Miss Universe, Janelle Commissiong, 43 years later

Miss Universe, Janelle Commissiong, 43 years later

By Oscar Wailoo

Janelle Commissiong

The dreary months of February and March in these northern climes are months when the winter-weary get all the time they need to reflect on life, the reawaking that comes with spring, and warm summer days.

Planned or mere chance, the decisions to associate these months with Black History, Women’s History, and Black Women’s History turn out to be the perfect tonic to put life into a time when most would agree that winter has overstayed its welcome.

While Caribbean folk tend to take certain events in their stride even as those events leave a mark on history, this month of March, Women’s Month brings to mind the year 1977 when Trinidad and Tobago’s  Janelle “Penny” Commissiong became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss Universe. Ironic indeed:  it was a mere 43 years ago that the Miss Universe pageant recognized what was known all along – that beauty, charm and grace do not obey Man’s laws. So in 1977 the judges acknowledged that truth and found the three attributes residing in the greatest measure in Ms. Commissiong.

Janelle Commissiong

Nothing in Ms. Commissiong’s life suggested that she was destined for that stage in the Dominican Republic in 1977. Janelle was born in Trinidad but spent her teenage years in the US where she studied and acquired a Degree in Science at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Such an education would seem to point to a career in the business of apparel design, teaching, retail business, etc.

Following her “Miss Universe” triumph, Janelle travelled the world campaigning for world peace and championing Black rights in nations where people of African ancestry were minorities; she had done this during her tenure as Miss Universe, so she naturally continued to visit many African, Asian, and European nations.  She called her victory “a step in the right direction” toward changing racial attitudes, but she also knew that “it would take more than a pageant to change the status of Black women in the industry”. She may well have added “and in life in general.”

Janelle Commissiong

Her sensitivity to that idea must have been sharpened when her appointed chaperone for 1977 pageant  said to her following her triumph, “don’t think you’re the most beautiful girl in the world.” To which Commissiong responded: “The organization you work for told me I was.” The following year she was called upon as reigning Miss Universe to crown the 1978 winner, who was a white woman representing apartheid South Africa.

Back in Trinidad, Commissiong attained heroic status and was adored and respected throughout her twin island homeland. Politicians basked in her aura while calypsonians sang her praises.

After taking over the management of the boat-building business her late husband built, she eventually did open her clothing business. She averred that her experience in managing her late husband’s business where all the employees and customers were male and, typically, thought that “a beauty queen” was out of place in that business, hardened her resolve to succeed in whatever she set her hands to.  Commissiong added that “it was a hostile industry, but over the years I think I earned their respect.”

Commissiong was named chair of Tourism Trinidad Destination Management Company in 2017. From 2012 to 2015, she served as vice-chair of its predecessor agency, the Tourism Development Company. She has had a street named after her and her image appears on the nation’s postage stamps.

Queen Penny, as she is fondly called, draws on her life’s experiences and uses her considerable influence to continue to advocate for the rights of women. She is strong and confident and is the pride of black woman at home and around the world.

Janelle Commissiong recognizes that it’s a long way from 1977, and still the idea of women in business, the question of what is beauty, especially as it relates to black people, are still hotly debated and remain largely unsettled.

For her part, she continues to manage her business affairs while drawing on her life’s experience as she remains engaged the struggle for a better world.