PRIDE & CONFIDENCE – REWRITING A ST HELENA CLASSIC | Darrin Henry
“The Miss America beauty pageant is scrapping its swimwear segment,” said the BBC news reader. Sitting in the car outside the Longwood supermarket earlier this week, listening to the radio, I smiled at the timing of the announcement. We had just included ‘swimsuit’ in the Miss St Helena 2018 pageant three weeks earlier.
Gretchen Carlson, chair of the Miss America organisation board of trustees and a former winner of the pageant had just broken the news in the USA.
“We will no longer judge our candidates on their outwards, physical appearance. That’s huge,” said Ms Carlson.
Twitter reaction was mixed. Many agreed with the change but many also didn’t. A few people tweeted (tongue in cheek) that perhaps contestants should wear burqas, thus removing any remaining bias that might come from a contestant’s looks.
We’re living in times of momentous change. The ‘Me Too’ microscope is examining and redefining rules of engagement between humans everywhere.
Anyway, let’s explain why the Miss America pageant has triggered a blog post from St Helena Island. I’ll back right up to the beginning.
How Mark Twain Changed Miss St Helena
Sharon and I have photographed a few Miss St Helena stage shows over the years, but leading the organising of the event in 2018 was a first for us. How do we get ourselves into these things?
It wasn’t planned at all. Just one random encounter, a willingness to share ideas, then one thing leading to another and suddenly we were ordering crowns and tiaras.
It’s that small community effect at work; voluntary committees sustaining traditional events. Same thing happens in small villages and towns everywhere, not just on St Helena.
This was our first involvement as organisers. However, we had a few clear ideas about how we might expand the concept of Miss St Helena beyond just the show itself.
Three years ago in Bangkok we did a street photo shoot with the Miss Grand International 2014 winner, Lees Garcia. I saw then how the profile of a beauty pageant winner could be harnessed in a positive, ambassadorial way.
Later, on a visit to Hannibal, Missouri, in the USA, Sharon and I were similarly impressed by the town’s ‘Tom and Becky’ initiative. Inspired by Mark Twain’s fictional characters of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, it’s basically an innovative youth programme, inspiring youngsters to become remarkable representatives for the town of Hannibal. It’s genius, quite frankly.
I felt these concepts were possible on St Helena. On a smaller scale of course, but why not?
Could a well-planned, well-supported Miss St Helena programme positively influence local identity and pride? Could the benefits go further? We were going to find out.
With photography, Sharon and I know the secret to good model shoots is preparation and communication, especially with first-timers. Ensuring newbies feel comfortable and supported is vital in achieving the best end product.
We applied this approach to organising Miss St Helena.
Previously it was mostly about the stage show itself. We wanted to change the focus by designing a much broader experience for the contestants, one centred on character and confidence-building.
At the same time, we were conscious not to tamper too much with the stage show format, which was incredibly popular.
Drawing on ideas from Hannibal’s, ‘Tom and Becky,’ and Miss Grand International, we produced a 4-week programme of activities. Training, exposure and support would be key. We were re-vamping the Miss St Helena event as a mini, self-development programme for young ladies.
Learning to Walk!
Admittedly it felt a bit strange writing this down on paper as the first event. But, we were going to teach the contestants to walk. More specifically, how to move and present themselves on stage.
Enlisting the expert knowledge of JJ Dancoisne-Martineau, the girls were put through their paces. Shoulders back, head up… smile! Step off with the front foot, weight on the back leg, turn and present!
The improvement in posture and elegance of movement up and down the practice hall was evident from the word go. We were up and running – or walking to be accurate!
How Would You Improve The Island?
From ‘walking’ training we shifted quickly into a media workshop. Questions and answers.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t the ‘swimsuit’ category putting people off entering the competition. The biggest worry, by far, was public speaking and answering questions from the compere.
The anxiety of freezing up during the show prevented at least 20 other potential contestants from taking part.
I led the media workshops, drawing on my experience in journalism to help assuage the contestants’ concerns. Pageant questions always revolve around local affairs and personality.
How would you improve the island?
What would you do with a million pounds?
We went gently, not wanting to scare the potential contestants off!
