She caused a stir in John John in the late hours of the evening last Tuesday. Athaliah Samuel, Miss T&T World 2012 was dressed in a black lacy high cut bodysuit. Her toned legs and athletic physique were shining against the setting sun. Hair wrapped into a braided afro-centric style, she looked like she just came off the runaway of some high fashion extravaganza and landed into a pose in front of the John John Towers, Laventille in her silver stilettos.
Photographer Jermaine Cruickshank captured Samuel's every move. He was surprised at her boldness; I too was appalled ó appalled and cautious. It's not every day one makes the trek into the stereotyped volatile hills of Laventille. A resident of the area called Quarry, not far up the hill off the John John Towers, the five foot, ten inch model was not perturbed by her embattled community, and she was even less bothered by her attire.
"I like to keep it real. I am not ashamed of posing in public. I have been modelling since I was 15 and, well, many of the people in the area know me! I was always involved in community activities, sports days etc," she assured me. Two taxi drivers passed by our photo shoot and one shouted: "Looking good family!" The other one stopped to give his passengers a long hard look. One of the ladies in the car screamed "We love you honey. Represent!" The man on the corner in the shop was awestruck "Wayss look what going in John John nah!" And the homeboy across the street in the panyard where Samuel and her dance group NTrique practised had to pick up his jaw.
It wasn't the same stir that the netballer and journalist created when she won the crown though. As we entered the van to make our way to complete the second shooting point, at the waterfront of the Hyatt Regency, Samuel was retrospective. "Do you know that those same people from Laventille were my only true fans when I was chosen as the T&T World? While the rest of T&T tongue-lashed me, my good people from my hometown never left my side. Even after Trinbagonians criticised and lambasted me, these people stood up for me. They had a party to celebrate in the basketball court. I thank God for them. They were my strength through it all!"
The 25-year-old graduate of St Dominic's Convent took me back to the earlier months of 2012 when she was selected by Miss T&T World franchise holder Daniel Seebaran and his team to represent Trinidad and Tobago in Ordos, China for the auspicious Miss World competition. "I was chosen by the committee without any competition locally because of the lack of time. I had begun screening for this title since I was 19. I used to model with Richard Young and Mannequins Modelling Agency and I had done some other shows. I was more or less grooming myself for my dream of representing T&T someday!" she reminisced.
Samuel spoke of her very first pageant, the Inter-Community Pageant which was held in another hotspot of Trinidad, Beetham Gardens. "I won everything at that show but not the crown," she mused. It was at this competition that Young asked her to sign up for Mannequins. Other community pageants followed, some more notable fashion shows and then her heart-stopping moment ó her chance to represent T&T at the Miss World International Show in China. Elation was not nearly close to the emotion she felt but her enthusiasm faded with the poor reception she received. "I was so happy. I was on cloud ten. But when the public began stereotyping me and all the critics began their charade, I felt like I had hit rock bottom!
"I saw the nasty comments on Facebook and the other social media sites. I heard the old talk at limes and even downtown Port-of-Spain in Woodford Square. She remembered the jeers too. As we neared the waterfront her former cheery disposition turned into one of sadness. She was wiggling out of her lacy get up and jumping into a pretty, colourful bustier with an electric blue skirt, her bright smile now a frown. Like a bronzed mannequin in a showcase, she was the perfect silhouette against the resplendent sunset of orange, yellows and reds.
"They called me everything from the ugly girl with the buck teeth to the black rat from Laventille. They killed my joy. I was the stereotyped girl from Laventille who supposedly couldn't read or write, who couldn't speak fluently, who couldn't walk upright, and who couldn't represent Trinidad and Tobago. They didn't know that I was an A student, very outspoken and focussed.
"Why they couldn't pick a pretty red Spanish girl?' some people asked. I couldn't believe that people of my same ethnicity were ridiculing me. What did these people know of me? Did they really know Athaliah?"
Her questions were blunt and as she perused the waterfront, gracefully twisting and turning at angles pleasing to the lens, onlookers at the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel stared in envy and admiration. I wondered if they even recognised that it was T&T's most prodigal Miss World. It was obvious that this woman with the smooth complexion and elegant stature had some experience in the beauty arena. Why did her hometown matter when she brought all these great qualities to the Miss T&T table?
Was it the popular photo of her with the blue contact lens which started the uproar in the first place? I had to ask. "I had my own personal Facebook page with that photo..." "Why blue contact lens?" I interrupted. She sighed, "That photo was just me having fun experimenting with different looks for a photo shoot. That photo wasn't for my Miss World portfolio or the official Facebook page I created for Miss World afterwards. It's so strange how people went up on my page and selected that particular shot amongst all my other more worthy pictures to comment on. Why the one with the blue eyes? Because they wanted something to ridicule me with, ammunition for a negative perception. Propaganda you call it...It's a good thing that I am thick-skinned. I guess that's one stereotyped trait of Laventille that I don't mind," she laughed cynically.
But amidst the painful reception, Samuel did receive some support from her friends who were in the beauty circle locally, Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism, Lincoln Douglas and Minister of Health, Fuad Khan. "Minister Douglas organised the ticket to China and Minister Khan helped me close the space in my teeth through funding. I had to do some additional work to make me pageant ready. And that's the thing you know, there is always some improvement one can make aesthetically to their appearance regardless of public perception. Many Miss Worlds have to have some kind of alteration but when you're the underdog it always seems like 'extra' work!" For all the work and dedication though, she had the experience of a lifetime in China and she made the World Beach Beauty Finals. "It was the most beautiful experience of my life. I was determined despite all the negativity to prove the critics wrong. I didn't bring home the crown but I made my presence felt at the competition.
"I have a certificate in graphic arts and I'm into fashion design and styling so I made a lot of contacts. Do you know that I did my own hair and make-up for this shoot?" she informed. The braided hairstyle and the perfectly placed make-up were all her work.
Cruickshank smiled behind his lens. We were both expecting a long bone straight hairdo, you know, the typical pageant queen hairdo but then again Samuel wasn't the typical pageant queen; she was the "stereotyped" one. "I wanted to wear my hair in an authentic African style with braids like this one for the show but I couldn't get the time or security to shop around in China for the braids and when I left Trinidad it was in a rush. But I really wanted to do 'me' at the show," declared the COSTATT, Mass Communications student.
The photo session came to a close just around 6.30 p.m. and we drove back to Quarry, Laventille, passing the children playing unconcerned in the street and the pockets of limers at the alley corners. "You probably stereotyping this area too..." I shook my head in disagreement. She continued "You can't brand a person by the area he or she comes from and to be quite honest John John, Quarry and Laventille are not what people perceive them to be. I actually met one of the gang leaders after an uprising when I returned from China, I asked him to stop the hate and violence and guess what? He listened and called for peace, a pivotal move which ended one of the community wars. I think that we all have our part to play in promoting peace in Laventile and in T&T as a whole. I have begun working with two charities in my area as a peace ambassador for the area. Miss World was just the beginning for me and what I have to contribute to my country. And yes I am proud to be part of a change for an area which I have called home since I was born. If this home creates a stigmatised cocoon of scorn and ridicule for me then so be it I will never be ashamed of my roots because a stereotype is not law, at least not where I come from!" With that statement Samuel jumped out of my van and walked towards the apartment complex where she resides. Once more, to the delight of her neighbours and fans, she created a stir!