Last year was a rollercoaster year for Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters. On March 26, 2017, she was crowned Miss South Africa. Then, just months later, she endured a horrific attack on her life. But Nel-Peters refused to be victimized by her assailants. Instead, she went on to compete in – and win – the prestigious title of Miss Universe.
Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters has an intimidating resume. In hindsight, it is easy to see that she was always destined for great things. At just 17 she became the Junior Deputy Mayor of her home city, George. She also held impressive leadership roles at her school and graduated from North West University with a degree in business management.
The multitalented stunner speaks two languages, English and Afrikaans. Nel-Peters had never entered the Miss South Africa competition before 2017 – the year she won. But it was her actions outside of academia, and the beauty pageants that made her famous, that really defined her.
Twenty-two-year-old Nel-Peters is from Cape Town, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Perhaps this was why she was prepared when five men came at her one afternoon, seemingly intent on stealing her car. The South African went on the HollywoodLife podcast to talk about her ordeal.
Nel-Peters was driving in the Hyde Park area of Johannesburg, heading to an event near her home. “It was broad daylight,” she recalled, “half past five in the afternoon.” But danger was lurking. She pulled up at a red light on Jan Smuts Avenue, unaware of the impending incident that would change her life.
Suddenly, five men appeared, three of whom were brandishing weapons. Thankfully, Nel-Peters had completed a self-defense program with Women Empowered. And, as the men swarmed her car, she recalled its instructions: to capitulate rather than fight back. To this end, she took the car out of gear, put the handbrake on, unbuckled herself and exited the vehicle.
“I climbed out of the car, but they told me to climb back in because I was coming with them,” Nel-Peters said. With her options limited, she must have felt pretty helpless. However, she knew she needed to get as far away as possible from her attackers.
So, Nel-Peters raised her hands in surrender and watched as her assailants took her cell phone. Reasoning that material possessions could be replaced, she even told them to “take everything.”
The terrified woman then tried to run off, but one of the men pushed her back into the car. “Get in,” he said, “you’re going with us.” It seems that this was a crossroads of sorts for Nel-Peters, who made up her mind to do exactly the opposite. Yet she only had seconds to act. Women Empowered had recommended she target a certain body part if ever she felt her life was at risk.
So, Nel-Peters summoned every ounce of energy and punched one of her attackers right in the throat. “I managed to get back up on my feet and I pumped him in the throat and it gave me a window of opportunity to run away,” she explained.
The man was dazed by the unexpected blow. “He got so frightened, he backed off,” Nel-Peters said. “Obviously, he was choking and didn’t expect that to happen.” His fellow attackers were on the opposite side of the car, so she seized the moment.
Desperate to get away, Nel-Peters ran straight into the road. Perhaps she thought she’d be safer among slow-moving traffic, than on the sidewalk where her attackers might lunge for her again. It could have been a case of straight from the frying pan and into the fire, but in fact her quick thinking may have saved her life.
Nel-Peters ended up having to rely on the kindness of strangers, a strategy that almost didn’t pay off. “I smashed on the windows of the cars, trying to get help and nobody would stop for me,” she recalled. “I don’t blame people for that because you hear so many stories all around the world where people stop to help and they get attacked.”
Sadly, although she was a victim and had had to surrender her car and personal belongings, she was seen as a potential threat. Luckily, in the end, a friendly fellow female gave her a ride to safety.
Nel-Peters has used the experience to fuel her passion for self-defense. Following her ordeal, she started her own project, Unbreakable, and presented workshops in partnership with Women Empowered. Nel-Peters had a clear goal: she wanted to empower women “with skills and knowledge on how to handle difficult situations, not just hijacks or carjacks, but robberies, rapes, violence against women and sexual harassment.”
On November 26, 2017, eight months to the day after she was crowned Miss South Africa, Nel-Peters became a very deserving Miss Universe. She pipped Miss Colombia to the award at the ceremony held at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Now, with her new title, she intends to raise awareness of inequality in the workplace and promote self-defense for women.
On her way to winning, Nel-Peters defined what she believes Miss Universe should stand for. For her, “Miss Universe is a woman who has overcome many fears, and by that she is able to help many women overcome their fears.” Moreover, she plans to use the platform to expand the reach of her campaign globally.
Speaking to HuffPost, the South African said that she sees her reign as an “opportunity to be a role model to young girls. To me, this is a very big honor, but it’s an even bigger responsibility.” Nel-Peters clearly recognizes the importance of her position and will surely have a busy time supporting her various causes during her stint as Miss Universe.
The titleholder posted on Facebook that her motto in 2017 was “If you believe in something, believe in it all the way.” And Nel-Peters has certainly lived up to that rallying cry. Having followed her dreams, she is now inspiring others to do the same. Furthermore, she is using her nightmarish episode to benefit others.
2018 should be a good year for Nel-Peters. There are perks attached to being Miss Universe, so in addition to living expenses and a salary, she can look forward to free accommodation in New York. Hopefully, she will feel safe in her new surroundings, though she is clearly able to equip herself well wherever she is.