One of These Things Is Not Like The Other: #NotMyMissUSVI
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
It should be noted that this post is not intended to be slanderous or defamatory. It is and will continue to stand as a chronicle of my recent experiences and personal feelings about the events of the past year.
DISCLAIMER (EDIT 8/23/19): It's been brought to my attention that both a Facebook group and page have been created using the name "Not My Miss USVI" - while I used the hashtag in this blog post, and was the first to use the term I want to make it clear that I have not and do not run any additional pages under this name. This blog post and a recent live video discussing the post further have been my only public statements regarding this matter.
By now it's common knowledge that beginning in August 2017, I held the position of Public Relations Director for the U.S. Virgin Islands franchise of the Miss Universe pageant. In June of this year, I publicly stepped down from the position citing my desire to move on with my career and work on new projects. I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed working with the franchise, something I meant wholeheartedly, but in the months since I have felt the weight of all of the words I could not say sitting on my chest.
As much as I enjoyed what I was able to accomplish with the franchise - connecting the organization with fellow U.S. Virgin Islanders and the worldwide pageant community online - the last two years have felt like a permanent vacation to whatever it is that sits between a rock and a hard place.
U.S. Virgin Islanders are a proud people, and deservingly so. We come from one of the most beautiful places in the world. We have the world (or universe, rather) in rich culture to offer. Many of us only want the world to see and enjoy what we already know and enjoy for ourselves. Representation matters to us in the way it should matter to any culture. While we have only had one representative place in the Miss Universe pageant, we religiously follow the show on an annual basis. We throw what support we can behind our queens. We yearn for what glimpse of them we can get in the flashes of the more than eighty contestants who participate in Miss Universe. When I met the new director of this franchise and heard her enthusiasm and passion for this new venture - I was hesitant but optimistic. The U.S. Virgin Islands has a difficult history with Americans coming to our shores and claiming things for themselves.
For much of the two years that I worked with this organization, it felt that she and I had the same dream to hear "U.S. Virgin Islands" called in one of the top placements. To see our queen come down that runway beaming with pride for her territory. As time went on, the line that seemed to connect that shared dream began to blur. I began noting things that felt concerning not only in our recruitment process, but in the preparation for our former reigning queen to travel to the Miss Universe competition last year. You see while my job was never to direct or coach our queen, it was to ensure accurate representation of our brand in media spaces. My job was to ensure that the U.S. Virgin Islands felt proud to support this franchise, despite the fact that I was the only team member who was from the territory. I felt like a liaison; one who could bridge the cultural gap and help the franchise do right by the territory. This meant that I had to be concerned about every single thing that occurred in our preparation - her gown had to be right, her costume had to be right, every appearance, every video, every word. My job was to catch the ball and present it to our people so that they could share their support.
It becomes difficult to catch a ball that is continuously dropped.
Pageantry is pageantry - and things can always go wrong. It would be negligent to accuse the franchise of purposely underperforming in terms of presentation and preparation. Representation costs money. Costumes, travel, gowns, and outfits cost money. In bigger countries, franchises can rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars to put toward their queens ensuring that they look their absolute best. In a small territory where two major hurricanes displaced the first pageant and a slow recovery made hosting the second show difficult, funding was not always available. This, on top of local hesitation to finance a franchise led by a stateside director. Still I kept expecting the franchise to find other funding sources or to use the time we had to prepare early and find additional options. It became habitual to see things happen or fall apart at the final hour. My frustration grew but deep down I kept hoping we could do better. I kept convincing myself that maybe I could be the one to move us to another level.
Suddenly my job went from building a relationship between Miss Universe USVI and the public online to handling crisis after crisis after crisis. I remember having to write a caption for Aniska's national costume when she walked the Miss Universe stage and holding back tears because it was a caption I couldn't stand by. I also knew how Aniska felt in the costume she ended up with. Seeing her joy when finding out the costume concept shortly after she was crowned and hearing her disappointment on the phone when the competition came is still something I cannot accept. We had to do better. She'd deserved better. The USVI deserved better. The next queen deserved better. I hesitated to blame this on the franchise and cited our lack of funding. "Had we had the money ______ wouldn't have happened" became the phrase I repeated to myself to shadow my own doubt.
