And so it happened, the extraordinarily beautiful and humble Kaci Fennell, Jamaica’s contestant in Donald Trump’s intergalactic pageant, was not, in the end, crowned Miss Universe. She came fifth. The crowd in Miami booed. To tell the truth, they went ape-shit! ‘Ms Jamaica’ trended across America’s twittosphere for hours – and at #1 at that – oh the irony! At home, Jamaicans cried ‘racism’; they cried ‘block de road!’; they cried, ‘give me one of those Bain placards we not using anymore, cross out de name ‘Bain’, and put ‘Kaci’ instead! We want Justice!’ It was high drama. Even the other contestants flocked around the Caribbean beauty, commiserating her 5th place, instead of flocking around the unpopular winner, Ms Colombia, to offer due congratulations.
My own misgivings about beauty pageants have been made public before. They remain the same. Pageants help to establish very dangerous standards of beauty for girls, and in Jamaica it is all the more dangerous and soul destroying as those standards are racialized. It is no secret that most Ms Jamaica contestants and, ergo, Ms Jamaica winners, have been light-skinned with relatively straight hair. Some people insist it is a celebration of our motto, but if Ms Jamaica is a celebration of ‘Out of Many’ it is at the expense of celebrating, more simply, the ‘Many’. Still, I have friends who participate in one way or another in the whole shebang and even on this very blog, former contestants have defended Ms Jamaica competitions – the grooming, coaching, and various lessons they received – testifying how it helped to transform them into ‘ladies’. I haven’t had the heart to say – and that’s exactly my problem! For many people the word ‘lady’ is a neutral one; for me it is too obviously embedded in ideas of British aristocracy. Lords and Ladies. To be happily transformed into a lady suggests that one was a beast or a savage before or at the very least, one was an insufficient version of some kind of female humanoid that desperately needed to be exalted into Lady-ness.
I’ve never liked the word – ‘Lady’ – whether used as a compliment or a reprimand or even neutrally. It has always felt repulsively classist to my ear. I secretly cringe whenever it is used. In Jamaica, I occasionally hear teachers reprimanding a class of girls with a sharp, ‘LADIES!’ and this word, said like that, wielded as sharp as a whip, is supposed to call the young women towards some appropriate version of themselves, something better that is expected of them. Beauty pageants extend the problematics of this word as contestants first try to prove themselves to be ‘ladies’ and then, having done that, to climb further up the aristocratic ladder and become princesses or queens.
But I am, if nothing else, a bandwagonist, and social media’s enthusiasm over the prospects of Kaci Fennell made me, despite all my misgivings, tune in. Having seen the pictures and videos, how could one deny it? The young woman really was stunning. By a clear mile (following certain problematic standards, of course) she was the most beautiful of the top ten. It was little wonder that so many wanted her to win.
As I watched the competition in the wee hours of Monday morning (British time) I couldn’t help but think of Lisa Hanna competing in the Miss World competition of 1993. This was, of course, a time before social media. In fact, there was hardly any internet to speak of…except the kind you dialled up and waited and waited for it to connect. There was no huge media buzz about Lisa Hanna’s prospects; there certainly was no facebook fan page, no instagram, no nothing. We tuned in to watch, because – well – you never know…
We whooped with surprise and delight when Lisa was actually called in the top 10; we whooped even more when they announced she was in the top 5. And then magic happened – the interview section. Jamaicans knew what was coming all along and we could hardly believe our luck. We knew Lisa Hanna from the CTPC programme ’Rapping’. She was a bright, young woman, eloquent, sharp and with a voice like silk. She could handle this.
Our hearts fluttered a little when Ms Philippines and then Ms South Africa answered their own questions with great sophistication and fluency – Ms South Africa in particular was playing to a home crowd. Oh God! This was going to be tight. Lisa Hanna picked ‘Grace Jones’ out of the hat. Was this a good omen? She had picked a fellow Jamaican. But Grace Jones proceeded to ask the most rambling and incoherent question of the night. Oh shit. She had sold out Lisa!
