Sandra Kong - The Jamaica beauty queen who withdrew from Miss World
In 1976, the Government of Jamaica did not allow a Miss Jamaica pageant to be held. As such, on paper, there is no Miss Jamaica 1976 winner. Still, Cindy Breakspeare was given permission to wear the Jamaica sash and participate in Miss World 1976. As history would have it, Breakspeare became the second Jamaican to win the global pageant. But her win did not faze the Jamaican Government as a year later, it still did not allow the Miss Jamaica pageant to be reinstated. But the organisers of the pageant were looking for the same privileges granted to Breakspeare, to be offered to another young woman. The person chosen was a 19-year-old named Sandra Kong, who was the favourite of many to win the 1977 Miss World contest.
SANDRA’S RISE TO PAGEANT QUEEN
Born on May 31, 1958, Sandra Kong graduated from Wesley Powell’s Excelsior School in 1975. Displaying a strong interest in athletics from a young age, she then went to work as a bunny at the Playboy Hotel. In this position, she felt that “it could prove an exciting vehicle to international exposure and, perhaps, greater opportunities”. An opportunity did come soon after when she won the Jamaica Playboy Bunny-of-the-Year Award, where she earned a spot to compete in the International Bunny-of-the-Year contest, held in Los Angeles. She didn’t win, but it certainly fuelled her drive to be a successful beauty queen.
Upon returning home, she made her way to Spartan Health Club. Her goal was to refine and sharpen her physique to fit the winning criteria that pageant judges were looking for. In a 1977 interview with The Gleaner, Spartan owner Micky James Haughton recalled: “I was overawed by the terrific confidence of the young girl, and so I employed her immediately as a physical instructor and put her through a crash programme to fit her for the job. I was in for still greater surprises. She took on the instructions like a duck to water, and right away, I had visions of shelves full of trophies in my gymnasium. I was even callous enough to begin gauging just how much projection my health studio would get from Sandra’s anticipated triumphs at home and abroad.”
Kong’s hard work and discipline paid off. In early 1977, she entered her first major open body-beautiful contest, Miss Caribbean. Her win then propelled her to compete in the Miss West Indies pageant held in Paris. She also won that pageant, which gave her entry into the London Miss Universe Bikini contest. That contest was being held in August, but even before that pageant, she entered and eventually won the Miss Jamaica Body Beautiful competition. During her participation in the Miss London Universe pageant, she was by far the crowd favourite. Eventually, she placed second as the crown went to the British representative, Bridgett Gibbons, whose win announcement was met with a surprised and silent crowd. Still, Kong did gain a lot from that competition. She took up an offer to do posing jobs in Turkey for an attractive fee. Then there came her modelling tour of Germany.
With all of these accolades, the next step was representing Jamaica in the Miss World pageant. Kong would be an automatic pick to represent the country as that year, and the previous year, there was no Miss Jamaica pageant being held in the country, per the Government’s instruction. Still, Kong was confident and excited about the contest; and she was not alone. It seems like the whole media were behind her as The Gleaner did an entire profile and photo spread of her on October 23, 1977. It was titled ‘Sandra Sets Her Sights on Miss World’. She told the newspaper, “I am praying and hoping that my next move will be on to the victory podium in London at the Miss World contest next month.” Yet it was not to be as weeks after her media profile, she withdrew from participating in the global beauty pageant at the request of the Jamaican Government.
MISS WORLD AND APARTHEID
The reason for Kong’s withdrawal from the contest was due to the legalised system of segregation - apartheid - occurring in South Africa at this time.. Jamaica had always taken a stance against Apartheid. During the late 1950s, Jamaica became one of the first countries to ban trade from South Africa. Then in October 1966, Hugh Shearer, in his capacity as Jamaica’s chief spokesman on foreign affairs, went on to speak against the apartheid government at a United Nations meeting. In his speech, he stated, “How much longer will the United Nations stand impotently by and allow this organised system in human degradation to continue?” Throughout the 1960s, other countries and organisations across the world attacked the apartheid government and placed sanctions on the country. Due to these global sanctions on the government, another organisation was being called upon to do the same to South Africa — the Miss World Organisation.
