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MissJamaica2014

When the media released the picture of the latest crop of young women vying for the title of Miss Jamaica World, social media sighed collectively. Where were the dark skinned girls? One of my favourite sparring partners, Marlon James, quipped, ‘The Miss Jamaica Full-Free Factory just pooped out a brand new batch of mulattoes, mustees, quadroons, and octoroons for your bidding pleasure. How does the factory stay on top of this every year? Consensual Eugenics?’

No doubt the organizers of Miss Jamaica would point to the token dark-skinned, afro-haired girls who have won in the past. There has even been a Rastafarian Miss Jamaica. And yes, we pause to give thanks for these minor blips to the overwhelming trend. The Miss Jamaica pageants might also defend themselves saying they have no control over the girls who enter, and this might actually be a valid defence. But then again, it’s not the issue. The issue is that there is an idea in Jamaica of who is beautiful and who isn’t. The issue is that this idea of beauty is, to a large extent, a racially constructed one. The issue is that the young women who vie for the title do not look like the majority of young women in Jamaica. The issue is one of sadness that the majority of our beautiful women do not feel they have the kind of beauty that that qualifies them to enter Miss Jamaica.

Barbara Gloudon once quipped with savage wit that she was sure every Miss Jamaica won her title, FAIR and square.

The picture published in the Gleaner is not just a picture of hopeful beauty queens; it is a picture of hierarchies of race and class as they still operate in Jamaica today. And with the Miss Jamaica franchises, such hierarchies operate as much behind the stage as they do on the stage. Today’s blog is a strange one for me. It is just a story. A true story that all but landed in my lap. It is about this year’s Miss Jamaica competitions (both World and Universe), about things that might seem neither fair nor square. It is about the politics of beauty, and some of the things that happen in this belly of Babylon.

 

2.

We begin this story with Damian Joel Shaw, a young man born with the advantage of beauty (tall, ridiculously slender, and the kind of bone structure models would break into his house or skin and steal if they could).

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Also, his is the advantage of an unerring sense of style. This sense of style has become the backbone of his career. Under the moniker, Mr Image, Shaw has quickly become Jamaica’s most recognizable, if not the only, image consultant.  I cannot imagine how hard that must be, to carve out a whole new space for oneself on this island.

But Shaw was born with disadvantages as well. One might say that partly has to do with being born the wrong colour. I personally wouldn’t put much stock in that. Outside the world of our national beauty competitions, the disadvantage of dark skin is one that Jamaicans can overcome — fairly easily (forgive the Gloudon pun again). Mostly his disadvantages have to do with being born in the wrong class – an outside child to his father; his mother, a Pentecostal seamstress who fell into a depression so deep that she gave up sewing and too early became a dependent of her son.

Sewing machine lady

And here is where the story of a desperate striving begins – a woman so disappointed with the world and so hard-done by it that she begins to talk only to God; she begins to talk to God in a desperate, frantic, and off-balanced way; she talks to God even as the mortgage goes unpaid; she talks to God even as she is evicted; she talks to God even as her teenage son has to suddenly become a man, work to put himself through university, work to pay the rent,  work to buy food for himself and his newborn child and this forever-mumbling-to-some-God-out-there mother.

The world would like to have us believe that hard work and striving always yield results. But that isn’t true. A poignant meme that has been going around the internet shows three African women, peasants with large bundles on their heads. If the picture is kitch, the text that accompanies it isn’t: IF THOSE WHO WORKED HARDEST WERE PAID THE MOST, AFRICAN WOMEN WOULD BE THE WEALTHIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.

Give thanks then that some of Shaw’s striving against great odds has worked out. In 2010 he was contracted as the official grooming coach for the Miss Universe Jamaica pageant. That year’s Miss Jamaica (Yendi Phillips) placed second in the Miss Universe Pageant, the highest placing Jamaica has ever received.

With that success under his belt Shaw was quickly poached by the competition, the Miss Jamaica World Franchise. His face plastered across their webpages, he became the official grooming coach in 2011 and 2012. His mother was still mumbling in the corner of the one bedroom he could afford to rent, but at least *he* was flying. A success story. Right?

