A new sweep opens up the contest to those who traditional pageants have not reached

FIONA RECLAIMS THE TITLE FOR JAMAICANS

Then she insists that she is called only Red

 

A new sweep, if not exactly a new broom, was needed. So we appealed to a wholly different set of entrants by advertising in the Voice newspaper. For three consecutive evenings applicants were interviewed at the Bloomsbury Crest Hotel. The majority, including a few who arrived with infants in their push-chairs, were not suitable and, at first, it seemed that the initiative had failed, but time would tell. From among those who applied, including several promoters who sought an opportunity for their contestants, the roots of the renaissance were planted. The whole beauty contest business was stirring, and it was going to be much different to the Golden Age of the 1970s and the 1980s.

Enter the Africans. Hitherto West Indians had dominated Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth and all other similar contests. Asian had generally outnumbered Africans among our entrants. Now the African communities were coming forward with confidence. Miss Ghana UK set the pace, and now Miss Zambia UK and other contests joined them. It was here, too, that our initial contact with Miss Trinidad & Tobago UK and Miss Guyana UK was established. The impact was not immediate because none of their recommended entrants finished in the top three positions, but it was very much a sign of things to come. The layout of the nightclub – it was a different venue within the same King Charles Hotel at Gillingham – even resembled that of the ballroom on the St Nicholas.

In spite of that, and the rapport we enjoyed with the hotel management, the atmosphere was poisoned by the attitude of some local (Barbadian) hairdressers who had been permitted to exhibit their wares and services. Fortunately we have forgotten their names. They were under the impression that they were the stars of the show. It was a reminder, if one was needed, of how fortunate we had been with our team at Spots at the Podium and on the St Nicholas, and would be again in the future (though that could not be foreseen for the moment). The local press ignored the event entirely. Was that racist intent?  Clayton could not help but think that when he had presented the primarily-white Maid in Kent in the same town a few years earlier the papers could not get enough news of the contest.

Fiona Rickard from Kennington won the 13th Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth on 13th October 1996 – which was Clayton’s 54th birthday. She brought back the crown to the Jamaican community after three contests in which it did not have a representative in the top three. Fiona came from the applicants to the Voice newspaper, as did second-placed Nancy August, a Ghanaian housewife from north London. The other runner-up, Sabine Botey, who was recommended by Kashmeera Models from east London, was unusual in several respects. She was the youngest candidate ever to finish in a podium-position and, as hispanophone from Guinea, showed that English was far from being her first language. This show had the widest geographical distribution of entries for some time.

Two members of the judging panel had particular local interest. Michaela Pyke, who had made her contest debut by coming runner-up in the Maid in Kent, had just succeeded Anita Rose as Miss Great Britain as the country’s representative in Miss Universe. The popular reception given to actress/model Angela Thomas was particularly welcome. As the only black girl with modelling aspirations in rural Kent – she was of Nigerian heritage – Angela had been forced to accept only (semi-)pornographic assignments. Without which she would have starved or had to accept dead-end office/factory jobs.

Clayton had helped her to break the deadlock, initially by entering the Maid in Kent. Unable to afford dresses as expensive as those of her rivals, and lacking even a basic catwalk training, Angela cut a disappointng figure. (“Buy a video and see the black girl make a fool of herself” some of her white rivals sneered). She left the hall in a hurry, leaving her slipper behind. Clayton chased after her to Gillingham station and handed it to her. “You’re not Cinderella” he quipped. “And I’m certainly not Prince Charming”. But Angela was on her way, and very soon became a “proper” model and a television actress in some of the country’s best-loved programmes as Angels and Holby City. Clayton sent complimentary tickets to the girls who had sneered previously to make sure they were there to see her success and to applaud. Alas, just after she had been given a regular role in Eastenders, Angela died of an aneurysm. It is good, though, that she lived long enough to appreciate the professional acclaim.

The sprigs of a new hope were there. Patsy White, who had been a contestant back in 1982 and was choreographer in Miss Elegance (a title she continued after the founder Mrs Kerr had retired), brought a team of dancers from Milton Keynes to start the entertainment. The Voice newspaper had stepped up its coverage as the media generally had lost interest in beauty contest. Shanita Baldeo, who must have been very close to a top-three position, was the first candidate to be recommended by the new generation of promoters who were to take the industry into a new successful age. In her case they were sisters Felicia and Tracey Benjamin, the presenters of Miss Guyana UK. 

The presence on the judging panel of Laurie Ince, the master of the Sam’ Tu Dang martial arts discipline continued our good relationship with the physical arts. World champion bodybuilder Ian Dowe has been a keen supporter from the beginning up until the present day as has been armwrestling/wrestling champion Clive Ironfist Myers until he returned to live in Jamaica. There was even a serious proposal by a bodybuilding association for us to stage one of their competitions with our promotion on the St Nicholas but our diaries and other commitments were not compatible. One of our own future winners, Shaherah, afterwards spent some time as a bodybuilder (with some significant success). From time to time Laurie has invited our title-holder as guest to his association’s annual Awards Dinner-Dance at the Park Lane hotel.

On winning the title Fiona declared that she would no longer answer to that name but wanted to be called Red. She died her hair the appropriate colour and dressed in matching style. Fiona/Red was received by the Jamaican High Commissioner (H.E. Derrick Heaven) and the Mayor of Lambeth.  Kate Hoey MP invited her to have tea at the House of Commons and then gained her entry to watch Prime Minister’s Question Time, debated actively by party leaders John Major and Tony Blair in what was the run-in to the general election. Nevertheless it was difficult to get newspapers and reporters to take the new name seriously.

Fiona/Red accompanied current deputy Nancy August and previous deputy Joanne Asker to the Summer Carnival in Rotterdam, where, as we have seen, they joined the city’s Lord Mayor on the viewing balcony for the parade. Local promoter Marjorie da Cunha Sand, who staged Miss Charme, hosted the ladies at the massive Kwakoe festival in Bijlmeer park next to the famous Ajax football stadium in Amsterdam. Fiona/Red also took a trip to Jamaica – or did she?  Although Clayton saw her leave at the departure gate at Heathrow Airport, the Jamaica Tourist Board representative waiting for her in Kingston reported that she did not arrive and did not contact them when she should have been in the island. And we are still none the wiser as apart from one obscure phone-call sometime later to the effect that she now wanted to revert to the name Fiona, we have heard nothing further from Ms Rickard. The possibility of an identity change between the departure and the arrival gates cannot be ruled out!

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