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