Miss World 2017: Behind The Scenes
I have been a Miss World (super)fan for 26 years and a few weeks ago I attended my fourth Miss World contest. This time was special because I also represented Global Beauties and I took the responsibility very seriously. Based on my telecast review, you might probably assume that I am a Miss World critic, but the truth is that I have learnt over the years to separate myself as a fan from the voice I have in the industry. At times it's extremely hard to balance my loyalty to the organisation with my responsibility as a voice for the fans, especially when you love a contest as much as I love Miss World. However, I always try to give my opinions fairly and freely and they come from a good place. I'm definitely not a hater and a basher. So while I was trying to provide constructive criticism in my telecast reviews, this time I can tell you my story as someone who has lived and breathed Miss World for almost three decades.
I watched my very first world when I was only 11 years old. It was the 41st edition in Atlanta and it was pretty much Miss World at her lowest in terms of production. My love affair with this contest started when Miss World was weak and vulnerable and it only grew from there. I have remained their fan through the good times and the bad and I hope that it will just continue to grow over the next few years of my life. When I was 20, I attended my first Miss World, which was also the last time India had won before this year. It was also the first edition without Eric Morley, so it was bittersweet, because I often saw him while I was eating my lunch in Golden Square, dreaming of persuading him or Julia to give their most loyal fan a job as I would work day and night for Miss World. I attended again a decade a later in 2010 (special because I cheered on Miss SA with her mom and her aunt) and then half a decade later in 2015 (special because I met Rolene and watched her hand over her crown). Both times in Sanya. So, this time, only two years had passed since I laste made my way from Shanghai to Sanya. I am not the hugest fan of this city, but this time I felt like it was third time lucky for me and Sanya as I truly had the most amazing, most memorable Miss World experience so far and I would like to share some of the highlights with you.
MISS WORLD 2017: Manushi Chhillar from India
Apart from Miss Brazil (who I knew from my stint as a judge at Miss Brazil earlier this year), Manushi was the first girl I talked to in Sanya. Now let me tell you this, from the moment I saw her, I just knew that she was going to be the one. I guess years of following the contest has made it easy for me to find a Miss World. What struck me about Manushi was that she was just so prepared but more than that, I would say that she has a regal presence that commands attention. While most of the other girls were still in their sportswear following late night rehearsals, she was in a black cocktail dress. She looked graceful and she had a very powerful aura. Manushi was chatting to her family (who she had not seen for a month) when I decided to approach her, so I was a bit nervous when I called her as I did not want to interrupt a family moment. She was kind and gracious when I asked her for a photo and extremely composed. She immediately tried to introduce me to her family and I said I knew who they were and she looked a bit surprised and I probably looked quite embarrassed.
The next night, when I was having a midnight snack with Miss Brazil and her loved ones, she came over to chat to Brazil and meet her family and we chatted again. Yet again, I got the overwhelming sense that I was talking to the next Miss World. My third encounter with her was just before she left for the final and I stopped to tell her and her director that I believe they will have a very good night that night and felt that there would be huge celebrations for them later.
My fourth and final encounter with Manushi was when she was wearing the Miss World crown. It was at the coronation ball and I went over to ask her for some photos for Global Beauties. She was still kind and gracious and totally composed. This girl demands respect and I think she deserved the crown. I think she will do very well as Miss World.
1st runner-up: Andrea Mesa from Mexico (Miss World Americas)
Andrea was another girl who captured my attention and my Miss World special senses told me that she would be India's main competition. She looked absolutely gorgeous in real life, even better than on photos or on television. The girl is stunning. Sadly, I didn't get to speak to her until after the contest, but when I approached her at the coronation ball to tell her that one of her friends is a pageant acquaintance of mine, she was incredibly lovely. She was obviously disappointed that she did not win, but she was extremely gracious. I admire and respect that.
2nd runner-up: Stephanie Hill from England (Miss World Europe)
The biggest shock or surprise of the night for most came when Miss England made it to the top 3. I did not get the opportunity to speak to her but on the night before the show I came to realise that she was well-liked by the organisation, especially Mike Dixon and Donna Derby. They applauded her and gave her thumbs up during rehearsals, so I started getting the feeling that she could place. (Top 3 was a surprise though.)
Aurore Kichenin from France was a doll. I did not interact with her as I heard that she was quite shy but she looked amazing every time I saw her. I congratulated Magline Jeruto from Kenya on their second successive Miss World Africa title and she was super excited. I was stunned by her facial beauty.
Korea's Ha-eun Kim became an audience favourite during the final telecast as she came across as a geniunely nice girl. She was so excited for everyone who made it, even happier than for herself. She is a super cool girl and she's got some serious dance moves.
When I first saw Polina Popova from Russia, I immediately thought VICTORIA SECRETS MODEL. She is absolutely gorgeous. She was very sweet when I approached her. I guess with a few more years of life experience, she would have been a sure top 5 contender.
I went up to Fatima Cuellar from El Salvador to congratulate her on being the first woman from her country to place at Miss World. She is a doll and though her English wasn't the best, she was very sweet and charming.
Brazil: Gabrielle Vilela is an amazing young woman. I got to meet her when she competed for Miss Brazil earlier this year and I heard about the amazing work she's doing and her life story. Shortly after I arrived on the Thursday night, I was sitting in a restaurant doing some writing and she spotted me and ran over. On Friday night, she came to sit with us around midnight with her family and my friends and we all had pizza and toasted sandwiches together. My friends were all so impressed by her as they did not expect beauty queens to be so real, so humble, so charming and so natural. That says everything about this girl. I really feel that she should have achieved a higher placement. We can't change the outcome, but I know she gave it more than 100% and I adore her and her family.
