Last Saturday, the Miss World 2019 pageant took place in London, in the corporate halls of the ExCeL Centre in East London. Seeing the contestants darting across the grey floor of the giant conference venue in their gowns and full glam made for a dissonant image. But inside the staged room where the competition actually goes down, a full-on show eclipsed (or at least distracted from) the strangeness of the location.
Proceedings kicked off with a high-octane performance that sees the 111 women competing from all over the world wear a version of their national dress as they dance on stage. Later, there was a runway round with a catwalk, and a talent round. Guests paid £50 for tickets, Peter Andre hosted the event alongside actress Megan Young, and Piers Morgan, a member of the judging panel, crowned the winner: Toni-Ann Singh, from Jamaica.
Amid the chaos of the dress rehearsal, I talked to various contestants from the competition. When I asked them what beauty means to them, they each served me up the Miss World tagline: “beauty with a purpose”. According to Alba Blair, 21, Miss Dominican Republic (you have to be crowned in your country’s qualifier to make it to the main event), “beauty with a purpose” means a focus on what’s inside rather than outside. The competition wants to know how you serve your community.
For Mariah Nyayeina Joseph, Miss South Sudan, for instance, this meant working on her sanitisation project back home, which raises awareness around toxicity in the Nile, and providing better waste disposal options. “I’ve been longing for this project because I lost a neighbour due to cholera, a water borne disease and I can raise that awareness and be the voice of youth, who are the leaders of tomorrow,” she told me.
Miss Rwanda, Meghan Nimwiza, says beauty with a purpose meant fighting childhood malnutrition her local communities by planting sustainable gardens in schools: “Yes you love make-up, the glamour, but it’s also about how we uplift others. You are not crowned because of your looks or for how tall or small you are but what you do,” she told me. “It also empowers the ladies doing the pageants; I wanted to try it to be heard. Even if I win or don’t, my message will come across.”
Despite the emphasis on philanthropy and charity, Miss World has come under criticism both historically and recently. In 1970, Women’s Liberation protesters stormed the Miss World stage in London, detonating flour bombs. Just last month, it was reported that Veronika Didusenko, 24, who was crowned Miss Ukraine in 2018, was suing the Miss World contest after allegedly stripping her of her crown when they found out she was a divorced mother.
Here, I speak to Toni-Ann, Miss World 2019, about why the event is still so criticised, whether she identifies as a feminist, and what it means to her that, when she was crowned on Saturday, for the first time in history, black women now hold the titles for Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, Miss America, Miss Universe, and Miss World. We also sent photographer Hazel Gaskin to the event to take portraits of the women competing, and the atmosphere behind the scenes.
Toni-Ann Singh: Thanks! I am still trying to process all these days later.
How old are you and where are you from?
Toni-Ann Singh: 23, from Saint Thomas Parish. My mum is from Bath and my father from Arcadia, St Thomas.
When did you first do a pageant?
Toni-Ann Singh: It was a pageant, I guess, but it was student run, in 2015: Miss Carribean Students. We wore our prom dresses, there were about 200 students in the organisation. I won that pageant. Then, if you are Miss Carribean Student you become an executive board member for the organisation and get to plan the events, come up with initiatives, create that programming.
As luck would have it, a former Miss Jamaica came to speak and was a panelist. She said to me, have you considered Miss Jamaica? I didn’t think for one moment that would be a question posed to me. It took maybe two years to go back to that question. I was about to walk in my graduation ceremony and thought, ‘why not try?’ I realised the platform was what I had been doing for a while without knowing it, and ‘beauty with a purpose’ was something I could do more.
Could you tell me about your purpose?
Toni-Ann Singh: I’ve done a women’s studies degree, and am really passionate about women on a holistic level. Even in terms of healthcare, we don’t react to things like a heart attack the same way. A large percentage of women die from the fact that the medical field doesn’t accommodate our differences. Everything is based on a more male agenda. That’s one thing I push for a lot.
I’m also the descendant of two women who got pregnant in their teens. In Jamaica there isn’t very much in terms of opportunity so you find there is a high rate of teenage pregnancies. My grandmother having my mum pushed the importance of education and because of that I was able to study in the States, learn to play the piano, dance ballet, and start classically singing.
I realised what happens is we have all these capabilities and no opportunities so I went back into my community and started to work with Women Centres of Jamaica Foundation. And our idea is to send women back to school, find out what their needs are and how we can meet them, even on an economical level. If women are able to provide for themselves and their children we see the status of the nation rise because of it. So we go in for mental health workshops, personal development workshops, we find funding for women to go back to school.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
Toni-Ann Singh: As a part of my studies we discuss this a lot. It’s not that I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist, because at the core of what it means to be a feminist I am, but I think right now there’s a big negative connotation around it which implies that to be a feminist you have to be against certain things or for certain things. I am for the equality of the sexes. I believe that we should be given the same rights, opportunities, and payments. I don’t believe that to be a feminist means that you can’t also enjoy putting on a gown and championing a cause for your country.
I’ve been posed this question so much because people believe that pageants like these set us back in terms of the feminist agenda and I don’t agree. I think perhaps we don’t understand what feminism means and if we got back to the heart of it we’d realise we’re all pushing for the same thing – the right to be ourselves and be accepted for that.
I suppose you’re saying you can do work that improves gender equality wearing whatever you want.
