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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.’

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38 thoughts on “What Miss Jamaica Missed

  1. Excellent, Kei! Truly, I think you should have been her coach! Yes, if she still had time that last part would have been just perfect in my view (as a total non-fan of beauty contests. I actually didn’t watch, just read a lot of tweets, which told me all I needed to know). But you know, they weren’t “hard” questions, were they – she could have expanded on the “one love” theme… Poor, beautiful girl (I am sure she will get lots of modeling contracts etc so no worries). Yes, funny how that “race” thing is so…flexible, at times!

  2. Dear Sir,

    THANK YOU!!

    Until this article I have felt like I was in a twilight zone every time I see a reaction of some kind that just won’t seem to pass me by without notice. I thought I created the illusion of the first question and response in my mind. But thank you for reassuring, if nothing at all, that I am not the only “mad” person in the world. US media, Jamaican media, Babsy Grange, twitter world annoyed at the government… twilight zone.

    As to your lady issue, I completely mirrored your emotion when a friend of mine told me she wanted a “right hand ring”. Wait what?!?

  3. Interesting take on how ‘Ladies’ used by teachers can be loaded and intimidating to female students , whereas when I have used ‘Gentlemen’ with male students it seems to have the opposite effect and appears to boost their self esteem and status. Maybe if I used ‘Lords’ it wouldn’t be the same….

  4. Thank you for this piece, it is well written. You have expressed so well what I have been saying since Sunday. I think oftentimes we are so caught up with winning and supporting Jamaica that we can’t call a spade a spade. Beautiful she is, but her responses left a lot to be desired.

  5. Excellent analysis, Kei. I too thought she flubbed it…and it made me look at her again and wonder if there was anything at all behind the pretty face and blatant “middle-classness”, which makes you sound brighter than you are ! Bob Marley and Usain could both have been a jumping off point to talk about the need for global tolerance and the value of fierce determination and hard work; instead of banalities about a good “vibe” and running fast !!!!

  6. Brilliantly written. I was thoroughly confused that people were surprised she lost when, by their own admissions, her responses were not up to scratch.

  7. Eloquent. .. but one sided….If the question was answered outstanding and she was not the prettiest in the bunch we would have another problem to discuss…what you see a poor answering of a question others see as improvising. ..The question was not articulated well. She asked for clarity and the accent still over powered the question…Most person would have buckled and she remained calm and responded to what she thought she heard. It would have be awkward to ask him to repeat…she managed her circumstance…her articulation clearly depicted intelligence as high a level as her beauty.

  8. A very good article. Unfortunately, Kaci’s best was not good enough on the night in relation to the questions she faced. It’s obvious that many, including fellow contestants did not believe the weighting factor of the interview was enough to relegate her to last of the top 5. I believe she will in the end profit from the experience.

  9. I agree in part and disagree in part. Inasmuch as Jamaica has greatly contributed to the world in every sector:freedom/Revolutionary spirit and ideology, science, philosophy, politics, entertainment etc, how much of that were you taught in elementary and secondary schools in Jamaica . I dare say that you probably got your critical exposure in college under the militant tutelage of Ben and Leonard at CCNY, for example. The Kaci we saw on tele at the Pageant was supposed to be a final product delivered to the judges and the World, by her team, who were responsible for grooming her inside an out, so that she would be prepared for the experience. It is not the final question that failed her . She set the stage for her performance since the beginning of the pageant, when she used the first press moment to talk about the fact that she does not have long hair like everyone else, rather than seizing the moment to introduce her strength by presenting her ambassadorial platform of some public service or charity, she intends to use her crown to impact. Her introductory comments about hair (when she was not the only one with short hair) was trite and simple minded and exposed her insecurities. Her insecurity became increasingly evident throughout the pageant in her visible fidgeting, not knowing where to put her hands, losing a sense of when she is not maintaining the pageant stance that exudes confidence and assertiveness, not realizing when she has stopped smiling , seeming to be getting pointers from the audience and then adjusting her hands, posture and smile accordingly. Her team failed her terribly. Their role was more than accentuating her physical beauty with makeup and clothes; they failed to prepare her to speak, stand and smile, regally, assertively, and thoughtfully. All the contestants were nervous, so she doesn’t get a pass for the obvious nerve wracking experience of being on public display, they all were. Being nervous and prepared makes for a much better presentation overall, than being nervous and unprepared. Beauty did not cheat her of the crown, she is more beautiful than the rest. Her team cheated her of the preparation that would have made for a more award winning performance, in the vein of a Usain Bolt or Bob Marley to use her words. Those guys are perfectionists and would have been prepared I bet.