Apart from Brazil, my other two favourite girls were Tea Mlinarić from Croatia and Adriana Gerxhalija from Finland. They were just amazing - so friendly, so approachable and they were always happy to share a joke and have a good time. What I really valued about them was that they were serious competitors, but they didn't take themselves too seriously. I was trying to persuade Tea to go for another pageant but it seems like she will rather pursue her modeling career. Adriana is also one of the best Finnish representatives in a long time and I wish to see her at another pageant. She has dreams of becoming a host - watch this space! Loved meeting you, Tea and Adriana!
I also got to chat a bit to Anouk Eman from Aruba who has an incredible story and is a true inspiration and Anđelija Rogić from Serbia who definitely had one of the most beautiful faces of the competition. One of my personal disappointments was the non-placement of Mandjalia Gbané from Cote d'Ivoire. She is an absolute doll and she is also a very sweet girl. Cote d'Ivoire has been sending some amazing girls - I hope they get a breakthrough placement very soon.
A highlight of attending Miss World is meeting some of the people who work so hard and so tirelessly, sometimes with very little resources and support, to make the national pageants happen. This year, I was fortunate enough to meet many of them.
I was lucky to spend quite a bit of time with Vesna de Vinca, the national director of Serbia and Montenegro. She is an accomplished woman who has interviewed Nelson Mandela during her career and all-around incredible person. It was incredible to hear about the work that she has been doing for the last 21 years and I hope to tell her story through a special interview early next year.
Andhy Blake from Fiji was so nice to me and my friends. He works really hard and is so passionate about what he does. He is an absolutely great guy and Miss World is lucky to have him as a director Thank you for taking care of my friend during the telecast, Andhy!
Natasha Grover from India was an absolute delight too. She is charismatic, funny and incredibly warm. Understandably so, she was over the moon when they won and it was nice to share a few moments with her. I hope to meet her again in the future.
I was delighted to finally meet Jenny Park from Korea. We have had occasional exchanges on facebook over the years and it was wonderful to meet her in person. She is an exceptional woman too - dedicated, passionate and ready to change the perception of pageants in her country. She sat two rows behind me and it was so nice to witness her genuine surprise and joy every time Korea advanced.
It was an honour to meet the new ND of the Philippines, Arnold Vergara Vegafria. Most of all, it was an absolute pleasure to meet the GM of the pageant, fashion designer extraordinaire, Bessie Besana, who is an absolute sweetheart. He is kind, funny and really loves what he does. A great, great guy!
Another old Facebook acquaintance that I got to meet in person is Thierry Coffie de Targe from Cote d'Ivoire. He was kind and gracious and thanked me for the support over the years. I really want them to place high very soon.
Damion Grange from the British Virgin Islands was also very warm and friendly and shared some of the challenges they faced this year. I hope to tell their story very soon, too. I was surprised to learn that one of the girls I remember from some of my very early pageant years, Pamela Ebanks (Miss World 1992 and Miss Universe 1993) is now starting Miss World Cayman Islands. She was lovely and organised a bus for all the other NDs to get to and from the venue. I hope to support her this year as she starts her pageant.
What can you say to a national director like the one from Mauritius who has been doing it for more than 40 years? You only show them respect. I also got to meet Deborah Miller, the ND of Australia, and the Safrits who now run America's Miss World.
I got the chance to say hello to Stephanie del Valle and told her that I have a friend from Puerto Rico who waited for a long time to see someone from PR take home the crown. "Well, now you can tell him you've met Miss World," she giggled.
And then there's Megan Young... awww Megan! What an incredible woman. Rolene introduced me to her in 2015 and we shared an elevator together and she actually remembered me. I also got a chance to talk to her at the coronation ball. She was happy to hear that I follow their travel blog. Megan is warm, personable and down to earth. A perfect Miss World!
Julia Gama is another of the formers that I was lucky enough to meet. She is also an exceptional young woman and I am glad she's making her dreams come true here in Asia. She actually started filming a movie in Taiwan two days after Miss World! Isn't that cool!
THE MISS WORLD ORGANISATION
It's always a thrill to attend Miss World and see the faces that have become synonymous with the contest. While I didn't dare to approach most of the big names, I did introduce myself to Miss World Events Director, Steve Douglas, after the show. Understandably so, he must have been exhausted. Putting on a show of that magnitude is no joke! He was kind and gracious nonetheless and I do have to tell you that he actually has a sharp and wicked sense of humour. He seems like a really nice person.
James and Rhiannon from the office were super kind and tried very hard to keep everyone happy. I want to give a very special shout-out to Rhiannon who is just absolutely lovely. She listened to all my pageant stories with interest while she was trying to sort our tickets out and she came over to chat when she saw me and remembered me by name. This is how you make the fans feel special. Thanks, Rhiannon - Miss World is lucky to have you!
ATTENDING THE SHOW
I loved being there at the event this year. Thank you, Miss World, for opening up the dress rehearsal and giving everyone free access to it. It helps to make it an exhilarating experience for the fans and people who attend the event. Yes, you can never keep pageant fans happy as you know. But we do love you.
On the final night, I was over the moon when I saw my seat... in the second row behind Stephanie del Valle's mom and next to the Mandela family! As a South African, this was just a dream come true and the absolute cherry on the cake. Chief Mandela seems like a really lovely man. He posed patiently for photos every time I saw him and there were loads of people who wanted photos with him. His wife is beautiful and his baby is adorable. His mother was also incredibly nice. I was sat next to her during the show and when I ended up sitting next to her again at the coronation ball, she laughed and said, "Us South Africans always find one another."
This is my story as a fan and not a pageant commentator and for those of you who dream of attending one of the big pageants, I would definitely encourage you to do it if you can make it happen. Being there in person just makes it so much more special and you end up meeting incredible people and leave with a heart filled with love and excitement. I hope that I get to experience it again soon!