Toni-Ann Singh: Exactly. And implying that I can’t is anti-feminist. It is. It’s implying that there’s something that I must do and there’s a standard that I must adhere to. No. Women should be able to express themselves, fight in the way they want to fight. And I want to fight in a pageant gown.
I feel like a lot of the people who call pageants old fashioned come from Western countries where there may be a more nuanced public conversation around feminism...
Toni-Ann Singh: You’re not wrong. Suman, Miss India, and I had the chance to build a beautiful relationship, and she comes from a place where some women aren’t even allowed to show their faces. So when she talks about wanting her voice heard, as Suman, no one wants to listen. She says, ‘I chose this platform because I know they will listen, my voice will be heard here.’
Sometimes in Western countries, it’s taken for granted that opportunity because the culture allows you to say what you want to say and say it how you want to say it. You go gung ho. In a lot of our countries that’s not the case. This honestly allows us to be heard on some issues that are important, but nobody’s really listening when Toni-Ann is speaking or when Suman is speaking. But when Miss Jamaica or Miss India get up there and say the same words, the same thoughts, suddenly there’s a room of people listening.
“Women should be able to express themselves, fight in the way they want to fight. And I want to fight in a pageant gown” – Toni-Ann Singh, Miss World 2019
I’m interested in the friendships you make and conversations you have, do you have any others that shifted your thoughts?
Toni-Ann Singh: I said a bit about it at the end of the pageant: that, yes, we’re championing our causes and at the end there is one crown. But really we’re coming here with the needs of our countries on our backs and we’re trying to advocate for these causes. So we also need help, support. You wonder, are people really hearing me? I told Suman and also my roommate Miss Trinidad that sometimes it’s difficult because you’re not Toni-Ann or Suman or Tya Jane, you’re India, Jamaica, or Trinidad and people might not see that you need a hug, or help putting on eyelashes like I did. That’s why you can see such a great response from Nigeria (when I won). She literally ran around on stage! She was like, ‘It’s you!’ And hugged me when I really needed a hug.
What happens when you win? What does the next year look like?
Toni-Ann Singh: It’s being a voice now, travelling to the countries represented and seeing their projects first hand and bringing awareness. Sometimes that’s all it takes. People are willing to help but they don’t know where to send help. When you’re the voice of something you find a lot of time changes can be made. But we’ll be fundraising too. We have a Beauty With a Purpose charity gala and bring items from our countries and auction them off and that money goes to causes. So it’s not just ‘we come and take some pictures’, we do everything we can to make sure our projects are successful.
Which women inspire you most?
Toni-Ann Singh: I really love music and I try to listen to music that makes me feel powerful. I haven’t really talked about this but the album The Gift by Beyoncé – she released it I think earlier this year – I have listened almost every day since it’s come out, since the message is that you’re part of something bigger, you have a duty to the world, a legacy. If I’m ever able to make music and am a singing doctor like I dreamed, I want to create something like that, that reminds us that we have work to do. The other is my mother, she is incredible. She did everything for me.
This is the first time in history that black women have held the titles for Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss America, Miss Universe and Miss World. What do you think about that?
Toni-Ann Singh: It’s a crazy feeling to be in this position in general, but I am a huge person for representation. I remember it was because I saw a woman as a doctor for the first time in Jamaica that I thought wow I can be a doctor. We need to see these things as children. It might sound silly but it’s the truth. That’s how our brains work. We document information and integrate that into how we see the world. For any young girl to see us and realise her own capabilities that’s important to me.
It’s important it’s the first time in history, it’s a nice thing to note because maybe there hasn’t been much representation for women of colour in these arenas over the years. This being the first time it being a full house is maybe a big deal for a little black girl somewhere and I think that’s a beautiful thing. But I also pause on wanting to discuss specifically colour because I am not a representation of Jamaica but a representation of the world. I would never want any young girl to think that what I stand for doesn’t represent her. So it’s for all girls. Although I am happy the little black girls in St Thomas where I am from can look up and say ‘we can’.
I think one reason Miss World is good is because a Eurocentric beauty standard often dominates, but the competition puts so many different women from so many places together and holds them up as equal competitors.
Toni-Ann Singh: It’s true. We’ve seen people responding in the way of ‘oh maybe this was a conspiracy!’ (that five women of colour hold the titles). It’s not because we’re black, it’s because we’re powerful women. We want to be clear that we represent women in general, and be able to make history for little brown girls all over the world.
I think that if five white women won no one would say anything but furthermore it would be assumed that they represent all women; when a woman of colour wins it’s not assumed that she represents all women everywhere.
Toni-Ann Singh: Yes exactly, that’s why I am so adamant that every girl can look at me and see herself.
Final question, is there anything you’d like to see change regarding beauty standards in Jamaica?
Toni-Ann Singh: We’ve tried as a government to ban things like skin bleaching products but it is still very rampant. It’s like we said – it’s because what the world portrays as beautiful is not always what we find that we are. Something I’d like to work on is discussing these things more and making space for all different shades, races. Especially from a mental standpoint: for you to be successful you need to feel as though you can be successful and it puts you at an immediate disadvantage to think of yourself as less than. But I’m very proud of my heritage, and I will say that Jamaica is beautiful because we celebrate differences. Our motto is ‘out of many, one people.’