre Sleigh, Rose Foulger, Luis Trujillo. From GB, Ed Dominguez, Henrique Fontes, and Chris Kuntz)
The Convention Center of Acapulco welcomed 75 candidates and the 27th edition of Miss Universe, in 1978. The event was hosted by Bob Barker, with comments by Helen O’Connell and Corinna Tsopei (Miss Universe 1964). Lesotho and New Hebrides (current Vanuatu) debuted that year, and never returned after that. It was also the last time Morocco sent a representative to Miss Universe.
It was the first time Mexico hosted the pageant, and beautiful Acapulco was chosen as the host city: it was the perfect venue for the event with its beautiful and worldwide beaches and resorts. The Mexican government invested over USD 1 million in Miss U 78, hoping to show the world the best the country had to offer to its visitors. Mexico would host Miss Universe again in 3 other occasions.
Miss South Africa, Margaret Gardiner, almost had to stay home. Mexico did not recognize the white-minority government of South Africa. After much negotiation, she got a special permit to enter the country and compete.
For many pageant followers, 1978 presented the overall weakest group of candidates in all times. Most women were visibly out of shape and the pageant was criticized even by the Mexican press, frustrated with the lousy “class of 1978″. However, there were some great exceptions, like Miss USA, Hawaii’s Judi Andersen, the one to beat, South Africa, Margaret Gardiner, the face of the competition, Colombia, Mary Shirley Sáenz, Costa Rica, Maria Fernandez Garcia, chosen as Miss Photogenic, Miss Spain, Guillermina Ruiz, Israel, Dorit Jellinek and Miss Reunion, the exotic Evelyn Pongerand.
Other options were Mexico (hometown girl), Peru, Belgium (a local favorite), France, Ireland and Wales.
Miss Universe 1978 started in Mexico City. The candidates also visited Taxco, Cuernavaca, Guadalajara, and Merida. They also got to see the Mayan ruins of Chitchen Itza and Tulum.
It was the 1970’s, so many candidates joined the feminists and complained that they were being portrayed as sexual objects, with no respect being paid to their intellectual qualities. Miss Canada, for instance, said she was disgusted with the amount of photos of candidates wearing swimsuits published in the Mexican newspapers and magazines. “They really don’t care about what we think”, she said.
Miss Curaçao added to that: “If we are judged solely on what we look like, women around the world will see us as objects. We can do better than that”.
Controversies did not end there: the black candidates, especially the ones from Africa, menaced to withdraw because Mexican journalists and reporters would never photograph or interview them. Miss Lesotho mentioned: “Mexican are really racist people. They ignore all the black beauties”. Lesotho participated for the first and last time in Miss Universe that year.
Miss Peru, Olga Zumaran, was another focus of controversy: she was accused of being married, and a cosmetic company even offered USD 3000 for anyone who could show proof of that (which never happened).
The judges were among the most memorable in pageant history: Ursula Andress, Robertop Cavalli, Milos Forman, Melba Moore, Whilelmina, Dewi Sukarno, Line Renand, Cantinflas, Anna Mofo, David Merrick and Christiane Magnani de Aleman (Miss Universe 1953, who received a trophy in tribute of the 25 years of her election).
The 12 semi-finalists were: Ireland, South Africa, Israel, Spain, Holland, Mexico, Sweden, USA, Colombia, Belgium, Peru and Chile. The non inclusion of Misses Reunion, Costa Rica, and France was a huge upset.
For the first time, the audience at home could see the average scores of the 12 semi-finalists in the 3 competitions: interview, swimsuit, and gown. Those were also the lowest scores ever seen in a Miss Universe edition. Miss Holland, for example, receive a 2.890 in her swimsuit presentation! Miss USA had, by far, the highest scores of the night (7.831 average).
The top 5 were USA (7.831), Sweden (7.391), Spain (6.972), South Africa (6.685), and Colombia (6.491). Miss Belgium, a crowd favorite, would end in 6th place.
Not only for her relatively semi-finals low scores, but also because the world was against the South African regimen of Apartheid, and the fact that it would be ironic that, one year after a black beauty had finally been crowned Miss Universe, to see representative of “Apartheid” being crowned by her, nobody expect Miss South Africa to win.
When questioned about the political situation of her country during the days she spent in Mexico, Margaret Gardiner answered that she hoped Mexicans could see that South Africa was not as bad as it was pictured by the international community, that she thought it would be possible for a black woman to win the Miss South Africa title, as long as she was beautiful, intelligent, and charming, and that her best friend back in Cape Town, where she lived, was a black woman.
Sweden was announced was 4th runner-up; Colombia was the 3rd runner-up; then came Miss Spain, the 2nd runner-up. It looked like Miss USA had it in the bag, but no: she was the 1st runner-up. Margaret Gardiner, Miss South Africa, was Miss Universe 1978, beating all the odds.
Her victory was not welcomed by many, especially African publications, which thought it represented a victory of racism and the approval of a brutal discriminatory political system. Gardiner’s beauty, nonetheless, was unquestionable: many consider her one of the most beautiful faces in the history of the pageant. She returned to Miss Universe in 1990 to be a commentator and to celebrate the pageant’s 50th anniversary in 2001. She became a journalist and still works on tv.
Special thanks to Alberto Dubal!
(Still competing: 1989, 2002-Oxana, 2004, 2008)
MISS UNIVERSE 1978 – MARGARET GARDINER
MOST BEAUTIFUL MISS UNIVERSE FROM AFRICA
MOST BEAUTIFUL MISS UNIVERSE FROM THE 1970’S