Talking to Jeanelle Desir one can’t help feeling like they’ve known her forever. The 21-year-old is pleasant to be around and has an infectious laugh—even at her own expense! Her spirit is uplifting, her personality genuine and her thoughts run deep. Despite her positive demeanor, life hasn’t always been a fairytale for this beauty queen hopeful.
No one knows the effects of Hurricane Tomas quite like the residents of Fond St Jacques, Soufriere where Jeanelle grew up. The carnival queen contestant found herself in the midst of disaster on October 31, 2010. She experienced real tragedy first hand as Hurricane Tomas touched down on St Lucia. To this day she remembers the terror that gripped her heart and the sense of loss she felt looking at the foreign territory that was her community the morning after the storm.
Today, the employee of Discovery Hotel, says the experience gives her strength. She’s alive for a reason and has every intention of making the most of every day she’s given. In an exclusive interview days before the Carnival Queen pageant Jeanelle tells the STAR: “I want to be different. I like to be unique and I love to stand out. I definitely promise a surprise on July 7th!”
STAR: Tell us about growing up in Fond St Jacques?
Jeanelle: I grew up in an extended family with my grandmother head of the household. I grew up with a lot of girls in the community of Fond St Jacques. I’m the first of two sisters. I don’t know where I would compare to growing up in Fond St Jacques. There’s the river, the trees… there’s days when I fell from the trees, days people had to come get me out of the river! I wouldn’t say I was a Tom Boy growing up, not at all. It’s a case where everyone around you is doing it, so you’re doing it too. The children are going to the river, you’re going to the river. If the neighbour’s children are climbing trees you’re climbing trees.
STAR: How did you feel when you began hearing about the effects of Hurricane Tomas and that the most badly hit place was Fond St Jacques?
Jeanelle: It crushed me. I was there the night and the morning of the hurricane, so I knew from waking up and seeing the damage that there was no other place worse hit than Fond St Jacques. I saw them carrying dead people. I was there and experienced it. I was in the middle of everything. Up to this day, hearing about Hurricane Tomas shakes me. Someone who was at school with me lost their life, someone who was living right next to my home died . . . it was quite an unforgettable experience.
STAR: Why were you there that night?
Jeanelle: My grandmother lives in Fond St Jacques and at the time I was employed at the Soufriere radio station. My family’s plan was to be with my grandmother because of the hurricane. We thought we should spend the time with her, and we thought it would be safer to be up there. My dad never came up because the road was blocked. It was like “Oh my God” he’s not there, but he kept calling to check on us. Our last call was just after 10 in the evening and we couldn’t get through to him again. Everyone was like, “Oh my God” we hope he’s safe. Everybody went into panic mode. I didn’t sleep that night; I saw every minute of the clock. One of my cousins said we should go to the church, the hurricane shelter and my grandmother said no. The thing about it, my grandmother has seen it all. She’s been through so many hurricanes. If she knew how scared we were . . . that was the first big thing for us. There was hurricane Lenny where the sea came up but at that time we were living in Fond St Jacques, we were not really affected. We were thinking “Oh My God we’re going to die!” We were hearing the hills coming down. I can remember looking out the window and seeing vehicles going down the river. I was like we’re going, and she was like no we’re staying right here. So we stayed. We got up at about 4am and at the first bit of light we were out. It was totally different from what we’d left in the evening. My grandmother’s garden gone and the area looked like a playing field, nothing was there. All those big trees nobody thought would go anywhere, they were gone. There were vehicles scattered all over, vehicles that came from all the way up the road, and all those big rocks. I knew there was more coming. All that couldn’t happen without somebody dying, or a house going. There were pieces from other houses behind our house. I was wondering, “Where are those people, where are those people?” and I started crying. At 6am people were talking about who was missing. There was no question that those people were dead because their houses were totally gone.
STAR: How did you feel at that point?
Jeanelle: I felt terrible. I felt broken. I felt like part of me was gone. It was unbelievable. Before I went to bed, one of the people they said was dead had been by my grandmother’s rum shop. He was right there speaking to us, laughing and a few hours later he’s not there. Everything was different.
STAR: Tell us about your life right now?
Jeanelle: I work at Discovery in Marigot Bay. I started in December. I’m a front office agent and also do guest services. It’s totally different from where I was a year ago, or two years ago. I’ve learnt a lot; I’m more independent now. When I cry I have to wipe my own tears. No more turning around looking for mommy or daddy! [laughs]. I still have family support, coworkers, friends, but I’m definitely more independent.
STAR: What’s your long-term goal?
Jeanelle: I want to be a journalist. I worked with a radio station before and I think it would be exciting to get back into the industry. Another of my goals is to open a center for young girls who got pregnant early—offer counseling and other services. In the community of Soufriere the issue is rampant. It tears me to pieces to see a young person who has so much going for them . . . To be young is to experience so much, to do so much. I’m not saying you cannot have a child at a particular age, when you’re settled. I think you need to live a little first.
STAR: Why did you decide to audition for Carnival Queen?
Jeanelle: The exposure I know will be wonderful and the experience. I’ve seen the various pageants on television, the experiences the girls have before the pageants, things like posture, speaking—these things go a long way and I want to experience that.
STAR: What did you think when you got chosen?
Jeanelle: I was excited! I had no doubt I was going to be chosen really. [laughs].
STAR: How has the Carnival Queen contestant experience been?
Jeanelle: You look at these things on television and it’s all about being pretty, putting on make-up, nice clothes… it’s more than that. You’re always being looked at, there’s always a camera on you and you don’t want to be caught doing the wrong thing. You always have to be conscious of your environment and where you are. I don’t think the Carnival Queen pageant is only about the night. It’s more than that. You need to show you can be an ambassador. It has been a wonderful experience so far. The support has been great;
I think everyone else is more excited than me! They would be like, “Look, our queen, our queen!” Sometimes I would think . . . . it’s a lot, but
all the support just lifts me, knowing there are all these people who have faith in you.
STAR: What can be expected from you on the evening of the show?
Jeanelle: Don’t want to let the cat out of the bag but I want to stand out. There are some great contestants in this event and there is no doubt we will all be competitive. Most of all I want to do the people who support me proud. My chaperone, my coworkers and my family; my support system. When people believe in you, you believe in yourself.