The Story of
MISS CARIBBEAN & COMMONWEALTH
The title that is more than just a contest
by Clayton Goodwin
Founder and promoter for over thirty years
In December 1980 I visited several colleagues in Fleet Street, which was still then the heart of the newspaper industry, to extend my Christmas greetings. They included Dave Bealing, redhaired and wearing glasses, Picture Editor of the Daily Star, and what transpired in those few minutes produced a concept which came to dominate my life for the next forty years. Dave wanted to staunch the ebbing of readers from his newspaper to the Sun and the Daily Mirror by attracting support from the West Indian heritage community. He proposed to present a special Starbird topless model contest for black girls in association with the Weekly Gleaner which, he considered, would appeal to readers across the cultural divide.
There was never any realistic chance of that idea taking off. Nevertheless, it did stimulate me to devise a beauty contest for all appropriate applicants from the Gleaner readership whatever their background. The deciding criterion was a blend of good looks, pleasant personality and knowing how to behave socially. There would be none of the pageant-style rules limiting qualification to one type of girl with one accepted type of life-style. For its first two years the event was known as the Weekly Gleaner Page Five Girl competition, and the newspaper printed a photograph of one contestant in each issue. After a slow start the feature became very popular.
The first contest was promoted at the New Ambassador Hotel in London in December 1981 at the time of a tremendous snow-storm. In spite of the initial difficulties the title had arrived and interest spread wide and deep in the community over the next year. The second final – in October 1982 – drew such a large attendance to Spots Club at the Podium in Vauxhall, South London that it threatened to break the fire regulations and made me determined that henceforth we should rely on word of mouth for ticket sales and avoid public advertising.
This was the first of three highly successful finals at Spots Club promoted in association with Spencer Williams and Trevor Russell. They had class, style and high quality contestants. There were so many applicants that a series of preliminary heats was held throughout the summer. The decision of the Weekly Gleaner to withdraw its backing after the second year presented a challenge that was to give Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth its own very distinctive character. As the name implied it sought and obtained the participation of publications and people across the Caribbean and Commonwealth communities.
The third winner, Lucia Charlery, played an important part in shaping its destiny. She pioneered the title-holders’ practice of establishing close co-operation with the borough in which she lived with courtesy receptions by her Mayor and Member of Parliament, supporting the community at large by participating in carnivals and social events, and strengthening the relationship with her homeland in being received by the High Commissioner and by visiting St Lucia.
Her successor, Hadda Haye, not only maintained this tradition but pushed further to extending the title’s recognition overseas. She made an official visit to West Berlin, a private visit to the Netherlands, precursor of a firm Dutch relationship, and travelled to Barbados and Jamaica. The reigns of Lucia, Hadda and their successors Carron Duncan and Margarette Kyei, the first African winner, are recognised as being the Golden Age, and the four shows presented with the assistance of Phil Parker on the St Nicholas cruise-ship ferry on its journey from Harwich to the Hook of Holland as a unique era. The change of venue had come about because Spencer Williams and Trevor Russell had moved to another nightclub which was too small to host a contest.
The move from the mainland allowed Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth to flourish when beauty contests otherwise lost their popular appeal throughout the United Kingdom and the Western world generally. Carron made our first official visit to the Netherlands to take part in the Utrecht Caribbean Carnival. Later our relationship of well over a decade was transferred to Rotterdam when that city took over from Utrecht. The Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth final was more than just a beauty contest. All aspects of the community were involved. The excursion opened with an art exhibition by distinguished painter Horace de Bourg and included fashion shows arranged by Mrs Etty Kerr, dressmaker and promoter of Miss Elegance, and by singer/designer Sandra Andrew, as well as guest singers and dancers. The judging panel usually contained the Captain of the St Nicholas and or Mayor of Harwich, a senior representative of a Caribbean high commission, and a prominent guest promoter. We owed an indelible debt to several individuals, foremost among whom were Karl-Heinz Milferstaedt and his family in Berlin and Julian Patterson in Utrecht, both of whom supported our ideal at the expense of much personal effort and to their pocket.
When Sealink obtained new owners, who did follow the previous policy of allowing such entertainment during the crossing, the title fell to earth with a bump, plunging into the chasm of mainland’s former beauty scene. For just over a decade Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth stumbled from venue to venue, none of which was really successful, and was no longer promoted as regularly as before. It was a far cry from its so recent days of glory. The title was presented twice at Dougie’s Club in East London, on the second of which, due partially to a thick fog which enveloped the area, there were more people on stage than in the audience, at the Tropicana in Rotterdam, twice at the King Charles Hotel in Gillingham, Kent, and once at Goldsmiths College in South-east London, but the shows lacked a cohesive character.
That charge could not be levelled at the title-holders. Theresa Lang (Grenadian), Michelle Ward (Indian) and Augustina Lyons (Ghana) formed a heterogenous Silver Age that did not quite qualify for the golden tag solely because the press no longer covered such events. All three winners concentrated on developing the Dutch connection. Theresa and Augustina rode in the official floats in the Rotterdam Caribbean Carnival and some of their successors were invited to join the lord mayor’s party in viewing the parade from the balcony of the city hall. Yet much of the fire had gone out of the concept, and at the turn of the century four years elapsed between shows. Paulette Wilks, the incumbent title-holder, did not doubt that the title would be restored …. and she was proved to be right.
The renewal took place in late 2002 at the Wandsworth Civic Centre in south-west London, where finals were presented in two consecutive years. Although both were beset by poor weather conditions – a really heavy downpour for the first – a new spirit was kindled which was very much in line with the original concept. The main differences were that African communities now matched the Caribbean in representation and contestants were generally recommended by other promoters, photographers and prominent individuals and associations. Soon a strong quartet of title-holders in Natalie Galloway, Shaherah Jordan, Uchenna Obika and Shirley Dee generated a Platinum Age to match the best of the golden and silver eras.
By now Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth had found at the Polish Centre in Hammersmith, west London its third “home”, after Spots Club and the St Nicholas, and the title was promoted more often there than at the previous two combined. The relationship with the manager, Dr Peter Nowak, and his son and successor Bart was particularly firm. Furthermore, a new team spirit had developed with Angela Cox, promoter of Miss Trinidad & Tobago UK, and Jacqueline Matovu, promoter of Miss Uganda UK, being prominent in recommending successful contestants and developing an interesting and varied first half of the show before the contest began. Archbishop Bancroft McCarthy regularly opened proceedings aided by the United Christian Harmony Group. Distinguished painter Shiri Achu presented a display of her work. Angel J created her own spot as singer while the judges were deliberating their decision.
Model Beverley and body-builder Ian Dowe were steadfast in their support, as were too many leading personalities of sport, the diplomatic service, entertainment and film and the theatre, to name individually. The continuity from the golden and silver ages was maintained by a good number of the best-known former title-holders attending the shows, serving on the judging panel, and generally promoting the spirit of Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth.
The successful joint official tour to Ghana by Shaherah and Natalie, after their earlier trip to Rotterdam together to reprise the Dutch connection, was one of the major occasions in the history of the title. All the winners, with very few exceptions, restored and deepened our historic involvement with the social, cultural and diplomatic framework of the community. People commented that autumn without Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth was not really autumn at all. Unfortunately, the series of contest was suspended – shortly after the election of Nicole Wallace – by my own illness in 2013.
Former title-holder Shirley Dee stepped into the breech – firstly, by holding the line; then by developing her own ideas, the refreshing ideas of a new generation, but always within the broad scope of the traditions of what had gone before; and finally by acquiring ownership of the title. The story of Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth is now her story.
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