    • I’m sorry, but I do not agree with you that “her team failed her.” KACI FAILED TO DELIVER/PRACTICE what she was taught. She failed herself. Her team could not be on the stage with her to execute what she was taught. Just like a boxing trainer. He teaches the boxer everything necessary tho win a fight, but it comes down to IF the boxer executes all blocks, punches and jabs at the most appropriate times.

    • Totally agree with this view. We need to temper our emotions with reality. All were nervous and had to respond to strange accents. Her failure to expand and embellish a little caused her the crown in my personal judgement. Not that the others answered better but we would all have been more defensive of her if she had done better in the interviews-long hair or not.

  10. I agree about the answers by Kaci, but I give her a pass on the first one because as she stated later, she didn’t fully understand the question (why did they have these thick accented people reading in the first place is madness). My really problem with your essay is the talk about the term ladies being a reference to the British aristocracy blah blah blah. Based on the behavior I have seen of some young girls in Jamaica, if acting with class and calling myself a lady makes me a sell out, then let me wave that Union Jack right now because I want no part of whatever it is you people are selling. Carrying yourself with respect and dignity should be applauded, and until a better word comes along to represent what it means to not act as if you have no self respect for yourself or your family, I will continue to use the term “lady” with vigor!

    • Hello dear! Thick accented people exist all over the Universe… where the winner is expected to tour and represent got the next year. So sorry, the accent of the judge DOES NOT matter… She should have asked 10 more times if necessary, to have the question repeated.

  11. Listen to the question again: at no time did Emilio Estefan use the word “domestic”, nor did he use the word “abuse”. How can you chide Ms Fennell for not answering a question that you yourself obviously have not heard properly? Mr Estefan used the term “violence against women” which is a VERY broad and sweeping term. It is also a question that Police the world over have been trying to solve for decades, yet somehow Ms Fennell is supposed to have whipped up the answer in thirty seconds? Such a broad and sweeping question could only be answered in broad sweeping terms, because there is no specific answer. The problem was compounded by Mr Estefan’s inexplicable thick Spanglish; the man has lived in the USA for over 4 years and can, in fact, speak much clearer than he did at the contest. Ms Fennell, and many watching, absolutely did not hear the question when it was first asked, and the second time was hardly any better. You yourself have demonstrated that you did not hear clearly, since “domestic abuse” was never actually said, counter to your critique.

  12. 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.

    But we ought to be appropriate, especially in the professional context of school, so better is expected of us. I’m afraid I don’t quite understand your hang-up with the word ‘lady’. Do you feel the same way when boys are referred to as ‘gentlemen’?

    • Yes, I do…though the word isn’t as loaded as ‘lady’ it does indeed carry the same kind of baggage. I’m confused that some people refuse to see it. In truth I admit I do struggle because every society certainly needs standards of what compromises good behaviour, but to deny that ‘lady’ comes with a particular baggage that equates appropriate female behaviour with particular (and problematic) european ideals of aristocracy is simply impossible. Maybe we need new terms, and maybe there isn’t a good alternative yet, but it doesn’t mean we can’t expose the problems and the inherent biases in the phrases we do use casually.

      • If the baggage is so very obvious, then I agree; the word must be changed. But I have just never seen that connection to British aristocracy, perhaps because ‘ladies’ is so often used in every/any context. It’s so generic now that to me, at least, it’s lost those aristocratic roots. Then again I suppose, much like the word ‘niggah’, a word can never really shake loose its origins.

  13. In Kaci’s defense I saw an interview with her on Smile Jamaica when she came home and she confessed that after the judge repeated the first question she still didn’t properly hear what he said.

  14. I agree, I was disappointed when she did not talk about culture, politics, tourism, trade, and named just two out standing individuals

  15. I love this article. It shed some light that others can see that it was not really her short hair. I was so dispponted with her first answer and was more disappointed with her response to the second question. I was really shocked when she walked back to the line after saying two words. I was like what! Oh no! She can’t win she is too abrupt. Jamaicans believed in winning at all times but they never take the time out to listen and made a fair judgement. We have to call a spard a spard so hopefully the next person will be more equipt not only in clothes but overall . I could see how nervious she was when she try to comfort herself with her hands.

