The feeling of being in Trinidad, watching the carnival costumes being made, the stage being set up and as far as the eyes can roam, everywhere, a different beautiful face from a different beautiful country, can only be described as magical. It is here at the Miss Universe 1999 pageant that political and geographical boundaries are forgotten when all 85 delegates rehearse together in one room, dancing, stretching, getting into formation for an electric evening, thrilling the local Trinida-dians and the world when the show goes on live.
In my opinion, it wasn't so much the exotic location of the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) - the former being the larger of the two and more
but the knowledge that the 85 delegates, who belong to different cultures and different languages, would be working together for these three weeks put me on an emotional high. Tobago has a quiet charm, think Phuket or Langkawi minus the booming tourist industry and inflated tourist rates. Forty delegates, including myself, were flown over to Tobago for a two-night stay to film the swim suit segment and the element that struck me most was the serenity and calm of the place, the perfect honeymoon spot in the world to loose yourselves if you're coming from upbeat Singapore.
The people of T&T are mostly of African and Indian descent and to my delight, I found myself having mostly Indian food at mealtimes and being entertained by Indian cultural dances - a familiar sight that warmed my heart being so far away from home. And being typically Singaporean, food too, is one of my greater passions, so while Miss USA and Miss Finland were coughing from the spices that seemed to burn their throats, I delighted in the texture and taste of the gastronomical delights before me. I watched the Trinidadians celebrate Deepavali too with what seemed like thousands of tiny firelit lamps lining the coarse, sandy roads and filling agricultural fields at night, coming across in the dark as shimmers of golden flames dancing in the midnight blue. It was a tremendous sight to behold but when I placed my hand on Miss Taiwan's forearm only to find her fast asleep beside me on the coach as we headed back to the hotel after a day's work. I didn't want to bother her, afterall, it was about midnight when I chanced upon this exquisite sight.
Our days started fairly early in the morning, 7:30am for breakfast. Early because my roommate, Akuba Cudjoe, Miss Ghana and I would wake up at about 5:30am just to wash up and then put on our make-up for the day.
I confess, before the Miss Universe pageant, I never ever wore heels out of the house, be it for shopping or for lunch with people. Dinners and formal functions were exceptions but no heels for anything else! The pageant taught me otherwise. All delegates had to wear three and a half-inch stilettos wherever we went, even if we were walking uphill on a rather potholed tarmac road. Walking up the stairs to a restaurant. Walking down to the beach or poolside for photoshoots. To press conferences, to primary and secondary schools, to villages - everywhere. From breakfast to midnight, it was three and a half inch heels and make up. I'm proud to say that I can sashay for more than four hours in heels down Orchard Road without a sweat these days, but one thing I still cannot do til today is aerobics in heels. I was so full of awe (and sometimes perplexity), as is Miss USA, by Miss Venezuela's ability to manoeuvre so gracefully on heels during our morning exercises in stilettos. If someone were to approach me and tell me that Miss Venezuela does her exercise routine in heels, I would never have believed them. It was only because I had seen her do it that I know it is true. Only one word came out of my mouth when I saw her at it for the first time - wow! Miss Venezuela at 19 years of age, was by far, one of the prettier delegates, next to Miss Mexico and Miss Spain, and she was also the tallest. Standing at 1.82m or 6ft, she cut a stunning figure just standing there doing nothing. What struck me more as the weeks went by was, nothing ephemeral or transient, the warmth in her eyes and her good and friendly nature.
The question that people often want answered is - how catty is a beauty pageant? Let alone a prestigious international pageant. And I have to say that there really isn't much cattiness or bitching at all. And this shouldn't come as a surprise. All 85 delegates are representatives of their country, thus making every girl a winner in her own right. The organisers and choreographers too played an important role in quelling any insecurities that might arise during our 21 days stay at T&T, telling us that all of us were beautiful and that what was most important was each delegate's co-operation for the show to be a success. The pageant wasn't promoted to the delegates as a competition but a grand show in which all of us were its stars. Great philosophy to dish out, I thought and it worked. Of course, this is not to say that each delegate did not have individual characteristics, with 85 people, there were bound to be cliques and groups and delegates who generally did not get along with each other for personal reasons.
I had not felt the heat of the competition even on the actual day itself not because of the weeks of rehearsals and of my getting used to making public appearances which were more nerve wrecking than walking from point A to B on stage (although it helped) but mostly because being in the pageant made me realise several things. In the midst of 85 delegates and during the waiting time during rehearsals and trips to the various spots in T&T, I found that I did have some quiet time to myself to stand back and not see myself as a delegate but as an inside spectator, with the chance to have a panoramic overview of the pageants' happenings and of the delegates that were to make that 'show' a success. Even before leaving Singapore, having won the Miss Singapore Universe 1999 title over 264 participants, I realised that beauty pageants were rather unfair and perhaps idealistic. Character and personality are hardly considered in the judging and in the final decision of the winner and that the exclusive and elitist definition of 'beautiful' is reinforced in beauty pageants. Beauty queens are always statuesque and lean. It doesn't matter how they get that way, as long as they fit society's patriarchal ideals and ideologies on beauty, they will come through. And after 3 weeks in T&T, something else on the ideologies of beauty hit me even more profoundly - that across the globe, beauty standards varied from country to country and there was nowhere in the world that this realisation can come through more clearly than at an international pageant where all the girls are lined up next to each other.
