Some accomplishments are impossible to shake. Winning an international beauty pageant is one of those red letter events that one is never really allowed to live down. And becoming the first black woman to do so only intensifies the legend.
So 35 years after her history-making Miss Universe title, Janelle Penny Commissiong-Chow is remembered during national 50th independence celebrations with grainy, black and white stills of her 24-year-old, tiara-topped incarnation. When her appointment as deputy chairman to the Tourism Development Company board was announced earlier this year, the experience media reports cited was her 1977 stint as a beauty queen rather than her several years in business. The footnote to her name (and face) is inescapable. Before sweeping up the stairs to Chaud Café's open air view of Friday evening's Woodbrook buzz, a couple cars slow down to check that it's really her. She offers a confirmatory smile.
Commissiong-Chow gives the impression of being resigned to being defined by her competition win and her looks.
"My husband says 'the person who thinks you're just a pretty face is in for a surprise'," she recalls with a chuckle. As it turns out, she'd always been adept at dishing out shockers that people don't quite expect from petite, dimpled ladies. She suspected that her first Miss Universe chaperone was more than a little uncomfortable with her race.
"Don't think that you're the most beautiful," the handler once told her derisively.
"This company you work for told me that I am," Penny retorted.
A couple run-ins later, Commissiong-Chow had had enough. She phoned the Miss Universe Vice President to issue an ultimatum, only to be informed that the chaperone had just resigned.
A dozen years on, that fighter's spirit would manifest in trying circumstances. Her first husband, Brian Bowen, died in an accident. Everyone expected her to sell Bowen Marine, the powerboat manufacturing company he founded.
"I wanted to continue what Brian had spent his life developing," she says. "I felt I had nothing to lose." At the time she had been completing the programme of study at the Fashion Institute of Technology that she'd started before returning to T&T in 1976. She knew nothing about boats. Running the company was a crazy proposition. The bank wouldn't even continue its line of credit to the business. Here was a scenario where being a former beauty queen actually undermined confidence.
"I went into the factory two days after the funeral. I didn't know what a mould was, really. I had to learn that business one day at a time," she remembers. For the first two weeks an accountant on the team showed her the ropes. But when he announced a staff meeting and glibly advised that she wasn't needed, she fired him on the spot.
"Everybody thought I was crazy. They wondered what I was going to do now. But you have to go with your gut instinct. I knew that if I allowed that, it would have been the end of it for me," she recalls.
This was the quintessential man's world. The only other female on the compound was the receptionist. The clients were all men on the market for "high-priced toys". And she got the distinct sense that some of them resented doing business with a woman.
"They would try to beat you down (on price). I developed a reputation of 'that one is a bitch, boy'," she says. It doesn't bother her in the least. Over the next 14 years Commissiong-Chow not only kept the company in business but expanded its reach. She streamlined and standardised production. She brought to bear her knack for detailing ("Finishing a boat is like finishing a house.") And she increased the brand's visibility, expanding to markets up the island chain, as far as Puerto Rico. In 2004 she sold the company, drawing the curtains on what she calls her "personal greatest accomplishment."
It stands to reason. Business had long been Commissiong-Chow's career goal. In fact her motivation for entering Miss Trinidad and Tobago was to build name recognition for the boutique she planned to set up. During her unexpected reign she bought exotic handbags and shawls everywhere she went with the store in mind. And with the job of Miss Universe at an end, she opted for a cash prize instead of a contract with Paramount Pictures and set up her store on upper Frederick Street. Matter-of-fact about her goals, she soon found that they didn't square with some people's expectations.
"People want to see you in that image. They didn't think that's what I should have done. The Trini audience is more testing the closer you are to them. I've learned not to take on what anyone says. Nothing at this stage bothers me because I know my life and I know who I am. I know when I'm not comfortable with myself and when I have to do work. I'm completely comfortable in my skin," she says.
Now almost 60, she's still haltingly beautiful. But from today's vantage point she's a little cynical about the importance people assign to physical beauty, calling it a "powerful distraction".
"Ultimately what goes into what you see is who you are. I laugh off the emphasis on the physical. I come from a family with tremendously great genes," she allows. "I can't take the credit."
Commissiong-Chow reflects on what her title meant to people. Keshorn Walcott comes to mind. She remembers the filled-to-capacity airport, the throngs in Port of Spain and Scarborough, the creeping realisation of just how big of a deal this thing really was. She remembers a woman running after her motorcade to give her an African carving. She's kept it to this day. A necklace she'd been given by an Indian tribe in Oklahoma broke a couple years ago and she was heartbroken. She remembers as well her welcome by aborigines in Perth, Australia. Upon mature reflection, she wasn't just the first black queen.
"I think it meant something to people of colour across the world at a time when one mainly Caucasian standard of beauty was presented to all of us," she says.
Asked about the new era of local pageantry and scandals ranging from topless photo-shoots to leaked sex tapes, Commissiong-Chow firmly refuses to go on record.
"I try not to have a public opinion. Would I have done some of the things? No. But that's their life and they have to manage it. It's always easy to have an opinion about people you don't know. I don't think it's for me to comment on other people's choices. It's their lives, their challenges!" she says.
She's in the process of writing a book about her life. Unsurprisingly, it isn't going to be just about her fleeting beauty queen stint and its enduring ripples. She recalls her overnight baby-sitting jobs in New York as a teen, her juggling college and work, the hard-won lessons and successes she's had in the business world. She isn't quite sure what her 18-year-old daughter makes of having a mother that people recognise as the quintessential beauty queen, but she wants to drive home the point that she's never just been around for her good looks.