A studio photo shoot was next on the programme.
Nothing builds self-confidence like a set of super photographs. Modelling is a far more technical and challenging discipline than most people give it credit for. And when done right, is not only good fun but it’s great for self-esteem.
An operation consisting of lights, backdrops, make up, snazzy fashion and wind machines all contribute to the exciting buzz surrounding photo shoots.
A Behind The Scenes Business Tour Of St Helena
Jewel in our four-week programme crown was undoubtedly the, ‘business day’ tour.
From 9am our committee and contestants spent the day touring a selection of local businesses. Transportation was a very comfortable 17-seater bus kindly provided by the pageant’s lead sponsor, Solomon & Company.
We pushed in soft little blue ear-plugs for our first stop, a visit to the power station in Rupert’s Valley. The Connect Saint Helena engineers demonstrated how renewable energy sources were being phased in to the island’s utilities. We were given a guided tour, using sign-language, around the noisy diesel engines.
Island communications – internet, telephones (including mobile) and television – are provided by Sure South Atlantic. At their high-tech Briars operations centre, normally off-limits to the public, we learned how the economies of scale impacts costs and services. Of course, there were quite a few questions about broadband allowances and data packages on mobile services.
From The Piggery To The Castle
Privileged access to the Half Tree Hollow bakery was next on the tour, where Solomon and Company introduced us to the size of operation required to produce the island’s daily bread.
Across the island we went for lunch in Sandy Bay at Bamboo Café, operated by SHAPE. A tour of SHAPE’s craftwork and recycling facilities followed. We could easily have stayed longer but our schedule was already slipping behind time.
Further into the bowl of Sandy Bay we toured the Solomon’s piggery. Who knew this was going to be a highlight of the tour! The piggery was fascinating, giving us all insight into the amazing practical knowledgebase that has been developed over decades to operate the farm efficiently. A hidden success story, for sure.
The business tour finished at The Castle in Jamestown, headquarters of the St Helena Government. In Council Chambers the contestants and committee underwent a ‘how well do you know your island?’ session with the government statistics team.
Conversation At Tea Time
The tour was over but there was one more event to round off the day. We had billed it as a, ‘Leader’s Tea’ meeting which took place at Wellington House in Jamestown. Basically a social get-together over tea and cakes with four representatives from across key island industries.
Guests were, a nurse, a teacher, a business CEO and a legislative councillor. Health, education, business and government.
Contestants occupied four different tables. The four invited guests joined a group each and then changed tables every 15mins. Over delicious savouries and sandwiches this was an informal Q&A, ‘pick your brain’ session. No question too silly. It worked brilliantly. In fact, we almost had to prise them apart to change tables when each time segment was up.
Miss St Helena Contestants and the Issue of Guns
The programme of events rolled on into the next three weeks.
A flax craftwork session with St Helenian artisan, Wanda Isaac, had contestants making flowers and table mats from the local materials. Exposure to this creative skill was a pleasant surprise for everyone.
Shooting at the Jamestown Rifle Club allowed the ladies to have a go at the island’s (unofficial) national sport. Over the last 20 years shooting is the only sport that St Helena has won medals in at the international Island Games, both men and women. Some impressive scores were shot by the Miss St Helena ladies.
A visit to the island’s biggest care home, the Princess Royal, Community Care Centre – aka the CCC – highlighted the work being done to care for the elderly.
On a rainy, foggy Saturday morning, we set off to hike Diana’s Peak with tour guide, Val Joshua. Stepping through the island’s cloud forest, learning about the endemic plants and gazing out at the spectacular views when the weather cleared, was wonderful. One of our committee members, Elsie Hughes, met us at the end of the walk with a luxury picnic for everyone.
As the show itself drew near the contestants were starting to focus their attention on outfits and details for the night. Everyone attended a beauty and styling tips workshop. Ideas and useful advice on how to style hair and make-up were shared by Essence Beauty Salon and Bliss (hair). The level of expertise on show from our local businesses was most impressive.
Dealing With Those Pesky Questions
Running alongside all of this we continued the walking training and interview/media workshops.
