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Former Miss Universe Rolene Strauss in a flash

At 22, Rolene Strauss was crowned the world’s most beautiful woman… but it took nearly a decade more for her to feel “good enough”. 

Barefoot, brown curls bouncing, Rolene Strauss mastered the art of climbing trees early on. She spent her days clearing homemade backyard putting greens and rigging up “foofy slides” with her brother until the sun went down. When she wasn’t exploring, she accompanied her dad to the local hospital and held the hands of his patients. She wanted to be like him one day. But there was something else – something ‘girly’ she loved doing just for herself: the graceful art of ballet.

“The biggest lesson I learnt from being raised in a small town is that you might not have all the opportunities there, but when you do get one, you should grab it with both hands,” Rolene says.  

So, when ballet lessons came on offer in the small town of Volksrust, Mpumalanga – hundreds of kilometres from just about anywhere – she jumped at the chance to do something that was, back then, completely outside of her comfort zone. With her best friend in hand, she started classes and loved it – until the one and only ballet teacher moved to another town and the dancing stopped.  

“I told my mom I still wanted to do something like that, so she enrolled me in modelling lessons.” However, Rolene soon realised that modelling wasn’t for her. “It was all about what you look like, whereas pageants and Miss South Africa was more holistic. It’s about using your unique skills and talents to really make a difference.”  


Rolene was brought up to believe that she can do many things at the same time, if they align with who she is.  


As a teenager, she kept both pageants and medicine firmly in her sights. And in 2011 she enrolled in the top league of both: medical school and Miss South Africa. She headed to Bloemfontein to study and prepared for the pageant at the end of that year. “For me, it was never a case of ‘this’ or ‘that’. I thought: ‘Why not everything?’”, she grins.  

Rolene was brought up to believe that she can do many things at the same time, if they align with who she is. She can be both a medical student and Miss SA; Miss SA and Miss World; a transformational coach and an entrepreneur; a wife and a mother and her own best friend. In short, she’s the self-crowned “queen of her own life” – and it’s her mission to inspire other women to crown themselves, too.  

Stepping into the spotlight  

With her first year of studies behind her, Rolene took to the stage and triumphed when she placed in the top five. But a “horrible experience” shook her. “I couldn’t really speak English and I stumbled over my words on stage. Long story short, the judges came back to me and said that I had a lot of potential and I should enter again,” she recalls.   

Three years later – in her fourth year of Medicine – Rolene won Miss SA in March 2014, followed by Miss World just nine months later. For a year after being crowned, she lived and breathed Miss World’s mission of ‘beauty with a purpose’, travelling around the world to visit charities and raise funds for them. She met mayors, presidents and celebrities, but the journey was lonely.  

“I grew up in a tight-knit family and had very close friends and family in Bloemfontein… then suddenly I was out in the big world and navigating it on my own,” she explains. “D’Niel [now her husband] was the one who was right there with me through this whole journey, so he was the person I could speak to. I felt awkward speaking to my friends about all my troubles because some had never even left South Africa. It was such a big difference that I couldn’t really share everything.”  


‘True beauty lies in how you affect other people’  

She was also shocked by the huge disparity between the flashy events she attended and the reality of the charities she supported. “Shifting between the two was quite difficult – going from high heels and glamorous dresses to kneeling beside someone’s hospital bed or sitting with an orphan,” she recalls. Once again, the curly haired girl found herself navigating two worlds – but no one was better equipped to bridge the divide between them.

“True beauty lies in how you affect other people,” she says.  “I’ve spoken to a previous Miss South Africa, and she said it so well: the title is a blessing and a burden; it depends on how you use it. I would add that it’s a big responsibility. Every social media post I make is like standing in front of a crowd of more than 300 000 people and giving them a message. A lot of young girls want to be well known, but I’d encourage them to realise that it’s a big responsibility and should not be taken lightly.”  

Onwards and upwards  

At 24, Rolene asked herself: what’s next? She had already achieved such major milestones, and the road beyond them looked hazy. “It took years of self-growth to realise, in my 30s, that the biggest mistake we make is to attach our identity to what we do and achieve, rather than who we are – especially as women,” she says.  

“I’ve been there – I once attached my identity to studying medicine, becoming a doctor, being Miss South Africa or Miss World, and being a mother,” she continues. “But what ends up happening is you get complete identity whiplash when things in your life change quickly. I had to take a step back and ask: ‘Who did God create me to be and what is my purpose?’. Then I realised that I could live out my purpose in any area of my life – whether it’s at home or on a stage. That was a major mindset change for me.” 

After her reign as Miss World, Rolene picked up her medical studies again and continued to grow her platform to reach as many people as possible. “I did my master’s in philosophy and studied leadership coaching to develop a model for women who struggle with their self-confidence. I use this model in a lot of the keynote talks, workshops and seminars I do, and in the business talks I give with my husband,” she says.  


‘It’s about becoming the queen of your life, instead of trying to be the queen for everyone else and I fit into their boxes.’  


A belief close to Rolene’s heart, and the basis of her coaching, is that every woman should be “the queen of her own life”. “I believe that very often, we turn to people to crown us with a title – ‘you’re good enough’ or ‘you’re pretty enough’ – and we always wait for someone else to put that crown on our heads,” she explains.  

“It’s about becoming the queen of your life, instead of trying to be the queen for everyone else and fit into their boxes.”

Now 31, Rolene has started ballet again. She admits it’s one of the toughest challenges she’s taken on, but it was rooted in her decision to switch off the camera, feel the music and have fun.  

She is a shareholder in several companies – including a healthcare centre she founded with her sister-in-law – and has a new line of products in the pipeline. For the next two years, though, the Strauss’ focus is to “grow the family a bit more… we would love to get another baby,” she shares with a grin. Rolene is still climbing trees whenever she likes – now with her two little boys.   

“They brought me back to enjoying every moment, seeing its beauty and embracing everything as an adventure,” she says. “They just tore all the unnecessary details away from life. They got to the core of building a heart-to-heart connection and being there for one another. They ground me in who I am.”  

Words by: Christi Nortier
Photographer: Zhann Solomons   

Also read: Lira’s story and journey to recovery

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