When Janelle “Penny” Commissiong became Miss Universe in 1977, the world sat up and took notice.
Commissiong, from the tiny island of Trinidad, was the first ever black Miss Universe — a hopeful sign and something to be celebrated far beyond pageant circles.
Toronto resident (and former Much/City entertainment reporter) Nadine Ramkisson — a fellow Trinidadian — put us in touch with Commissiong to hear her thoughts on the current racial divide in America.
Reached by phone on Friday, Commissiong said she’s surprised by what’s happening in the United States.
“The George Floyd incident was a perfect storm — for the world to see and understand that these changes have to be made,” she said.
“Without George Floyd we wouldn’t have seen all the rest that’s happened over the past few months, or understood what’s at the root of parts of America.
“It’s an issue that’s touched the whole world, with protests everywhere, wherever there are people of colour.”
The elegant Commissiong did not experience overt racism herself until she entered the beauty pageant circuit. That all began as a way to publicize the fashion business she was going to open in Trinidad, where she’d just returned after living in the U.S. and studying at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
“I had just moved back to Trinidad, so I did it for promotion. I hadn’t been there for some years and wanted people to know who I was. I went into a local pageant without any expectations.”
And she won. From there her journey to the Miss Universe contest, held that year in the Dominican Republic, was underway.
“Only when we got there did I realize that I was really in a competition,” she said, laughing. “I’d never even been on a stage before. Seeing the competitive spirit around beauty was very interesting.”
International media attended, and every day the newspapers had a front page featuring one contestant or another.
“Except we never saw a black contestant on the cover,” remembers Commissiong. “We weren’t seeing ourselves in the papers at all. We figured we were there just to make up the numbers.
“I had never before in my life felt second place or second class, so that was all new to me.”
The whole notion of a beauty “industry” was new to her, too. There were plenty of hurdles in her year as Miss Universe.
“A person of colour was not a typical beauty,” she said. The main chaperone for the pageant winners was very unhappy that a black woman had won over a white Miss USA.
“One day she said to me, ‘Janelle, don’t think you’re the most beautiful girl in the world.’ I was quick on my feet, and responded, ‘The organization you work for told me I was!’”
Ironically, Commissiong’s reign ended when she passed the crown to Miss South Africa — at the height of apartheid.
She eventually did open her clothing business, but after her husband died, Commissiong took over his boat-building business. That was a huge hurdle, as the business was 100% male — all the craftsmen and all the customers — and nobody thought a “beauty queen” could handle it.
She did, though.
“It was a hostile industry, but over the years I think I earned their respect.”
Being the beauty queen has been a bit of a double-edged sword, says Commissiong, but she has always been proud of representing Trinidad.
She is an icon in her country. Her pageant win put Trinidad and Tobago on the map, and she’s been honoured by having her image on the nation’s postage stamps.
Recently, a main street in Port of Spain was renamed for her; Trinidad and Tobago won independence from Britain in the 1960s, so naming a street after someone local, says the modest Commissiong, “may help young people coming up have a sense of our history.”
She never had political aspirations?
“Not at all!” She laughs again. “Thank God I was too smart for that.”