In the final week contestants took advantage of ‘one-to-one’ media sessions, working on techniques of tackling difficult questions that might come up in the show. These were skills that would be useful beyond the competition, they could be taken into job interviews and social interactions for example.
Helping the contestants to overcome that anxiety of crippling stage-fright was always our number one priority.
On the very first day we discussed and printed off interview revision topics for everyone.
The five governing committees of St Helena’s Executive Council were identified: Health, Education, Environment, Economic and Social.
The mere mention of these issues can be incredibly intimidating for most people, let alone 20 something year-olds who in many cases are yet to even access the health services or have experience of social issues beyond planning for a weekend.
Personality insights needed consideration – what’s your best; your favourite; your scariest… Who inspires you, who would you like to meet, what kind of Miss St Helena would you be?
Crime, roads, shopping, social media, tourism, the airport, Saint culture, youth, elderly… all subject matter to prepare for.
We discovered once we started the process that contestants already had good personal knowledge and insights into nearly all of these issues. Our task we realised was to build the confidence in everyone to recognise and frame what they already knew.
Publicity & Promotion For The Show
Throughout the entire 4-week programme we tried to keep the public informed of via Facebook and through radio interviews of what we were doing.
Pictures posted online of contestants training and taking part in the various events generated huge interest in the show. We were inundated with demand for tickets, right up to the final day.
The openness effort had a helpful side-effect. The public started passing on words of encouragement and well-wishes to contestants.
On our visit to the CCC a nurse told the contestants: “You are not doing this for yourselves, you know. When you take part in Miss St Helena you bring happiness to the whole island.”
There were a few such conversations during the various activities. Unplanned, unscripted pep talks that surprised us. It revealed the depth of affection for the Miss St Helena event within the community.
Taking part in Miss St Helena is still a prestigious local honour. Ex-contestants were proud to let our new generation know that in years gone by they had also once taken part in Miss St Helena. Others fondly shared memories of past pageants where family members had graced the Miss St Helena stage.
Miss St Helena 2018 – Alright On The Night
‘Relief’ was the prevailing emotion on the night of the show.
Relief because what we did, worked. The contestants strode the carpeted runway with purpose, pausing to lean back and present, just like they had drilled with JJ.
There were audible intakes of breath from the audience as a tough first set of questions were read out by the host to each contestant.
You could feel the collective will throughout the room for each of the contestants to do well.
That tension turned to cheers as one by one the ladies showed off a newfound poise, answering with a thoroughness and coolness that was simply impressive.
And that’s how the night went. It was a wonderful success.
That’s How You Wear A Dress
A week after the show we saw one of the contestants out on a Saturday night. She told us it was the first time she had found the courage to wear a dress out socially. All thanks to the Miss St Helena experience.
Work colleagues of another contestant told us they had noticed how she now displayed a more assured personality, sat up straighter and held eye contact in conversations.
Many of those who took part told us they have made new friendships from participating in the 4-week programme.
The programme itself was built on island-wide participation. It was enthusiastically embraced by all the businesses, organisations and individuals we approached, everyone eager to support the young ladies taking part.
Without doubt twelve young people on St Helena now have a much better-informed awareness of island issues, everything from health and education to sport and culture. Very useful building blocks for careers and life in general.
Miss St Helena 2018, Gemma Lawrence, is settling into her role. In her St Helena Day speech, she expressed a wish to help young people especially to make healthier lifestyle choices.
What Miss St Helena Did Next
Pageant organisers all over the world will no doubt be monitoring closely how the ‘swimsuit’ and other changes impacts Miss America’s popularity.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course, and the online inquest is already underway.
Will changes from afar impact St Helena? Possibly. Although, not as much as it may have done before.
We’ve actually just completed a major revamp of our Miss St Helena event, designing a new format that’s been very successful.
Feedback from the audience, both at the show and listening in via live broadcasts, was overwhelmingly positive. It was the self-assurance of the contestants and what each of them had to say that created the talking points.
‘Pride’ was the overriding public reaction. Pride that ‘our girls’ performed with elegance, intelligence and confidence.
There is definitely scope to improve things further in 2020 when Miss St Helena comes around again. But, thanks to ‘Tom and Becky’ and Miss Grand International, I think on St Helena we’re already on the right track.