In 1970, the global beauty pageant was being held in London. Regarding the numerous calls for them to bar South Africa from participating, the organisers allowed South Africa to enter two contestants: a white woman Miss South Africa and a non-white woman Miss Africa South. In that year, Miss Africa South was a black woman name Pearl Jansen who, incidentally, was the first non-white competitor to represent the country. In the end, the first black Grenadian to ever enter the contest, Jennifer Hosten, was declared the winner, becoming the first black woman to win the contest, while Jansen was the runner-up. What is of note is that some sources have it that Jamaica’s Carole Joan Crawford, Miss World 1963, was the first black woman to win Miss World.
With the positive press of a black woman winning and another black woman coming second, Miss World continued to allow South Africa to send up two contestants throughout the decades. But in 1976, with increased state violence against black people in South Africa, including the horrific massacre of black school children in Soweto, the Miss World organisers allowing the government to continue to send up two contestants was seen as “legitimising the apartheid government”. As such, many countries, including Jamaica, decided to boycott the event. This is why there was no Miss Jamaica pageant being held that year.
However, an agreement was made for Haughton’s protégé, Breakspeare, to enter Miss World 1976, while wearing the country’s sash. As history would have it, Breakspeare went on to win the 1976 Miss World competition. Still, there was little acknowledgement of the win by the Government, so in December of the same year, she returned to the island without the usual celebratory fanfare that countries would have for their Miss World winners. When asked about her participation in the event upon her return to the island, The Gleaner, in a December 27, 1976, article titled “Cindy Comes In Quietly” reported, “Cindy said that if the Government of Jamaica had officially asked her to withdraw, she would have done so. She said she had no communication from them or any other organisation asking her to withdraw … Cindy’s view was that it was not altogether reasonable for other countries to withdraw from the contest because of the participation of South Africa.” Breakspeare said, “I am strongly averse to apartheid, but South Africa had come to this agreement with Mecca that although this year they sent one white and one black girl, next year, they would make their contest a truly multiracial one, and this seemed to me quite fair … . It was certainly never my intention to go against the wishes of the Government. As far as I was concerned, it was part of a personal plan to try to get somewhere in life.”
Breakspeare was indeed correct. In 1977, only one contestant was sent to represent South Africa as their contest was open to all races. However, the Jamaican Government still did not reinstate the Miss Jamaica pageant on the island as South Africa was still allowed to compete in Miss World. Thus, it was decided that the same privileges that allowed Breakspeare to compete would also be given to Kong. However, she was asked by the Government not to contest the pageant, and she did not. According to a November 19, 1977, editorial in The Gleaner, Miss Kong “herself believed that Miss South Africa’s presence made it impossible for her to continue”. In 1978, the Miss World organisation banned the participation of South Africa altogether, so the Jamaican Government reinstated the pageant that year. Joan McDonald was crowned Miss Jamaica World 1978.
KONG AFTER 1977
Despite the events of 1977, Kong continued to compete in pageants. In 1978, she was one of three Jamaican women who were picked to compete in the Miss Universe Bikini contest. In September 1978, she was crowned the winner of the body-building contest. Almost a year later, she contested the Miss Jamaica World pageant. During that pageant, she was booed by sections of the audience which, apparently, was still upset that she had withdrawn from the 1977 Miss World pageant. Kong ended up placing third behind the runner-up, Audie Culliton-Moore, and the winner, Debbie Campbell. Throughout her early 20s, she continued to work as a freelance photographic model.
Kong’s legacy still stands as a multiawarded body-building and beauty queen, and she is one of the few beauty queens worldwide who have withdrawn from a global beauty contest when she was asked to boycott. In Jamaica, it is safe to say she is one of the very few who have done so as even after her beauty pageant run, there would be other Jamaica beauty queens who participated in global pageants despite calls for them to boycott. For instance, in 2002, in the wake of other countries’ representatives boycotting if Nigeria was allowed to host the Miss World 2002 pageant, there were calls in the Jamaica media for the country to do the same. Nigeria came under intense international backlash after a woman was sentenced to death by stoning for apparently committing adultery and having a child out of wedlock. The man who was accused of being the father of the child was freed. In the end, Jamaica’s representative, Danielle O’Hayon, still contested the pageant, which was held in Nigeria as planned. Then almost two years ago, there were calls for Miss Jamaica Universe 2021, Daena Soares, to boycott the global pageant as it was being hosted in Israel. Soares competed.
A portion of this article was taken from the Lest We Forget podcast episode titled ‘Jamaican Beauty Queens & Apartheid’. J.T. Davy is a member of the historical and political content collective Tenement Yaad Media, where she co-produces their popular historical podcast, Lest We Forget. She is also a writer at the regional collective Our Caribbean Figures. Send feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.