Wrong.

3.

There is a popular feel-good quote out there:  ‘Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land in the stars.’

moon-stars-clouds

I have always hated that particularly trite piece of rubbish, not least because of its lack of coherent physics. Les Brown, who the quote has been attributed to, clearly did not do Astronomy 101. The moon is much closer to the earth than any star. Reach for the moon, and if you miss you will probably land on some barren, lifeless asteroid.  The world is a much harder place than the quote would have us believe, and there is a price we sometimes pay for reaching too high. Just ask Icarus. Sometimes there is a price to pay for forgetting one’s place.

The long and short of things is that DJ Shaw committed the tragic sin of overreaching. Offering his muses more than just classes on grooming and deportment etc, he proceeded to organize classes and workshops on makeup and hairstyling. But in a national pageant like Miss Jamaica, sponsors will have paid or pledged big sums of money to ensure that makeup will only be done by them, or that hairstyling will only be done by them. In other words, the turf assigned to Title Sponsors is one that those corporations will guard viciously. Shaw was almost certainly naïve in thinking he should be comprehensive, giving young women extra beauty tips, trying to teach them all they needed to know about personal beauty. He had overstepped his mark.

Perhaps the lesson that Shaw and his potential beauty queens needed to learn is that beauty is never personal. It is socially constructed. It is decided on by committees. And it is heavily policed. Beauty comes with its own politics, its own hierarchies and its own systems of gatekeeping. And it was precisely these systems that DJ Shaw eventually offended – this bright new kid on the block, beautiful and stylish, but with the bad habit of over-reaching and forgetting his place.

It only took a few terse letters, a few even terser meetings, one shortened pay-check, and bam! Shaw was thrown back on the outside. They say in fashion: one day you’re in; the next day you’re out.

 

4.

The quality of Shaw’s work – that unerring sense of style – has never been in question. Just see some of the pictures below. He took no part in the 2013 staging of either Miss Jamaica pageants, but still remained a known entity. It was this year, 2014, that he tiptoed back into the arena. Still not officially aligned to either pageant, he has acted as personal groom to two young women. And once again – his transformative work, the ease with which he is able to create standout looks, has proved nothing short of amazing. Shaw is a stylist par excellence.

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The young women he has been grooming have already reaped success.  Diane Brown has just been crowned Miss Universe Jamaica Northeast, and Kimberly Webb has been crowned, Miss Jamaica World Cornwall. Both have not hesitated to attribute this success back to Shaw’s coaching.

But, dear reader, success can come at a price. And there is nothing a system hates more than someone it has already shunned trying to make his way back in. The powerless must know their place, for godsake! They must be reminded of it! The reaction from both Miss Jamaica pageants has been swift. Following their regional crownings, both Kimberley and Diane have been given ultimatums to immediately cut all professional contacts with Damien Joel Shaw.

Mr Image shared with me a heartbreaking email sent to him from Kimberley. I will not quote it in full, but the opening two sentences captures the essence of the whole:

Dear Mr. Shaw,

In light of recent developments regarding my contractual relationship with the Miss Jamaica World Organization, I believe it would be in the best interest of all parties involved if you and I were to suspend our relationship….. I must ask that any photographs that have been posted on the various social media that call into question my relationship with the Miss Jamaica World Pageant be removed as quickly as possible.

 

Given a similar ultimatum, the letter from Dianne Brown to the organizers of the Miss  Universe Jamaica county pageant is even more heartbreaking when she insists:
Damian Shaw is almost single-handedly responsible for my winning on Saturday, the woman you saw on stage, her hair, her stance and the consistently prepared individual I was through the pageant was influenced by him. He has been a significant part of my journey and I had all intentions of having him with me as (friend/mentor/stylist/consultant/coach) till the very end.

