A veiled beauty glides onto the stage. She sparkles in a magnificent sequined top. Her ankles chime with the sound of ghungroos. Her flowing skirt raises through the air while she twirls around the stage like a Rajasthani dancer. In a dramatic stop of music, she drops to the floor. She lifts the ends of her sparkling yellow veil to begin.
On April 22nd at the Golden Terrace Banquet Hall located at 120-23 Atlantic Avenue in Queens, eight Indo-Caribbean young women competed for the SPA Indo-Caribbean National crown during a pageant of talent, elaborate gowns, regal Indian wear, and messages of being role models to girls in the Indo-Caribbean community. Each pageant contestant performed a dance for the talent portion of the pageant and graced the stage with signature walks, air kisses, and waves at the audience. You could feel the nerves and anxiety in the air as the girls performed their walks on stage to win the Miss Indo-Caribbean National Queen 2012 title giving them a year long reign as a national spokesperson representing the Indo-Caribbean community.
One may wonder what it’s like to be on stage as a contestant. The experience could be quite nerve-racking as each girl was called upon so the judges could make their decisions and the audience could cheer for their favorites. Sarah Jardine, winner of two SPA titles Miss USA 2011 and Miss Universal Royalty said, “It’s a long process to get prepared for a pageant as a contestant. You have to have the time and dedication and you have to want to do it. You have to get your outfits, you have to get your talent ready, you have to make sure everything is ready for the day you go on because anything can go wrong on that stage and you have to know how to catch yourself and make it look like it was on purpose.”
But for Jardine, the experience is a commendable one that gives her a purpose as an Indo-Caribbean to “Show girls of Indo-Caribbean culture that you can do this and you can represent your community by bringing about awareness…A lot of people don’t know what we’re [Indo-Caribbeans] about and how similar we are to the Indian culture.”
Behind the scenes of the pageant the girls were hustling to get dressed and making sure their outfits were perfectly intact with the help of mothers, family members, friends, and the team they came with to help them prepare for the experience. I managed to speak to some of the former queens and new contestants and came across how much time it takes and how expensive it is to prepare for this pageant.
According to Jessica Hussain the 2011 Miss Mystic Masala, “On my pageant I spent approximately $6,000. And my costume was about $1,500.” She chuckled and told me ” I’m going to do a photo shoot and sell it back.” Natasha Rambrich, the runner-up for the Miss Indo-Caribbean Nationals 2012 title noted, “It took me three months to prepare for the pageant and have all of my outfits ready.”
Gayatri Teakram, mother of pageant contestant, Sangeeta Teakram said, “I have to be honest with you. This is a very expensive pageant to enter. One has to be prepared financially to get their daughters or sister involved. All of the expenses are on the contestants. You have to be prepared to take the risk to do this.” After asking her what is her ambition as a mom to send her daughter to this pageant she said, “I’ve also been a promoter myself and also a TV personality back in Guyana. I’ve always been involved in this and for that reason I feel that my daughters should have an experience of knowing what it is like so they don’t live a life of not knowing it.” Teakram mentioned that she trusts her kids and explained once a child has identified her personality, no pageant can change who she is at heart.
Jessica Hussain, Miss Mystic Masala 2011, told me of her perseverance throughout the SPA pageants and her inspiration for entering. She recalled, “Ever since grew up as a little girl I wanted to be in a pageant. And now when I see Toddlers and Tiaras on TV I wish I could have had those. But living in Guyana you don’t have those opportunities. I came here in 2003, and I thought to call this organization SPA. The first pageant, Miss Galaxy, I didn’t win and the second time I tried for the Mystic Masala pageant and I got it.”
Yet what may be the most significant beneath the luxurious gowns, beautiful costumes, and glittering make-up is the strive for a presence and voice as Indo-Caribbean young women. Monica Sanchez the CEO of Miss Caricom, an international pageant in its ninth year, said “Let us not forget that it is really difficult to be a beauty pageant contestant. It’s difficult to stand on stage and face your Mom, or your Dad, or your best friend. Please understand that the girls in pageants deserve a lot of support. It’s really encouraging to see such a large turn out tonight and understanding that this community at least understands the importance of pageants. It’s not just beautiful girls walking on stage, its an education in and of itself. Anyone that enters a pageant becomes a little more educated, a little more secure, a little more beautiful.”
The SPA pageants have enabled the winners to take advantage of pageant benefits and interact with the Indo-Caribbean community. In Tina Basdeo’s final speech as a former titled queen she said,”Along with my fellow queens we have photo shoot meetings, exclusive makeup artists, and talented dress designers. We made everlasting friendships and business partners as well. The SPA Productions USA gave us the opportunity to visit churches around the Tri-State area and perform with many different artistes from charitable events. None of this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Jennifer and Aunty Rani.”
According to Jennifer Prashad-Hawaldar Executive Director of SPA Productions USA and CEO of Trust Claim Insurance Adjustment Recovery, “These contests are more than a beauty pageant.” She noted that the pageants are about having “intelligent, well-mannered, and cultured young women.” She explained SPA is the “leading Indo-Caribbean pageantry organization to make appearances at public speaking engagements and charity events generating awareness for a variety of causes.”
However, it seems the pageant depends on the support of many sponsors from businesses like Singh’s Roti Shop and has generated literally a lobby of community business promoters. When entering the hall of the pageant, you’re surrounded by a sea of promoters from DJs to make-up artists and members of New York Life to promotions like free cupcakes. The beauty pageant has become a hotspot for anyone planning a wedding, sweet sixteen, or event to locate community businesses.
The SPA Productions USA has become an Indo-Caribbean pageantry organization that has grown tremendously during the past few years and has also produced queens who are committed to the livelihood of the pageants. For many queens the pageants are much more than about having a voice and platform while being an Indo-Caribbean spokesperson. As Tina Basdeo stated, “My reign is over but I’ll be a part of this organization forever.”
Photos and text by: Kamelia Kilawan