But bless Lisa Hanna – for as it is written in the book of Isaiah, [s]he will make a way where there seems to be no way, and Hanna went on to make sense where there had only been nonsense. She answered the question with ease, conviction, good humour and humility. The South African audience was in shock and in Jamaica our collective mouths dropped, for we realized even then that she had just won the whole thing.
The exact opposite happened on Sunday night. We whooped when Kaci was called into the top ten; whooped when she was called into the top 5.
And then came the questions. We were secretly delighted as contestant after contestant fuddled their answers. Dunce vagueness after dunce vagueness. Yes Kaci, we thought. You have this one! Then she answered her questions and our collective hearts dropped as we realized she had just lost the whole thing. Miss Jamaica had missed a trick.
We talk about the politics of race in Jamaican beauty pageants but maybe we need to talk about the politics of class, the politics of accent – this strange idea we have that anyone who speaks with an upper St Andrew ease is of course bright and eloquent. Kaci Fennell doesn’t appear to be a fool by a long stretch, but she was no Lisa Hanna, and no Yendi Phillips either (who placed second in Miss Universe). Is it any wonder that our beauty queens who have done well have also been television personalities who have a certain ease and manner in front of an audience, who know how to be sharp in answering questions, and who aren’t frightened so easily?
On Twitter many rushed to Kaci’s defense: Oh god man, she did nervous! Poor ting! You wouldn’t nervous too?
Others cried ‘racism’! This, to my mind, was Kaci’s greatest achievement, that though she hardly looked different to the other contestants, and though in Jamaica she would never have been described as black, in the moment of her loss she slipped out of the ‘out of many’ and became one of the ‘many’ and we took umbrage on her behalf. Strange, how loss can alter someone’s race.
For the Jamaicans actually able to admit disappointment — not in the system but in Kaci herself, sweet as she was — they would say they were more disappointed by her second answer. The question had come: ‘What would you say is your country’s greatest contribution to the world?’ And Kaci answered Bob Marley and Usain Bolt! And then she grinned and all but ran back to her fifth place. Jamaicans have protested the lack of originality or insight in this answer. They also insist, but we’ve contributed so much more! What about Marcus Garvey? What about the Maroons who helped to win us our freedom? (Yes..someone on facebook really said that. Some people desperately need more thorough history lessons, but that is not for now).
Myself, I thought her answer was actually ok for the occasion. I mean seriously, no one was looking for a thesis or a grand history lesson. Still, she might have taken a breath and expanded on it just a little. She might have said something like, ‘You know…it’s the way Usain Bolt and Bob Marley have become more than Jamaicans. They’ve given all of us across the world this sense of joy and of ‘One Love’. And that’s what I want to do as Miss Universe, to be more than just Miss Jamaica but an ambassador of joy and one love for everyone. Thank you.’ Yes, I think something like that might have gotten her closer to the crown.
But maybe the damage by then was done already by her first answer. This was the one that disappointed me more. A judge asked about the terrible statistics of domestic abuse against women and what could be done to stop the trend. Kaci didn’t even answer the question. She said something rather vague about violence being a problem everywhere and we need to curb it. But maybe if she had heard and understood and processed the actual question she might have answered something like this:
‘Across the world our boys are given really limiting models of the kinds of men they are allowed to be. We teach our boys to be tough and aggressive but we need to give them other models, we need to teach them that there are many ways to be a man, and you definitely don’t have to hit a woman or be violent to anyone in order to be masculine.’
And if she still had time in the mere 30 seconds, she might have even been more reflective and added, ‘Even here, even now, as beauty queens, I think we have a great responsibility to teach our girls that this isn’t the only way to be a woman in the world. If this is the best that a woman can be, then I’m afraid we live in a wide universe that is far too limited.’