 

Shaw has come out with his own statement – professional in tone as he graciously steps back:

 

 

“This message serves as  official notice  that my “Beauty and The Coach” Grooming programme with  Dianne Brown (Miss Universe Jamaica – Northeast 2014) and Kimberly Webb (Miss Jamaica World – Cornwall 2014), has  come to a premature end due to a perceived conflict of interest cited by both the Miss Universe Jamaica – Northeast Organisation and the Miss Jamaica World Organisation. They are no longer permitted to be independently under my tutelage and guidance, or to be publicly associated with the Mr. Image brand and its affiliates (as has been documented on all of my social media platforms). I therefore humbly rescind my position as their independently contracted grooming coach so as to not have their placement in their respective pageants threatened any further. It is also important to note that since 2012, I have not been affiliated (neither in an official capacity or otherwise) with either organisation. I would like to thank the media and the public for the incredible support thus far, and I trust that you will continue to support both of these beautiful and accomplished young ladies as they continue on their journeys to the crown in the national leg of their pageants.”

So then … that seems to be it.

 

5.

Sometimes it happens that the curtains of a pageant show part and we catch a glimpse of what is behind it. Behind the superficial world of beauty is another much harsher world – a world where that same beauty can sometimes show an ugly face; a world where a Jamaican mother does not rise gloriously to meet the challenges that faces her but is instead crushed by the weight of the world and descends into a mumbling incoherence; a world in which some of Jamaica’s most talented sons and daughters prove themselves to be little Icaruses, always over-reaching, always flying too close to the sun and getting burnt in the process; a world in which outside children are condemned to stay that way forever, on the outside, knocking on doors, hoping today might be the day they will be finally let in.

I leave the final word to Beyonce whose new song and accompanying music video is a striking comment on the industry that beauty queens find themselves in. It seems that Pretty hurts over there as much as it hurts here.

 

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22 thoughts on “‘Pretty Hurts’ — Jamaican Style: Stories from Miss Jamaica 2014

  1. I had an amazing conversation on a plane journey from Barbados to Jamaica. Surrounded by very pretty, young, light skinned, ladies ( it was CFW) I asked the lad next to me who would fit none of those descriptions, why Miss Jamaica never represents the young misses of Jamaica. This lecturer gave me a history lesson; sad! I recall while watching Miss Universe that if you transposed the heads the bodies were practically identical. As you say one very narrow, stereotyped form of beauty that bears no relation to most men’s desires. In fact I recall one such bikini cattle market competition at Pulse. The crowd favourite had a figure. When she didn’t place there was a very Jamaican middle class riot. I think it was KC himself who had to explain that the sponsors had a specific look in mind. Given the very young age of the contestants a lot of us were uncomfortable even being there. The bottom line these contests play an important part in the psyche. I was staggered even on my very first trip to Ja in 1991 who people, mostly women embrace them. The politics with regard to Mr Image go deeper. Both contests had new franchise holders for the years you mentioned. As with everything, vested interests.

  2. Echo the sentiment @Tesi. And they say there is no racism in Jamaica…sigh! I’d like to be in contact with DJ Shaw…even to offer my support and encouragement. I think what those girls ditching him was shameful. Someone needs the backbone to take a stand against the status quo!

    • Diane didn’t ditch him. She stated that it was because of him why she won, therefore she saw no reason why she should discontinue her relationship with him. He opt out for her sake.

  3. *slow clap* This, my friend, needs to be everywhere! The most profound: “beauty is never personal. It is socially constructed. It is decided on by committees. And it is heavily policed. Beauty comes with its own politics.”

    My two cents:

    Protecting one’s interest in business is quite understandable – but it should be clear what/who these interests are. I rubbish the thought that the role of either organisation would be diminished with a win by either girl. She will after all, be known publicly and within the annals of history as MUJ or MJW, not Miss Mr. Image! So there I fail to see a problem.

    Secondly, if the competition is meant to find the (most-beautiful and) best-prepared girl to represent said franchise and ultimately Jamaica why then can’t a girl have her own private support system? I would think that by contracting her own personalised team of groomers, etc. she’s ensuring that she is at her best come coronation night and, by extension, that her sponsor’s confidence in her is/was deserving. The knee-jerk reaction by both committees in my estimation is like penalising a child who is to sit an exam because she or her family took the initiative to hire a tutor, or in Jamaican parlance ‘attend extra-lessons’.

