Beauty pageants are a big deal in the Caribbean. Or at least they were when I was growing up in Trinidad.
When it came time for the annual Miss Universe pageant, the family all gathered round to root for the hometown heroine together. Trinidad and Tobago has a long and proud history of beauty pageant winners. In 1977, Janelle “Penny” Commissiong became the first Trini, and the first black woman, to win the Miss Universe pageant. I was little when Giselle Laronde won Miss World in 1986, and the whole country celebrated that victory. It was a huge deal when Wendy Fitzwilliam won Miss Universe in 1998, becoming only the third black woman to win. That was the year I moved abroad.
I didn’t realize until I moved to Miami that there were so many people who never watched beauty pageants on television, or even gave a hoot about the Miss Universe or Miss World pageants. When Trinidad hosted the Miss Universe pageant in 1999, I practically had to beg my new American friends to watch it, and some of them had never entertained the thought of watching a beauty pageant before. Over the years, I lost touch with Miss Universe. The only year I watched the whole thing was in 2004, to cheer for my childhood friend Danielle Jones. (she placed fourth runner up!) But still, it made me sad to realize that for the first time in 17 years, Trinidad and Tobago was not sending a representative to Miss Universe. It might seem superficial, but when you’re from a small place that most people don’t know anything about, it does make you feel a swell of national pride to see your country’s representative, wearing a costume meant to depict your culture, striding across a global stage.
Even though my country won’t be represented, I think I’m going to watch this year’s pageant (which will air at 9 p.m. on Monday May 28 on NBC). I’m going to support my Caribbean sisters by rooting big time for Miss Jamaica, Zahra Redwood. She’s the first Rastafarian to compete for the title, and she embodies the essence of black beauty.
Her amazing dreadlocks are getting all of the attention, but as this two-part interview with the Jamaica Observer indicates, Zahra is about much more than her hair. She’s 25, and has a degree in biotechnology and zoology. She’s mature, intelligent, classy, and completely self-possessed — exactly what the winner should be. No risk of Tara Conner embarrassment, here. And besides, Zahra’s victory will make a statement about how far natural ethnic beauty has come.
Back in the day, a girl like Zahra might have been expected to shave off those beautiful locks in order to attend school, or to be accepted in the workplace. Now her locks are her glory, and they set her apart from the rest of the straight, shiny haired pageant beauties. I’m not one to make predictions, but I will say this — that tiara is going to look just stunning on her! Go, Zahra!