Tall, slender and striking, Leah Marville is the type that people encourage to enter beauty pageants all the time. There are no prizes for guessing that she'd go on to represent her native Barbados at the Miss World 2009 pageant. Or that she'd become one of that year's most talked-about delegates, eventually copping the Caribbean Queen title. It's not even that much of a leap that she'd live the unlikely dream of working as an international model signed to agencies in South Africa, Germany and New York. The happy oddity is that, barely past her mid-twenties, Marville has so much more to recommend her than her looks.
She is currently in the home stretch of her certification at the Hugh Wooding Law School here in Trinidad. Late Barbadian prime minister David Thompson had encouraged her to complete her legal training notwithstanding a burgeoning career in television production and presenting and the prodigious work of The Love Campaign, a charitable organisation she founded to raise aid and awareness about HIV prevention and discrimination. As though all that's not quite enough multitasking, last year Marville's management company took over the reins of the Miss Barbados World pageant. She juggled the production of her debut show in 2011 with preparation for law school exams.
Hers is a résumé that speaks to intelligence, courage, creativity and dynamism. But how much of a role does beauty play in opening doors to opportunity and encouraging people to listen to what you have to say? Marville is resolute in her denial.
"To be honest it makes it harder," she says immediately. "I have to prove myself all the more. I've faced resentment and skepticism. I don't know how much of it might be because I'm young or female, but I've had to go above and beyond to prove myself to people. It was difficult to get sponsorship for the (Miss Barbados) show last year. People treated me as though I was not a businesswoman although they've seen what I've been able to do over and over again. Pulling off the show, I think, was the nail in the coffin. It proved that I can do what I say I can do. I don't think (my appearance) has given me any special treatment at all. In fact it's easier to do business if I talk on the telephone than if I walk into someone's office."
Marville lost her father at a young age and was raised by her mother in what she describes as a "very simple lifestyle". From age four until she first left Barbados at 21, she was part of Dance Africa, a troupe that performed everywhere from hotels to calypso artistes' Crop Over gigs. It was probably through dance that she cultivated an early comfort onstage. Yet at the start of adulthood she took the conventional path of studying law, starting her degree at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus immediately after leaving her secondary school, Queen's College.
During her final undergraduate year, a friend encouraged her to audition for Barbados Fashion Week. That's where she was discovered by Dwight Peters, CEO of Saint International, a Jamaica-based model agency. For the next four years Marville spent stints throughout the Caribbean, in New York and South Africa. While living in Cape Town she had her first lessons on the impact of HIV. A fellow model and roommate came from one of the townships. Her brother died from an AIDS-related illness. The family had to navigate both deep sorrow and the burden of being ostracised by their entire community due to the stigma of HIV.
"I did a bit of research on HIV in Barbados and realised that a lot of the problems we face are not necessarily financial or medical since the healthcare system provides adequately. But we still have challenges with stigma. You have workplaces with no nondiscrimination policies so that people end up getting laid off when they are absent from work," she said. She also reflected on her own HIV education, noting that it took a friend's pain and deeply personal story for reality to hit home.
"There have been HIV messages around for a long time," she remembered. "As a child I never used to watch the public service announcements because they seemed so daunting and were of no interest to me. We did have sexual education in schools but it was on a surface level. We never got down to the meat of anything. They felt we were too young and Barbados is a very conservative society. They were very guarded about the information they put out to us. We didn't get any of the shocking details that would make someone carefully consider their choices. My mother would always tell me about being safe but a lot of it only crystallised during the last couple years."
Marville started the Love Campaign with a view to providing contributions to the Food Bank for persons living with HIV (PLHIV), information about prevention for young people and nationwide messages of love and care for PLHIV. In fact she says her decision to enter Miss Barbados was premised on the platform it would provide for her organisation. (Marville went on to earn second place in the 2009 Miss World "beauty with a purpose" competition.) A school tour endorsed by the Ministry of Education and a range of local and regional celebrities have hosted interactive sessions with Bajan students.
"They were shocked that adolescents between ages 15 and 19 have the second highest HIV rate for the entire Caribbean. The questions that came back were shocking as well. One boy used a plastic bag to have sex if he didn't have a condom. He really didn't know much about safe sex. They asked if you could contract it by hugging or kissing someone. They didn't know that you couldn't pass on HIV through saliva but you could through breast milk," she recalled.
This ongoing project is balanced with her foray into TV. In 2008 she became a guest host for BET J Caribbean's Wicked Style. By 2009 she was the show's main presenter. The following year she took on a range of production projects including the reality programmes Young Execs and Passport 246. The latter has been syndicated on Tempo Networks. Last year she joined the cast of Splash a lifestyle Caribbean show on Centric, also featuring Trinidadian model Crystal Cunningham. She's also veered into talent management. Her latest project? Developing boyfriend Kimba Sorzano's brand.
Slowing down enough to complete her studies has been a bit of an adjustment for this dynamic young woman.
"It was difficult and continues to be difficult. I am an entrepreneur on my own schedule, travelling a lot, with everything depending on me. To go from that to being on a school schedule is a challenge but," she said "I'll get it done."