The conglomerate of Latin beauties had their own plastic surgeon at the pageant itself to take care of 'his girls' should anything disastrous happen. It was no secret that Latin delegates underwent the surgeon's knife to varying extents, to enhance their features, in fact, as contestants prior to their national win, they had to sign a contract that said that they would not disagree to the surgeon's knife should they win. At one lunch session, we were talking about how painful plastic surgery was and Miss Korea said that it was bearable since she had had her breasts augmented and that it didn't hurt much. Astounded, Miss Hongkong asked why she had put herself through such an ordeal and Miss Korea's simple response was, "Everyone else has it, why not me?" Miss Taiwan then told me that in her national contest, the winner must not at any cost, change her natural appearance by any means. Should the organisers find out otherwise, the contestant will be disqualified. The criteria for becoming Miss Taiwan were for the contestant to have an aura of tranquillity and serenity - a quiet smile, a demure demeanour and very pale skin. From all natural beauty to plastic beauty spanning the globe - how then can a truly fair beauty pageant be conducted on this basis? Then there was the other aspect of how much a country is willing to invest in their national beauty queens. The Latin countries, especially Venezuela, invest a considerable amount of money in training and moulding beauty queens from as young as 8 years old. Instead of humanities or technology, Miss Venezuela 1998 graduated top of her beauty college, after which she spends another year in training for this pageant and then she is flown over in a private jet to the destination of the pageant. So Miss Venezuela 1998 is sent for the Miss Universe 1999 pageant and while she is in T&T endeavouring to win the crown, back home, Miss Venezuela 1999 is training for the 2000 pageant and so on, all of a year ahead. Miss Philippines spent 4 months training in Venezuela this year and that paid off well as she made her country proud by coming in as the first runner-up in this pageant. On the other hand, you have delegates from countries who win their national titles only a month before the international contest and are sent over just in time for the opening ceremony of the contest, myself included. Across the countries, the national pressure on the delegate to actually bring home the crown varies from delegate to delegate.
There is also the aspect of differential treatment towards various delegates within the pageant itself. The Latin girlswere treated not as ambassadors to their country but as beauty queens in their own right, attracting admiring glances from the crowd and compliments from top governmental officials. My average outing to functions in general in T&T, be it a charity ball or dinner at the Prime Minister's mansion, would result in top officials speaking politics with me. They queried me on Singapore's educational system, its updates and changes, our latest technological advances and the modelling of our state in general and the strategies that Singapore uses to boost our economy. Those who had been to Singapore for conferences were full of admiration at the city's cleanliness and efficiency. And it was in the midst of all the talk that I realised that people viewed me in a different light. That I was not the average beauty queen but my role here had a more political edge than some other delegates - they wanted information from me about Singapore's policies, economy and government. And I was glad because if I could sell them Singapore, then I felt that I would have done my job. In one of our activities we were assigned to a 'buddy' delegate, the task at hand was to get to know as much about the country and person as possible. My buddy delegate was Miss Turks and Caicos, a Caribbean paradise made up of more than 40 smaller islands surrounding a main island where the diving and seafood is excellent. In the country's bid to keep itself ecological and green for tourists, the government has made policies banning loud nightclubs and fast-food chains such as McDonald's and Burger King's.
As competition day draws nearer, the hand of politics gets heavier too. At the end of the day, I realise that the Miss Universe franchise is also very big business, spinning money for those involved and those who own it. If I had good business acumen, then the 85 delegates will not come across to me simply as beauty queens but more importantly, as good business opportunities and investment opportunities with their respective countries' economies to explore. If I sat on top of the pageant, then the winner of my pageant would be the key to my mine of gold or should I say diamonds, since I do prefer diamonds.
All in all, I must say that T&T and the experience of it all was fun and I would still describe it all as unbelievably electric and magical. Standing on stage in the midst of the delegates made me feel like I had gotten to know the whole world in an instant. That I could reach out and shake hands or hug another country, that under the same roof, lay people from all over the world. It was as if I had the world with all it's goodness, warmth and friendliness wrapped around me like a secure blanket. To know that there was no fighting or even quarrelsome outbursts between delegates during the 21 days, was like having world peace though on a minute scale is a dream come true for me. Perhaps the most heartbreaking memory of the pageant was for me to leave behind the host of new friends that I've gotten close to in those 3 weeks, to know that I will never experience this event again and to feel reality setting in - that Miss Taiwan, Miss Ghana and Miss USA really did live so far away from Singapore and that geographical boundaries do matter.
By Cheryl Marie Cordeiro
Miss Singapore Universe 1999