Beauty Queen with a Brain
Eschewing cosmetics and coiffure, Raquel Wright '04 devoted her year as Miss Jamaica Universe to improving public health.
A stereotype of the beauty queen comes easily to mind: the vacuous doll whose only concerns are her hairdo and makeup. Raquel Wright ’04, who recently completed her year-long reign as Miss Jamaica Universe, shatters those assumptions. She’s a brainy, witty woman who favors jeans to gowns and has used her year to advocate for public health, all during a stopover on the way to graduate school.
Raquel never intended to become an international beauty queen. But after graduating from IC, she returned home to Jamaica to work in the tourism industry while applying to graduate programs. A friend who had been Miss Jamaica 2002 called and suggested that Raquel consider entering the contest. Raquel was not so inclined. “You’re talking to a sociology major here!” she recalls saying indignantly.
That sociology major had concentrations in gender studies and race and ethnic relations, and she minored in politics. A teaching assistant for three years and resident assistant for one, she also served as vice president of the Student Government Association as a senior. Understandably, this serious woman was very skeptical about participating in something as frivolous as a beauty pageant. But recruiters from the pageant contacted her and explained that they were seeking a well-rounded role model to represent the country.
“Traditionally, such contests have had an emphasis on beauty, but I think [they’re] no longer [looking for] just a superficial physical beauty, but somebody with depth and substance,” Raquel says. “If you’re going to judge me on physical attributes, that’s fine, as long as you know there’s something deeper.” A brain, she points out, is also a physical attribute: “It may be not be readily visible to the eye, but amen, it is.”
After giving the pageant invitation some thought, Raquel decided it would be a good opportunity to demonstrate her abilities and to advocate for the needy of Jamaica.
Miss Jamaica contestants are usually sponsored by a corporation, and Raquel was no different; she competed as “Miss Carimed Antiseptic Mouthwash.” The company received free advertising in the program and tickets to the pageant, and Raquel wore its banner. In the competition Raquel confronted several challenges. She is 5'6", shorter than average among contestants, but her million-watt smile and wit won people over, garnering her the title of “Miss Congenial.” More problematic was the talent competition. “I have absolutely no talent!” she insists, no doubt thinking of singing, or playing a musical instrument, or dancing. However, she had appeared in a production of The Vagina Monologues at Ithaca College, performing “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could.” While she felt that performing that particular text would be pushing the envelope a bit too far, she did feel that she could manage a dramatic reading. She was right: her rendition of a poem about women’s empowerment brought down the house.
Raquel says she was totally surprised when her name was called out as Miss Jamaica Universe 2005. Her prize package of cash and trips was valued at about $31,000, and she received a modeling contract to represent the Deep Brilliance hair products line of Farouk Systems.
Two weeks later she headed halfway around the world with six suitcases to compete for the title of Miss Universe. “Here I was in Thailand for four weeks with 81 of the world’s most gorgeous and intelligent women,” she says. Soon after arriving she had a life-changing experience. The contestants met one morning for a briefing about the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, about which the winning Miss Universe is contracted to educate the public during her reign.
“I’m educated, I’m very aware, I have a great sense of global issues,” says Raquel, “but prior to that morning it was something I never really paid a great deal of attention to. I was absolutely shocked to see the statistics for Jamaica. Next to sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean region has the highest number of people infected with HIV. I cannot explain to you how horrified I was that my area was going to lose millions of people.”
Although Raquel did not win the title of Miss Universe (Miss Canada, Natalie Glebova, did), she came home with a clear idea of what she wanted to devote herself to during her year-long reign as Miss Jamaica Universe. “The most important aspect of my year,” she says, “was being the national spokesperson for HIV and AIDS [education].” She launched the “Lessons for Life” campaign, a global educational curriculum developed by UNICEF and supported by the Jamaican Ministry of Education, Youth, and Culture, which encourages children to discuss the impact and prevention of HIV/AIDS in their communities. Armed with a fail-safe traveling outfit of stylish boots, jeans, and tank top, Raquel traveled all over Jamaica giving lessons in schools about the issue.
Teaching HIV/AIDS prevention to students ranging from preschool to high school was challenging. But her work at Ithaca College as a TA for sociology professor Jonathan Laskowitz, she says, prepared her well. “One of the things he taught me is that you have to know how to tailor your lessons to various classes,” she says. “No two groups are going to be the same. A room full of 15-year-old girls is very different from [a room full of] boys. And it was a challenge to sit down and talk to 4-year-olds about sex and HIV awareness—we took it from an abstinence point of view.”
Most rewarding for her were the visits to outlying areas, where her presence was a real event for the communities. “Even though in life, messages are important,” she says, “I’ve learned that messengers are equally as important, especially in very rural communities. If I say something by virtue of my status as Miss Jamaica Universe, young people listen to me as a fellow young person. I realized that over this past year I have made such a difference. Being a positive role model in Jamaica is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.”
Along with changing others, Raquel found that her year changed her own perspective. “I never thought I had enough knowledge to become as involved in health policy as I was this year,” she says. “I learned that no one expects you to know all the answers and quote statistics. As long as I had the desire to learn and the passion to lend a helping hand, then others were happy to teach me the fundamentals.”
As her year drew to a close, Raquel looked to a future that contains further education. Always diverse in her interests, she applied to and was accepted into graduate programs in law, communications, social work, and public administration. “If only I could combine all my passions!” she says. For now she has decided to concentrate on legal issues, and this fall will begin studying for her law degree in Jamaica.
When asked if she will compete for more beauty titles, she is firm: “Absolutely not. This was never planned; it was just something that happened. I took advantage of it, and I’m using it as a stepping stone onto greater things.” In particular, Raquel is very much looking forward to a break from dressing up. “After all the photo shoots this year,” she vows, “I will never wear makeup for the rest of my life!”