LEES GARCIA; TAKING CONTROL | Darrin Henry
Attacked by a dog as a four year old little girl growing up in Puerto Rico, Lees Garcia required stitches to patch up her torn face, yet 23 years later was crowned Miss Grand International at a glittering ceremony in Thailand. As ‘against the odds,’ inspirational stories go, this is right up there.
Today, 28 year old Lees is mid-way through her reign, living in a Bangkok apartment that came with the win. The Miss Grand International (MGI) pageant is new, just two years old, but it’s growing and the Thai organisers have high ambitions for it to become one of the most prestigious events on the global pageantry calendar. The inaugural competition (2013) attracted entrants from 75 countries. Last year’s competition (October 2014) saw ladies from 85 countries compete, with Lees, representing Cuba, crowned ‘queen’ after a month of events.
Meeting Lees at the Phra Khanong BTS station, in the heart of Bangkok, our first impression is definitely, “wow!” Effortlessly oozing beauty queen glamour, she greets Sharon and I with a mega-watt smile and we are all instantly at ease, chatting away as we walk to a nearby coffee shop.
So how’s life in Bangkok? “It’s awesome! It’s not even a barrier that I don’t speak Thai, it’s really easy to get around; people are really open and friendly.” Lees finds it funny that she seems to spend more time teaching English than learning Thai. “The driver’s like: Left? Is this left?”
She may be gushing now, but for Lees, her Bangkok story has also been testing.
“Well I’ll give you the stages of my adoption,” she says, explaining that first it was easy; a month in Thailand with the other contestants, having fun being well looked after without considering she might win. But then everything changed overnight.
“When I won all 85 girls I was competing with went home. They were like my family then suddenly they’re all gone. After one month in Thailand suddenly I don’t know anyone or anything, so come November I was so depressed; more than ever in my life.”
Dropped at her new apartment with the keys and a suitcase full of clothes, and “we’ll call you when we need you,” Lees was suddenly alone. She admits feeling lost and spending the next month “in bed, watching TV, hoping for a miracle.” When that didn’t happen Lees decided to take control and figure it out. It was back to basics. “Where do I find a mall? How do I get there? How much will it cost?”
Suitably motivated, Lees began meeting people and making friends who in turn helped her learn the Bangkok way. In just three weeks she was finding her feet and enjoying it. When her pre-planned Florida holiday came round in December she didn’t want to leave.
“It was the saddest,” she recalls.
A wiser and more determined Lees returned to Bangkok in March. “When I got back I hit the ground running! I was like; I can’t sit around and wait for things to happen. I don’t want to look back after seven months and say, oh, that was fun, I sat around and I was a small piece of nothing. But it’s part of life right, you have your inner doubts, sometimes it’s scary to be in a new place. But no one’s going to help you but yourself; you’ve got to be your own cheerleader.”
Cultural challenges have been more fun to overcome. “Mainly the greeting,” says Lees, explaining the bowing felt strange to begin with. “But I’m learning to adopt it and they way they respect their king, it’s mind blowing, different to what we know in America.”
The reserved culture of the Thais also conflicts with Lees’ big personality. “No, Lees, no,” is something the staff [MGI] say all the time, “you’re a lady you should be more reserved, they’re like ‘no, Lees no,’ but I just have to find a balance. They also say my name as, ‘Lee,’ so now I’m calling myself Lee too!”
Before the MGI adventure began, Lees was a hotel manager for the Hilton in Florida for five years. “I do miss it, but I don’t want to go back.”
Lees’ time is now split between fulfilling her MGI contractual obligations and plotting a course for life after she relinquishes her crown to a new MGI queen in October. For MGI she carries out promotional appearances, advertising for sponsors, charity work and modelling.
“My main job is to represent the MGI organisation. Their purpose is to stop war. So I work with refugees of war and am put in other [promotional] situations. Yesterday I was doing promotional work with the Red Cross.”
In her own time Lees is busy trying to ascertain the viability of remaining in Bangkok, post MGI, as a model and preferably a TV presenter. Before meeting us today she had attended a TV screening (interview).
Ten years ago Lees studied communications at college with dreams of finding TV work. A series of turns led to an unsuccessful interview for presenting TV weather at age 21. “Looking back at my baby faced pictures I think, poor thing! I know now that I wasn’t ready.” Hopefully this time around the timing is better.
Quizzed on the best thing about Bangkok; “Is it bad to say the nightlife,” laughs Lees. “If you’re a night owl like me, Bangkok is great, everything functions through the night – markets, shops – here everything is unlimited all hours, that’s the most exciting part, you’re not restricted. I think it’s amazing. I definitely want to stay beyond my contract.
“Traffic,” is the immediate answer for the worst thing in the city. “It’s awful; [which is] unfortunate as everything is so close and there’s so much to see and do, there are some days when you are better off not even trying to go out.”
What does Lees miss about life in the US? “I miss the busy lifestyle, is that weird?” The pace in Thailand “is slow motion,” she says, then snaps her fingers to emphasise, “America is now, now, now! When I got here, I was like, ‘where are we going, what are we doing,’ and everyone was like, ‘relax, chill out.’ But it’s easy to adapt.”
Sharon asks Lees about the faint scar on her right cheek, and Lees recalls her mum’s account of the dog attack as she was too young to remember herself. “I had to get reconstructive surgery and I was covered in stitches. My mum told me I would sit in front of the mirror every day and cry. She would tell me, ‘you can’t pull your stitches, you have to let them heal’ but I kept touching, kept touching and it never healed properly. So I don’t remember but I’m kind of glad that I have it.”
We leave the coffee shop to go shoot some pictures in the nearby streets, but truthfully we could have sat and chatted for hours. When we met Lees an hour earlier our impression was “wow, beauty queen,” but now it’s all about personality. She’s comes across as very open, not taking herself too seriously and very enthusiastic about life; our interview was full of laughter with the conversation constantly going off in all directions. But there’s also a determined intelligence that belies Lees’ beauty queen looks; a realisation that success is not a given and that even setbacks can be opportunities in disguise.
A perfect example is the MGI competition. Originally Lees had entered hoping to represent the USA but was unsuccessful. However, the Cuban [manager] then approached her about representing Cuba, having watched her performance. Her father is Cuban. The politics of Cuba prevents girls from the island attending such competitions.
Lees went on to become Miss Grand International 2014.
As for her love affair with Bangkok? That’s something we are beginning to understand all too well ourselves.