Low budget lingerie shoots long forgotten; I searched eagerly for any glimpse of Saint Lucia’s representative for Miss Universe when the ladies hit the main stage on Sunday, November 26. Halfway through the night, as the group of 92 narrowed down to 16, it was clear that me and the rest of Saint Lucia would have to be satisfied with split second flashes of the beauty that is Louise Victor, that we nearly had to strain our eyes to see.
What I did see though was a very spirited Miss Jamaica, completely unafraid to be herself. That was clear from the moment she greeted the audience with the “wah gwan” line made especially famous by past US president Barack Obama during a visit to Jamaica back in 2015. For further emphasis, perhaps for those with doubts about which Caribbean rock she was representing, Davina Bennett expertly struck Usain’s lightening Bolt pose, which for all intents and purposes, must have been what really sealed her place in the top 3.
Unlike many of the women representing Caribbean islands – including unfortunately our own – Davina didn’t at any point fade into the background. Instead, with a bob of her afro, she glided down the runway, a vision of yellow in the evening gown segment, glamorous and fit in her swimwear, much due in the words of her Jamaican supporters to a hearty diet that included yams, steamed fish and okra!
Even though she was not crowned the winner, Miss Jamaica certainly made her presence felt at this year’s competition, ending with a note sent from her Instagram: “I did not win, but I got what I was seeking. I won the hearts of many, I got to highlight deaf awareness, and I stand as the first Afro queen to have made it this far. I represented my little island and I received all the love one could possibly wish for… thank you.”
If any of the other Caribbean ladies would have taken it in, there were sure lessons on preparation, confidence and authenticity to be learnt from Davina. At the end of it all, I couldn’t tell whether the Internet was more upset that Davina had not won, or that Miss South Africa, representing a land that was 80 percent Black African, was a white woman. Of course this year’s winner Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters was not the first non-black woman to represent South Africa at the Miss Universe pageant. In fact, the Caribbean’s very own history maker Janelle Commissiong, Miss Universe 1977, bestowed the crown onto a very pale faced Margaret Gardiner, again representing South Africa, one year after her win. Notably Gardiner, a white woman, was the first African woman to win the Miss Universe title. In later interviews, Janelle says without a doubt, in her opinion at least, Miss South Africa deserved the crown that year. Whether or not that was the case, Gardiner’s win was yet another reason to take a closer look at the pageant’s formula over the years when it came to crowning “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
From the perspective of a woman of African descent, looking at the list of the 66 winners over the years is grim, indeed. From 1951 to 1976… it was as though black women didn’t exist at all. Not until 1977 with Trinidad’s Janelle Commissiong, the first woman of African descent to win the title. For years after that it was back to more of the same, with the world’s most striking women coming from everywhere but lands rich in melanin and honey. That is… until 1998, when Trinidad’s Wendy Fitzwilliam was crowned, followed by Botswana’s representative of 1999, Mpule Kwelagobe. That back-to-back win of black women had never happened before, and has not happened since.
It would take more than another decade for another black face to be crowned, and when that happened, it would be in the form of Angola’s Leila Lopes, in 2011.
I’ll be the first to admit, while watching the pageant over the years; the statistics didn’t initially appear so dismal. After all, we in the Caribbean find solace in the fact that even if our country’s representative doesn’t make the cut, we’ll be just as happy rooting on another Caribbean gal. One of us, at least, is bound to make the top 16. The top spots are usually dominated by women with silky straight hair, regardless of the colour of their skin. We don’t usually care so much, just as long as there’s a hint of brown somewhere. And when the numbers are scaled down to the top 10, then the top 5… we’ll happily support a dark skinned queen from anywhere in the world, even America. But when it really comes down to it, we all know deep in our hearts that the only spot that really counts is the one at the top. The one that only five women who look like us have successfully managed to walk away with, in more than half a century.
The world’s definition of beauty, and especially that of the Miss Universe pageant, has never been black. Back in 1977, when our first ever Miss Universe winner, Janelle, walked away with the crown, even she recognized fully as expressed in an interview, “back then when I competed, we were just there to make up numbers.”
How much has changed since, and what exactly will it take for a Miss Saint Lucia, or another Caribbean beauty to win the crown?
As a popular Saint Lucian fashion icon put it this week: “The challenges are clear, financial and otherwise. Now we must ask ourselves, what are we doing to really prepare our ladies to stand out in this space? Are local franchise holders meeting their end of the bargain? If we are not going to put in the time for proper training and preparation, we simply should not participate. In my opinion, Miss Saint Lucia did her best and I hope with her Miss Universe experience, she can help nurture, and better prepare future generations of local queens for such international pageants.”
Until the next big international pageant, here’s to supporting, encouraging and celebrating our Caribbean queens – crown, or no crown.