In December of 2018 after the Miss Universe pageant in Thailand, I got to work on a "one-year plan" for the franchise that I had already presented to them in August of that year at a staff meeting. Every possible issue we'd faced was addressed in this plan - due dates, media tours, visits to the USVI for radio interviews and pageant promotions, fundraising, recruitment, application process, judge selection timeline, hotel options, auditorium options and contact information for all local agencies we'd need to speak to - you name it. It was there. I even shared a draft of this plan with close friends who had decades of pageant experience and thought it could be beneficial.
I emailed this plan and information to the director in December.
In the four months that followed I was asked repeatedly to resend that email - it became evident that it either hadn't been read or that it was not considered important enough to take seriously. I'd like to note here that during this time, I was working full time and going to graduate school at night full time. I was exhausted and anxious and beginning to feel very invisible within our team, but I wanted 2019 to be better. So much so that I even suggested moving the pageant to St. Croix in an effort to expose the franchise to all of the USVI.
2019 came with radio silence until about March of that year, when applications had gone out and submissions began coming in. I had already begun thinking about stepping down as a result of how busy I'd become and feeling as if all of the preparation I'd done for the 2019 pageant had not been acknowledged. What happened next was my deal breaker (as it should have been in 2017...and 2018.)
Once again, a sea of queens were flooding to our pageant who did not reflect the emeralds I knew to be our own. I received multiple emails (to our media account) from queens asking if residency was a requirement and if any exceptions could be made. I turned each of them away, but there were always other inboxes they could have gone to with the same questions.
I made it a habit to express my concerns about "foreign" contestants seeking to join our pageants. After all, I was in charge of all of our digital media. This means that I saw all applications that came in. I made notes of which applications were not complete - as proof of residency or birth is required in order to apply according to Miss Universe Organization rules. I made sure to forward these applications to our director and make note of what was missing. On one occasion earlier this year, I emailed a contestant to remind her that some items were missing. When she informed me that she had already spoken to the director, my stomach sank again.
I have always had a pleasant relationship with the team, outside of feeling as if my opinions were disregarded. I hesitated for a long time to think negatively of any of them. I defended them in conversations with pageant-lovers from back home. But the time came when I could no longer defend and no longer support. It became clear to me, months before this year's contestant roster was announced, that the application process was not being strictly followed for many of the contestants interested in our pageant.
You see, while the Miss Universe Organization requires a contestant live in the pageant's host country for 6 months or be a native of that country, it is ultimately up to the director to review those documents.
An airline ticket is required to board an airplane, but you can also walk onto an airplane if the gate agent lets you.
The reality of "foreign" queens walking on the Miss Universe stage bearing OUR name and OUR culture and OUR "pride' on their sash was one I was unwilling to accept. I knew that there was not much I could do to change an already ongoing situation. So I stepped down and stopped answering calls and requests for favors. I had given enough. I had supported enough. And I had been complacent for too long.
As I write this very lengthy post (sorry) just two months after my departure the online USVI community is reeling after the top three placement of not one, but three queens whose connections to the territory are questionable (to put it nicely.) While pageant results tend to reflect those who "outperformed" on the night of the show and scores may be accurate, the reality is that this would have never happened had someone actually cared where these girls were coming from. They should not have touched that stage. They should not have gotten a contestant packet. No one who does not share the culture, the joy, the pride and the burden of living in and loving a place like the U.S. Virgin Islands should ever bear our name. We have had enough taken from us by people who did so just because they felt they deserved it.
I struggle every day wondering if I should have spoken sooner or wondering if there was anything that I could have done to prevent this from going further. This post has been drafted again and again in the fight between "say what you need to say" and "don't burn bridges."
I did not want to burn this bridge, but I'm sure Queen Mary didn't really "want" to light some shit on fire either.
So to the people in charge; the people who stood idly by and allowed this to happen. I hope you see this backlash and face it head-on. I hope you acknowledge that chaos is almost always a direct result of neglectful action or inaction. You. Caused. This.
Representation is not a casual gesture. It should be meaningful, wholehearted, and sincere. My Miss U.S. Virgin Islands should know my territory for more than its beaches, vacation homes and whatever other information is available on google. My Miss U.S. Virgin Islands should be able to pronounce the name on her own sash. My Miss U.S. Virgin Islands should make somebody beam with pride when she walks the stage because they've seen her walk their own neighborhood streets. Until that day comes again, I do not have a Miss U.S. Virgin Islands.
She is #NotMyMissUSVI.