    Could the real issue therefore be one of bruised egos, monopolization and perhaps CENSORSHIP?

    Within Jamaica’s beauty and fashion industries, it’s almost never about Jamaica at large or the growth and success of these economic sectors or its players but, as a friend from Trinidad opined once, the profiteering of certain “individuals with an interest”, in a sense: the protection and perpetuation of the status quo.

    What DJ Shaw has done is to highlight the ineptitude and nepotism of many such ‘institutions’, if they can be called such. He has shown their methods as not only insufficient but grossly inept and out of touch to be truly competitive, that sponsored dollars can go a ways more than they have in Jamaica! All that is needed is knowledge and a bit of imagination.

    A look at this year’s MJW competition for example, the quality of the photos posted on the Internet for all the world to see can be described as unskilful at best, none of which show the girls in a flattering light. In fact, no industry trained photographer would dare admit to, by way of a watermark, those blurred, badly lit images! Though a separate affair, Dianne Brown, who in pageant terms was a ‘clapper’ at last year’s MJW, has shown herself to be strong/motivated contender for this year’s MUJ crown. One needs to look no further than at the photographs taken by photographer, Wade Rhoden, styled by Mr Shaw himself with makeup by Sue Gregg as proof. The images are stunning, definitely worthy of appearing in any international print publication or makeup ad – and trust me I should know. If anything both the MUJ and MJW organisation should be asking this young man for tips!

    Mr Shaw, be proud of your achievements thus far. Your time will come. Until then, just learn where the rules can be bent. Never give up. And lastly, there are more of you/us than there are of them. We just need to be better organised ;)

  4. It’s sad what DJ has had to go through. I had him for a grooming coach when I entered Miss UWI. What I learned from him helped prepare me for MJW 2013 where I placed in the top 5. I think that people too harshly critique the MJW pageant, and I’m speaking as someone who has participated in it. This whole idea of only light skinned girls being in the competition is rubbish and frankly as a “light skinned” girl myself I find it offensive that people attribute the success of fairer people to their skin tone. My mother is as dark as they come and my father was as white as they come which is the basis of our motto “Out of many one people”. I have worked my ass off to be where I am today and I have gone through many difficulties to get to this point and I have never had the experience of anything being handed to me because of my skin tone. Maybe that has been the experience of other people, but not for me. Just to make it clear I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist – it is a very cruel and real thing but that’s really not what I’m debating. Further on the issue of beauty. What everyone fails to understand is that there are countless perceptions of beauty. What one perceives as beauty may be completely different from the standard of beauty in another part of the world (including skin colour), much like the different cultures that we find. We are just most exposed to the particular stereotype because that is what the media presents to us most. When I entered MJW I resigned myself to the fact that I was subjecting myself to be judged by a perception of beauty and I think that’s a choice that anyone entering these kinds of pageants has to make. The pageant isn’t merely about parading around ‘half naked’, curling your hair, wearing makeup and smiling. It’s about being confident enough in yourself to get up there and yes, be judged. Do you know how much strength of character it takes to put yourself up on a platform in front of countless people to be judged? I was never the most confident girl and through these pageants I gained confidence. How you perceive yourself during and after these competitions has everything to do with you and nothing to do with the outcome. I learned how to speak publicly, pronounce certain words correctly, be true to myself and express MY ideas WITHOUT offending others and I learned how to manage my time. I had to schedule my time so that I could be there for my speech classes, walking classes, gym, various pageant activities and workshops AND like many of the other girls, I had to do this while holding down a job. I also learned so much about my country that I didn’t before. During the pageant we were given seminars about resume writing, how to conduct yourself in job interviews, how to approach certain questions/situations. These are things that I was never officially taught and this has played a huge role in me having my current job. The pageant is more than fitting into a beauty stereotype. It is about growing as a woman and accessing the necessary tools to make you successful in a male dominated world and being confident in yourself. In EVERYTHING politics will come into play. That’s unfortunately just the world we live in and it would be profoundly better if people were successful solely by merit. But it is what it is and that mindset isn’t going to change anytime soon. But as a pageant participant, I just wanted to point out that it’s not as shallow as it is made out to be. Would I do it again? Probably not. I have grown as much as I could from it and somethings you only need to experience once. But that was just my two cents.

