Wendy Fitzwilliam had always been the sort who considered her options. As a girl she had her father take her to the Fashion Institute of Technology whenever her family vacationed in New York. She sauntered around the campus, picked up that year's academic prospectus, sat in on lectures by Donna Karen and Calvin Klein. Perhaps, she thought, she might have a career in the fashion industry. Or be a very stylish lawyer. Or a chic diplomat.
One Miss Universe reign, a legal education and a stint in investment promotion later, Fitzwilliam has decided on a wide-ranging career in media. The two-year-old radio show she produces and hosts for Heartbeat 103.5FM has a listenership of more than 300,000 from places as far-flung as Brazil and South Africa. Last year she took on challenges on both sides of the camera for the mammoth task of creating the Caribbean's Next Top Model, a regional version of the blockbuster international TV franchise. And now she's revisiting the music industry promise that was foreshadowed when in 1998 she served up a few silky bars from the jazz standard, "Them there eyes" on the Miss Universe stage.
Except this foray into the entertainment business probably isn't what people would expect. Hell, it isn't something Fitzwilliam contemplated until just four months ago. 2005 Miss USA, Chelsea Cooley came up with the idea of an international beauty queen pop girl group. Fitzwilliam's initial reaction was: "Really Chelsea? Really?" But she agreed to an experimental studio session and found herself pleasantly surprised by the resulting sound which she describes as "pop with urban riffs". The BQ (short for Beauty Queen) Girls quartet includes Yi Na, third runner-up and talent winner of Miss China Universe 2011 and 16-year old World's Glamorous Teen 2012 winner, Haley Seibert (the rapper of the bunch).
From the Virginia mountain home of group manager, Dr A T Gunn, the BQ Girls are finessing their dance moves, vocals and fitness. They've already recorded a number of songs which Fitzwilliam describes as "feel good, happy music" that's "easy to remember and just a good jam". "Runway", their debut single, is due for release on ITunes next month. They're appearing on Nickelodeon's Operation Smile concert series in Tampa and Los Angeles in October. And the group has already auditioned for Donald Trump in a bid to perform on the Miss Universe stage in December.
"I think out of the gates the pageant world is our core, but the music does easily transcend that world," she explained. "For me it's just like a pageant. Before I won Miss Universe I thought it was kind of silly and vain… that these girls have to be ditzy and dumb. But like pageantry it's a great launching pad. It's no longer about having a hit on the radio… it's about merchandising, beauty deals, other opportunities to sell."
Notwithstanding the mainstream music industry's preoccupation with the package, Fitzwilliam insists that one actually has to have talent. ("It's hard to jump and sing, she laughs.) She hopes that the group's draw would be a broad-based as its members. In the US they're targeting the young "tween" demographic and her own appeal is "youthful", but she's banking on interest from different age-groups across the world.
Never one to wear only one hat, Fitzwilliam is working with her sister Dionyse to finalise distribution details for Caribbean's Next Top Model (CNTM). They hope to have the series air from November on CBS's One Caribbean Weather station so that countries across the region can view it simultaneously. In the meantime Blue Collar Productions is completing its post-production work. Fitzwilliam reiterates that this project is the first pan-Caribbean canned programme and is absolutely giddy about the production quality and storylines, describing the completed episodes as "spectacular". She's forthright, however, about the fact that getting to this point has been something of a minefield.
"This must have been what Christopher Columbus felt when he discovered the Americas. He leaves Spain to find Asia, sails for much longer that he anticipated having no idea how wide the Atlantic is and gets here to find all sorts of things he never knew existed. But had it not been for their hardship we would not be here now. Top Model has been identical with its twists and turns. I am very proud of us and the work we are capable of doing. It was very difficult for the team but I hope also very enriching. We hadn't done anything like this before and it was more chaotic than it should have been. It's always tough when you start new ventures but if it was easy everyone would be doing it," she said. "Everybody has stress. It's how you handle it that counts. You put one foot in front the other when the chips are down and press on."
Not willing to divulge any of the storyline, Fitzwilliam promised that CNTM will serve up all the glamour and drama that Top Model fans love. But there's something more. Whereas other incarnations are national, the Caribbean version includes representatives from several countries and just about every instalment is a destination episode with tropical locations.
"It is the first show of this kind developed in and for the Caribbean that will be aired across the region. A chick in Martinique will be looking at it at the same time as someone from St Maarten and the Dominican Republic. And because countries are competing against each other that engenders that sort of Olympic type mentality where you're rooting for your country or aligning yourself with your neighbours," she explained. Fitzwilliam insisted that Caribbean people want to see themselves on television doing something other than "complaining about no water and potholes in the road".
Apart from being committed to yet another Top Model season, there are other projects in the pipeline. Fitzwilliam has been contracted by Caribbean Prestige Foundation to handle public relations for Soca Monarch 2013.
"It's a wonderful product that enjoys a tremendous amount of goodwill. My job is to ensure its quality as a TV production and sell it the way I know it can be sold abroad," she noted. She's also working on a pilot for a lifestyle and food programme. Though not completely removed, these projects are quite distinct from her former career attracting business developments in high value manufacturing and information technology to Trinidad and Tobago through eTecK. She had been contemplating the shift to media and entertainment but made the transition earlier than expected when last year a new board decided to restructure the company and advertised all but one executive position, including her own. She opted not to reapply. Her new incarnation allows her to put her Miss Universe connections to good use.
"The title in and of itself is wonderful but it is a stepping stone. From the minute I won Miss Universe I viewed it as a great temporary job that gives you a significant leg up to build an amazing global network. It all depends on the personality of the title holder and what you want out of it," she said.
And what she wants is a multi-media business presence with regional and international reach.
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