When the 18-year-old beauty was crowned as the first South African Miss World back in 1958, the blonde became a fond household name overnight.
Almost 60 years later, Penelope Anne Coelen Rey or simply Penny, is still everyone’s darling, making headlines with her natural charm and everlasting beauty.
Over a cup of tea and homemade muffins in her stylish Ballito home, the humble lady recalled some of the many highs and a few deep lows of her bittersweet, beautiful life.
“Life is a choice,” said Coelen Rey, thinking back to her early 20s when she left the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, California to marry handsome French Dolphin Coast sugarcane farmer, Michel Rey.
After travelling the world and socialising with high society, the famous beauty struggled to adjust to life on a lonely farm without electricity or hot water.
“I was a miserable newly wed and often pondered about where I should be travelling to, wondering what I was doing on a farm. I decided to burn my diaries of my time as Miss World, because I did not want to live in the past anymore,” she said.
She now regrets having burnt those diaries, as she would have liked to add them to her collection of life memories, which include many magical moments.
“One of my fondest memories was in Austria. I was called out to the balcony of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. The full moon shone over the trees in the vast garden and a white carriage appeared. Ballerinas stepped out of the carriage and performed a magnificent ballet in the garden.”
The tragic memories however, grounded Coelen Rey.
“What really brought me down to earth, was when I lost my first child.”
She did not give up and had five sons thereafter.
“I fully devoted the first 15 years of my marriage to my children.
“I remember sewing nighties for them when they were small and later washing and drying the army uniforms when the boys came home for the weekend. I still see myself hanging those uniforms over heaters to dry.”
At 35, the elegant blonde with the gentle blue eyes decided it was career time, trained as a beauty therapist and started Salon de Beauté at the farm.
After 14 years, it was time for a change again and this time, she joined the world of public speaking.
She spoke at functions on the subject of beauty, home entertaining, health and fashion coordinating.
“It was incredibly stressful, because I was always terrified that I would forget what I wanted to say.”
So she moved onto more artistic things such as her painting holidays, spending time with artists while learning from them, which often turned into great friendships.
“I am a gatherer. If I like someone, I invite them to my home,” said Coelen Rey, who treasures her friendships across the world.
When it was time to move from the farm, she turned her new home into a guesthouse, much to her husband’s dismay.
“When my husband got to the phone before me, he would tell the people we were fully booked,” she said with a chuckle.
The house was later sold and became Hotel Izulu, which only recently closed.
All round, life was good, until tragedy struck in June 2004, when her son Nicholas had a freak polo accident.
“There was a collision on the field resulting in his horse stumbling and then falling on top of him. Nicholas sustained a brain stem injury and while he can hear and understand everything and his brain is fully functional, communication is difficult,” she said.
Coelen Rey said that unfortunately physically, he can do nothing for himself and is totally dependent on 24 hour nursing care.
“Life has changed enormously over the past 11 years. There are times when we get depressed. We have to just come to terms with it.”
Life goes on and the next tasks the forever young lady has set for herself is to learn how to use all the tenses in French and to master the complicated card game, Bridge.