The loud sound of high heels stepping firmly on a wooden floor can be heard from outside the room. “Two more minutes and I’ll see all of you individually,” says a voice over the ruckus.Inside a Croydon community centre, nine girls are rehearsing their steps for the Miss Guyana UK Beauty Pageant. “I want to see you make a difference. Not just a crown on your heads,” Tracy Benjamin, one of the organisers, tells them.
The pageant started back in 1994, initially founded by Tracy’s sister Felicia, but stopped running after a few years due to a lack of funds. “Sponsorship has always been a problem, but we decided to come back this year and so far the response has been quite overwhelming,” says Benjamin.
The girls meet at the Croydon Voluntary Action resource centre every Sunday evening, where they prepare for hours with the help of the organisers and a few coaches.
The most important reason behind the pageant is “to put Guyana on the map”, says Benjamin. “It is all about representing our country and introducing the history and culture of Guyana to the young ladies and to the vast community.”
But the event also has a charitable side: contestants must come up with ideas that revolve around charitable work and the winner will present a donation cheque to a charity of choice in both Guyana and the UK.
This year, 11 girls will be competing in the pageant that will take place on November 17 in Brixton. The contestants all have a Guyanese connection, either through heritage or birth, and come from all walks of life, from students and freelancers with no modeling experience, to experienced pageant girls and models. “These are just everyday girls – and that’s the beauty of it,” says Benjamin.
“We groom them, shape them and it’s exciting to see a transformation in all of them. They become so confident by the end of it. We’ve had girls coming in that were really shy in the beginning.”
Although there is a limited budget for the pageant, sponsorship is something that each girl has to find on her own. Zena Bland, 21, one of this year’s contestants, says: “I don’t think it’s that difficult, at least not for me. My mom offered to be my sponsor, so it’s fine. I’ve worked with loads of organisations, but she really wants to do it.”
The reasons behind the girls’ participation in the pageant are unanimous: to represent their country and help it out, they say. “It is something I’m definitely doing for myself. I was born there and it is an honour to represent my country,” says Savitrie Ramlagan, 28. Farah Sattaur, 26, adds: “I definitely want to work with charities. There is a cause. I’m not just here for the modeling.”
Not that all of the girls have ever been to the mother country. Simone Gomes, 26, says: “Both my parents are from Guyana, and I’ve never been. But I’ve seen pictures and it is gorgeous. The waterfalls, everything.”
Instead of feeling nervous, the girls admit that they feel rather excited about the upcoming event. They also speak about the friendships that have been created throughout the rehearsals. Although the pageant is a competition, Sattaur says: “You can’t help but bond, we’re all here for the same reasons.”
Besides having the opportunity to work with charities, the winner will also get two weeks’ all expenses paid travel to Guyana, plus £500 and the chance to represent Guyana in other international pageants.
The jury will comprise of a wide range of people coming from different ethnic backgrounds and work fields such as journalists and local figures. Traditional, swimwear and eveningwear are the three rounds that the girls will have to partake in.
“We expect a really good turnout this year,” says Benjamin. “We welcome everyone to come – not just Guyanese people, but everyone can come and watch the show.”