    • Van, thanks for coming to this and writing such a personal and informative response. It was worth much more than 2 cents.

      Still, I respectfully suggest there is part of the politics of beauty and race in jamaica that you’re pussyfooting around. But I understand where you’re coming from and this is something that has to be acknowledged. In Jamaica it’s easy to make lots of assumptions based on race, and many of them will be wrong. Fair-skinned people might walk through this world facing all kinds of resentment from people who believe they had all kinds of economic advantages in life when this might well not be the case. That’s an important contribution to make. But then again, there are all kinds of access you might have received that you’re unaware of. The following story is anecdotal, but I think instructive: My father told me the story recently of going late to an event which he had been invited to by some bigwig. He should have been at the gate at a certain time and would have been met by someone especially there to escort him in. It was a heavily guarded event. When he got to the event late he saw several, several people at the gate who were being brusquely turned back by the security guard. He went up meekly to try and explain his own case, but as soon as he reached the security without knowing him or having any idea who my father was, opened the gate and let him in. My father asked, ‘But don’t I need to show you my invitation.’ The security guard replied, ‘No man. You is a brown man.’

      On that occasion my father was told why he got access (based on the relative fairness of his skin) but at other times such access is given to people automatically without them ever asking, or without anyone ever telling them why they got it. I am quite dark myself, but I know how to play the game in Jamaica. If I get stopped by police I used my most Uptown accent, and they let me go quickly. I don’t look ‘brown’ but I can talk ‘brown’. These are things we have to face up to in Jamaica and those of us with access to certain kinds of privilege in Jamaica need to own up to that privilege.

      I don’t know you at all, and I’m sure you’ve had your own personal struggles and these were very real and not to be discounted. Major congrats for placing in the Top 5. But without knowing you, from the little you’ve said, I bet somethings I’m about to say are true: I bet that for your whole life people have affirmed your beauty. I bet that walking down the road people have called to you, ‘pretty girl!’ ‘Beautiful girl!’ I bet that it wasn’t only your own idea to enter Miss Jamaica but that growing up people constantly told you that you look like Miss Jamaica and should enter. This means they have an image in their heads of what Miss Jamaica looks like, and you fit that image. And I’m asking here, how much of that image is based on race – on a certain kind of mixture that we approve of? This takes nothing away from your own beauty but it says a lot about our society.You see, while I believe you that you weren’t born with a gold spoon in your mouth, you had one amazing psychological advantage: many, many people told you you were beautiful again and again. It was affirmed. And I’m saying many more of our women – their beauty is almost never affirmed. While much is made of Lupita’s beauty these days, if she had grown up in Jamaica – a little nappy haired black girl, still not many would have told her, ‘You look like Miss Jamaica. You should enter.’ Because that’s not the image we have in our head. And to be so uncertain of your own beauty, and by extension, your worth — well that’s a huge psychological disadvantage.

      • As a fellow fairer skinned Caribbean woman, I agree with Van that our successes, no matter what they are, are often attributed to our looks rather than any skill or talent which can feel pretty unfair. At the same time I have to agree with Kei that we do sometimes get treated differently because of our looks. For instance, years ago when my secondary school was organising its first pageant many teachers pushed me and a friend of mine to compete, we have several things in common we are both relatively tall, slender and fair skinned with long hair. One other thing we had in common though was that neither of us had any considerable (stage) talent, but based on our looks everybody thought one of us would surely win. Throughout the years I’ve watched that pageant and more often than not the winner is the fair one with a good family background whose “talent” involves donning “cultural wear” and marching across the stage giving some social commentary in a dialect that isn’t part of her everyday speech. But it’s about beauty right?

