Life holds universal appeal for Margaret Gardiner

15 Oct 23 | Profiles

Despite being an iconic South African beauty queen and journalist, who is also renowned on Hollywood’s fashion scene, Margaret Gardiner is down to earth and spends her time getting to know who others are behind their fame.

SA expat Margaret Gardiner is an expert juggler! Not only is she the fashion editor at and has been part of the public relations team guiding the Golden Globe Awards’ branding, but she is also an entertainment journalist, finishing a work of fiction, working on developing two non-fiction television projects, and producing and editing regular reality content with Hollywood stars such as Joaquin Phoenix and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for her YouTube channel.

“I’m known for getting to the person behind the fame,” says Margaret, who is ‘still delightfully involved in and loving life’. Many remember the ‘diverse and unexpected’ Margaret as the first South African to win Miss Universe in 1978.

“I didn’t understand the title’s impact as much then as I do now. I was only 18. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to represent my country internationally and win. I would have been shocked if anyone could have predicted how it would shape my life. I realised that big, huge fame is discombobulating,” says Margaret, who celebrated her 64th birthday on August 21.

Margaret reconnected with the pageant world when South Africans Demi-Leigh Tebow and Zozibini Tunzi won Miss Universe, in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

“I am so, so proud of them!” In January, Margaret was a guest at Miss Universe. “To be doing that 45 years after my win was an emotional and centering experience. Pageant women are incredible… Forward-leaning, kind, smart, joyful and supportive of other women. I have worked in many fields and am shocked that is not the way outside of pageantry.”

Born in Cape Town, Margaret describes her childhood as ‘blissful’. “I have two of the best sisters in the world, Beverly and Sandy. Both are older. Our parents adored us and instilled confidence in us; it was the best gift.”

Living to inform and entertain

While Margaret holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from the College of Charleston, she says she was not ‘qualified’, in terms of a diploma, to do any of the jobs she does.

“The word qualification is loaded. What makes one ‘qualified’ to do something? Experience and ownership of life skills to execute? I think you learn and deliver. My favourite thing is to immerse myself, acquire knowledge, lend my innovation, work with a team of like-minded enthusiasts and inform and entertain,” says Margaret.

She explains that when she was invited to model in Paris when she was only 16, she wasn’t a model. “When I guested on Good Morning South Africa, I wasn’t trained as a presenter. When I co-directed, scripted and hosted segments for television, ditto. I could go on.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Margaret moved to the US in 1978 as part of her obligations as Miss Universe and settled in New York. “One word describes the move… laughter! So maybe it wasn’t a typical move. I missed bredie and the diversity of our population.”

She returned to SA when she married Dr André Nel in 1987. In 1988, André was recruited to the US to do research, and Margaret joined him in 1989. Comparing the US to SA, Margaret says: “How do you describe home? A place where no explanations are required. People ‘get’ you, our cultures and our personal morality. I found personal ethics very foreign in America.” Margaret still visits SA a few times a year and continues to write regularly for Rooi Rose and the Sunday Times.

She has also contributed to a host of SA magazines, newspapers and television shows. When asked what she misses most about her homeland, her answer is simple: “How many pages do you have?” People are top-of-mind. “Oh my goodness, I miss our people, the smell of the veld, Turkish delight, biltong, droëwors, boerewors, Sparletta and Appletiser. I also miss the ‘can-do’ attitude rather than the ‘not my job’ attitude, and the ‘let’s find a solution’ instead of ‘it’s not done that way’.”

One of her greatest professional milestones is starting Women In Hollywood, a segment focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which showcases under-represented women behind the camera. The segment has featured women such as filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Nancy Meyers. She has also had research articles on DEI published in scholarly journals.

Also among her many achievements is being nominated twice by the ICG Publicists Awards for the International Media Award; and the writing of two health and beauty books, published by Human & Rousseau, one of which was a bestseller.

“I love producing and hosting panels, contributing as a panellist, running the fashion department, and shooting, editing and creating video content. I’m proud of innovating content and am always looking for collaborators. “I am perennially happy and love spending time with family, in the bathtub, exercising, cycling, swimming, baking, learning, discovering and supporting,” says Margaret, who believes in being kind, empathetic and innovative.

She has had many balls in the air over the past year, including attending Paris Fashion Week and the Golden Globe Awards, meeting Princess Charlene in Monaco at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival, producing top-performing deliverables as fashion editor of across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and producing panels, including for Cannes 2023.

“I am now juggling choices for Venice, SA, New York Fashion Week and the Toronto International Film Festival, and looking to produce reality programming!”

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