  16. Good article, but I think we should really reflect on how many times we have gotten knocked down and came back swinging immediately? She already knew that she didn’t hear the question and so she decided to give a vague response. She was probably kicking herself and then she had to come back and answer another question. She did not have time to regroup. Geeish people! She is only human. She may have been coached but when the pressure is on and you replay what you could have done differently, you say or do things that in a few years down the line you probably wouldn’t. Maturity and more poise will come. She is just 22.
    Also, who cares if she (or previous contestants) is brown or of light complexion? She is a Jamaican! You talk about the term lady and what baggage it holds but you talking about her (and the other light skin contestants) complexion should make her feel how? She can’t help her complexion. It just happens that she is of a lighter complexion, she wants to model, and she is Jamaican. She won fair and square in Jamaica. No one in Jamaica was blocking the road or protesting that she won and demanding her crown be given up. For the few that didn’t like that it was a “browning” representing Jamaica, you should be teaching dark skin, brown skin, and light skin Jamaicans to love themselves and to go after their dreams just like Kaci. Skin is just skin. No one is superior to anyone.
    To Kaci:
    Kaci gal mi proud a yuh!! Nuh mek the negative comments pull yuh down! Hold yuh head up high! Gwaan improve pan uself and be the change you want to see. Thanks for inspiring me and showing young people to go after their dreams no matter what the platform is and what the outcome maybe. You have handled the criticism well!
    Kaci when you are tempted to fall to the criticism remember this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” AND ” What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

  17. Great article. Public speaking is a great asset. Knowing to woo the audience is another. Her answers wanted some fluff. She is absolutely beautiful and while she didn’t win the competition she certainly won the hearts of many. I’m sure this will be a lesson to our future coaches and beauty contestants.

  18. Reblogged this on THE ISLAND JOURNAL and commented:
    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.

  19. Good read!!! Enjoyed it except, I really do wish us #Jamaicans can move pass this whole racial, skin prejidism. It’s truly sad, and I cringe Everytime someone mentions it. Yes, most Miss Jamaica World and Universer contestants are light skinned, so what??? It’s the lights skinned girls feels confident enough to enter these competitions for whatever reasons. Remember these things are voluntary and if a dark skinned girl enters and didn’t win the spot to represent our country in the finals, I doubt it’s because she’s dark skinned and nothing else. Just like I agree that Kaci dropped the ball and did not deserve the win. Like I said great read, we need to stop making #SKINCOLOR an issue or reasons for doing or not doing something. Oh and I’m a dark, dark skin girl!!

    • Yes, most Miss Jamaica World and Universer contestants are light skinned, so what??? It’s the lights skinned girls feels confident enough to enter these competitions for whatever reasons.

      I can’t believe you don’t see how intolerable those two sentences are.

  20. So many valid points were made here…love this blog, by the way!

    What I’m about to say might offend some people (that isn’t my intention) but I will say it anyway.

    I never really thought that Kaci was “beauty queen” material. She IS gorgeous, no doubt about it…but hers is the type of beauty that is more suited to fashion modeling.
    She has what I consider a striking and unique look. But when most people think of beauty pageants, the look that is usually preferred is long hair (or at least shoulder-length hair) and a very glamorous/showy appearance in general.

    Kaci was quite elegant and stunning in her own right, but in my humble opinion, she lacked that certain little “oomph” that a beauty queen should have.
    Racism is not the reason she didn’t win…she simply didn’t have what it took. Also, some Jamaicans complained about her being light-skinned so they can’t turn around and cry racism because she didn’t win.

    Look up Kenya Moore, who was Miss USA in 1993. She was a dark-skinned beauty queen who was loved by the masses, so trust me, racism wasn’t the reason for Kaci (who is light-skinned) not winning. Kaci’s hair was indeed a disadvantage because a beauty contest is not the place to look “edgy” or unique.
    It seems unfair but long hair is what they like in these pageants. As to the question Kaci was asked…I believe that she tried her best, but she really was nervous.

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