Jamaica’s trailblazing Afro beauty queens
In November of 2017, Davina Bennett became the second runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant, where she gained local and international attention for participating in an afro. Still, 45 years before Bennett’s celebratory moment regarding the hair politics of beauty pageants, Jamaica would have its first Miss Universe contestant to wear an afro in a global pageant. That beauty queen was Marilyn Wright, who represented Jamaica in the 1972 Miss Universe pageant. Almost two years later, Andrea Lyon became the first Miss Jamaica to wear an afro when she participated in the Miss World 1974. As this year marks the fifth anniversary of World Afro Day, we look at how these two women helped lay the groundwork of black hair politics in local and international beauty pageant.
Marilyn Wright got her start on Jamaica’s beauty queen circuit when she participated in the June 1971 staging of Miss City of Kingston. Wright, then 18 years old and working as a stenographer, was the first runner-up in the contest where the crown went to Grace Andrea Douglas. Ironically, both Wright and Douglas were members of the recently disintegrated dance group, the Sparks.
Soon after, she contested the Miss Jamaica pageant of 1971. She placed second in that contest behind Ava Joy Gill, who eventually went on to place fourth at the global Miss World 1971 pageant. Still, because Wright placed second in the Miss Jamaica pageant, she was awarded the title of Miss Independence 1971, which automatically qualified her to represent Jamaica at the 1972 staging of Miss Universe.
However, before she participated in the global pageant, she left Jamaica for the United States to begin a four-year degree in physiotherapy at Howard University. By mid-1972, Wright returned to the island to undertake her regal duties and began preparation for the global pageant. In July, she left the island with her chaperone, Gloria Astwood, to participate in the Miss Universe 1972 pageant being held in Puerto Rico. Although she did not make the top 12 at the pageant, her afro was on full display, thus making her the first Miss Universe contestant to wear an afro in a global pageant, and one of the first black women to ever do so in a global beauty pageant.
Almost two years after Wright’s reign, the Miss Jamaica pageant would have it first afro-wearing winner, Andrea Lyon.
In 1974, the year Andrea Lyon won the Miss Jamaica pageant, eight of the 15 women in the local contest wore an afro. One can theorise this was a result of the backlash Patsy Yuen, a Chinese-Jamaican, faced when she won the 1973 Miss Jamaica pageant. Even though she broke the tradition of “light-skinned and white passing Miss Jamaica winners”, she had to allocate a lot of her time defending her Jamaicanness, locally and internationally. Yuen would place third in the Miss World pageant and eventually took on the winner’s duties when the winner, Majorie Wallace, was fired as Miss World, and Miss Philippines, the first runner-up, refused to take up duties without being given the title. This somewhat replacement as Miss World 1973 made Yuen a local and international celebrity in her own right but the backlash of her Miss Jamaica win was still on the minds of many black Jamaicans. This is a Jamaica where, just a few years previously in 1965, the country had its third anti-Chinese riot. Thus, in 1974 when Andrea Lyon won, her afro, one of the most popular symbols of black liberation during the 1960s and early ‘70s, took centrestage.
Having won the pageant, Lyon, then a 22-year-old flight stewardess, went on to represent Jamaica in the Miss World pageant being held in London in November in 1972. Participating in her afro, Lyon placed in the top 15 of the pageant where Miss United Kingdom was announced the winner. Yet, her black politics did not just end with her fashion. At a press conference held immediately after the contest, Lyon was asked if she thought her loss was because of her afro. She declined to answer but instead used her platform to highlight the plight and discrimination that black women, as well as Asian women, faced in the pageant. As The Gleaner reported in a November 25, 1974 article, “Andrea Lyon said that she did not believe that black girls had a chance of winning the Miss World title – at least not in the immediate future ... Andrea had a complaint about the English press. No attention was paid to coloured representatives ... and the girls were not interviewed either. However, Miss Lyon said it was not the black girls alone who were dealt with unfairly but representatives from Asia.”
Years after Marilyn Wright and Andrea Lyon graced the world stage in their afros, Jamaica would have its first dark-skinned Miss Jamaica, Joan McDonald, who was crowned Miss Jamaica World 1978. Not only was she a dark-skinned black woman, but she also participated in an afro. Like McDonald, many other women continue to participate in local pageants wearing afros. In her first Instagram post following her second runner-up win, when Bennett wrote, “I did not win but I got what I was seeking. I won the hearts of many, I got to highlight deaf awareness, I stand as the first afro queen to have made it thus far”, she built upon the legacy of black afro-wearing Jamaican beauty queens.
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 e firstname.lastname@example.org.