The Year 2000, at a classroom in Latchmi Girls College, all eyes and ears of the form one class were on Avionne Mark as teacher, Mrs Alvarez asked the million dollar question to her students- "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Mark was assertive and confidently stated — "I want to be Miss Universe!" Her classmates muttered in hush tones, Mrs. Alavarez sighed but the young girl with the smooth dark skin and great poise wasn't daunted in the least. She had to become Miss Universe like her icon, Wendy Fitzwilliam who had captured the title after representing T&T two years prior.
Fast-forward to 12 years later, October 21 to be exact, at NAPA Auditorium. It was just down to five contestants vying for the local Miss T&T Universe crown. Mark adorned in a sparkly purple gown and pretty smile was among the happy hopefuls. The verdict was in and the anticipation was simply too much to bear for a waving party of six with an Avionne Mark banner. Not to mention the guy sitting right next to me whose intermittent outbursts were- "Avionne yuh is ah winner yuh go win girl, yuh answer the best, yuh look the best, yuh best!" And then the moment we were waiting for... Pageant's host Jason Williams announces that Mark is indeed the winner!
What do you call these train of events — fate, karma, déjà vu, luck or blessings?
It's a beautiful Tuesday morning and an equally beautiful Mark, all ready for her make-up tips from pageant make-up artist, Nina Alcantara, describes her title as a blessing, her reward after hard work, determination and focus. "I have always loved Wendy. I always admired her. I wanted to become Ms Universe ever since I was a child. I believed that the title embodied more than just beauty inside out. The person wearing the crown, to me, had to be smart, engaging, have a charitable heart, be a people person and be able to perform under pressure. I saw these qualities in myself and my dream motivated me to develop myself even further in order to prepare for my big day!" says the 23-year-old.
And so, years after her classroom announcement, Mark lived an ordinary life interspersed with her strategic Miss Universe prep plan. "I was a tom-boy growing up. I loved to climb trees. You see these scars which grace my left knee?" I search for them amidst her chocolate brown complexion and I barely make out one. "I got these after falling off the plum tree in my back yard. I loved netball but we weren't allowed to wear short skirts at school, so I tried to keep fit with other sports," she says. I asked about her experience being one of the few Afro-Trinidadian pupils in a predominantly Indo-Trinidadian school and she sighs as if I am a judge at the pageant but she is happy to provide an eloquent answer just as the night of her crowning. "Latchmi Girls' was like any other school for me, I never felt different or disadvantaged. Of course I couldn't play my netball nor sing my calypso but I was happy nonetheless and I was determined to get my full certificate with A's as I had to become educationally sound in order to fulfil my dream of becoming Ms Universe!" I stick a pin in her calypso singing interest. "You can sing calypso?" I ask. "I love all genres of music, composing that is, but I really love soca and calypso and the fusion between soca and R&B. Long ago I used to joke about singing soca B, A fusion between the two. I have composed many songs, my favourite is a love song I wrote called, Crush on You!" the Champs Fleurs resident declares.
Alcantara smiles as she demonstrates to Mark, the best way to apply eyeshadow while I urge her to sing a few lines. "Baby what's the deal, you look so fine, I want to tell you how I feel..." The final year UWI student reading for a BSc. in International Tourism Management however quickly informs that she is no singer just a composer and that she really wants to become a tourism enthusiast, shaping policies and laws, enforcing better customer service not only in Trinidad and Tobago but the Caribbean region.
"I love the tourism industry. I love people and places. Travelling is a passion for me and international tourism affords me this luxury as well the flexibility of not sitting behind a desk from eight to four. I want to improve the customer service we offer in T&T. Just imagine I went into a popular food place last weekend and the waitress who served me was lethargic, unwelcoming and disgruntled. This type of reception doesn't augur well with a well-developed tourism sector. A lot of us think tourism and customer service lies within the walls of hotels but it is required everywhere!" the Curepe Pentecostal Church attendee argues. Incidentally these comments shadow the brilliant answer she gave on the night of the pageant as she was asked which Ministry she would work in and why if asked by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. I take the opportunity to bring the easy-going T&T queen back to the night when she wowed the crowds. "I wasn't nervous onstage, I tried to stay focussed and I prayed a lot.
"For the swimsuit segment some of us had to walk with very long shawls. I had an extra long one and all I kept telling myself was 'Don't trip on the shawl'. I didn't want to throw away my dream and five hard weeks of training for the crown. I had to keep my composure especially in the question and answer segment. I wasn't nervous just excited," the movie fanatic declares. "And the poster waving supporting party?" I ask. Mark blushes as she reminisces on her waving cast of her mom, aunt, other relatives and her 'special someone'. "Yes I have a 'special someone' in my life but I prefer to keep that detail private". What she didn't know is that I actually spoke to her waving party and I saw the gush of pride on the face of her mom and her special someone as well. Okay, so Mark is all rosy-cheeked not courtesy any blush administered by Alcantara so I change the subject to her upcoming month of further grooming for her big moment on the International stage at the Miss Universe Pageant in Las Vegas in December. The experienced model and brand ambassador will definitely have a lot on her plate of preparation.
Between charities which she is no stranger to (she used to tutor underprivileged children in her neighbourhood in her teenage years), events, gym sessions, make-up classes (like this one with Alcantara) and other must-do sessions, she will be transformed into the best candidate for Miss Universe representing the red, white and black. However while many other country candidates may have to watch what they eat and not gain weight, Mark has to gain ten pounds before pageant day. "I am actually a size double zero and so I must get up to at least size zero," she says. But as with everything else in her life she embraces each challenge with wit and grace. "Hmmm I think I'm blessed though. While other hopefuls have to cut the carbs I can eat my favourite — pigtail pelau — in peace," she muses.
A final stroke marks the end of the make-up session and the ex-pupil of Latchmi Girls' College is still celebrating her first major hurdle to realising her goal which was set some 12 years ago in a classroom. Will she succeed in her ultimate test this December as she vies for the crown amidst the rest of the crème de la crème? I think we all know the answer to that question and if we don't we need to ask the man who was sitting next to me and cheering loudly the night of the local pageant!
Clothing & Accessories: Peter Elias
Belt: Jebelles West Mall
Make-up: Kirk Thomas
Photography: Calvin French