        On the subject of Lupita I wonder if those people who named her the world’s most beautiful woman would meet someone looking like her on the street and think the same. The truth is that In many countries the fairer you are the prettier you are considered to be and if you don’t fit the mould you aren’t widely considered beautiful until somebody important says you are. The hope is that more women like Lupita and Jamaican supermodel Jeneil Williams can take centre stage so it would no longer be “Oh look we found a pretty one!!” but instead change the idea of what beauty is altogether. But as a young Caribbean woman who once heard my non black grandmother say “She pretty but she soo black” while shaking her head disapprovingly, I think we still have a long way to go in addressing our closet racism/colourism/shadism.

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  6. I have nothing to add or subtract from Mr Image. His styling in the closeup shot if that were his doing is really good.

    But the first image of the contestants wtf were they thinking. The hunchback girl on the left and the others in the front row makes this comp. a joke from the get-go.
    The least they should have is a platform for the girls to stand on. Asking the girls to squat (though entertaining for me – _ – ) is unprofessional

    • Yes, the first image is courtesy of the Gleaner, and whoever the Miss Jamaica pageant got to style and photograph it. It wasn’t Mr Image’s work at all. The close-up that you noted as obviously much more professional was, by contrast, his direction and styling.

  7. Two issues here: the definition of beauty and the definition of a brand. Do not for a minute think of Mr Shaw’s encroaching on MJW and MJU is anything but that. There may be the baggage of race and beauty and all that, but aside from the fact that we don’t really care about these contests, the truth is that Mr Shaw’s so called “Beauty and the Coach PROGRAMME” contravenes the interests of the pageant organisers, one of whom is an image coach and has been for years. So, rally in support for Mr Shaw, sure, but see what he has done as nothing else but guerrilla marketing at best, brand squatting at worst, in two existing brands. In simple terms, Mr Shaw was crashing someone else’s party. Perhaps he would be better served investing in a contest brand himself. See then how fast he would be to object to anyone who does what he has tried in this case. Take this issue aside and then let’s talk about the beauty definition issue, for there is merit in THAT discussion.

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  9. I recently returned to Jamaica having lived abroad for a number of years and one thing I have found consistent amongst anything else in this country, and it s the ability and desire of the ‘establishment’ to find ways to consistently put down or remove the trying or poor man from the picture. Negativism is the new Black in this country.

    Every business place or govt entity is quick to tell you why you CANNOT do or get something as opposed to uplifting and ensuring that what you are entitled to is not a problem. We have become a nation of NO. I refuse to accept this and I will always fight this to the bitter end.

    What D J Shaw needs to do is acquire his own franchise and develop his own brand. There are tons of contest that he can groom his girls and send them to compete. The business is all about results and he has proven he has results. Forget them. Move on. Build his own and see these corporate franchise come running back to him like dogs.

  10. I enjoy the style of writing. However, I have to agree with JG here the issues of race and pageantry are completely separate from Mr. Shaw’s travails. His is a pure business issue and no matter how well you are good at a job if you do not have the proper authorizations and contracts then you are infringing on someone else’s intellectual property rights. Its unfortunate but that is just the way world set up, that is the reason the FIFA gets militant about Neymar’s underwear, IAAF about Blake’s watch because INTERESTS particularly FINANCIAL INTERESTS must be protected

  11. This Informative piece with substance on the pervasive recurrence of color-ism and nepotism in Jamaica’s beauty pageant industry, blunts its most poignant message on the asymmetry of overreaching, in its unyielding caricaturizing of a poor mother who is obviously mentally ill.
    The portrayal of a mothers belief system is at its best gratuitous and at its worst technical malpractice Overreaching if you will.. Aptly put the mothers story of mindlessly summoning god weaved throughout does not drive home the point or help to advance the “overarching themes “. It begs the question of elitist thespians: where is the pretty in disparaging the mentally ill?

  12. Pingback: Jamaica: Beauty & the Beast | Freedom, Justice, Equality News

  13. So sad but beautifully written. But know that I have fallen in love with this an, you must tell me what has become of him since? The romantic and swift defender of the underdog in me would love to know that this has somehow workedout to his benefit. Please update!

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