As the latest series of Caribbean’s Next Top Model hits screens, MindMeet talks with Head Judge—and former Miss Universe—Wendy Fitzwilliam, on Dickens, divine presence, and everything in between.
AH: Does being crowned Miss Universe give you a unique sense of what “beauty” means?
WF: While I was at the University of the West Indies studying law, they tried to introduce a beauty pageant and wanted me to represent the Faculty of Law. I stood up and gave a speech on how archaic and dehumanizing pageants are. My lecturers thought I’d be the last person in the world to participate in a beauty pageant. Three years later, I was crowned Miss Universe.
The first pageant I took part in was Miss Trinidad and Tobago—I was entered by a friend, and won. And the second was Miss Universe. I was never your typical pageant girl. But I developed a tremendous amount of respect for the young women who participate in these events, going through it myself. I learned that, like everything else in life, what you’re bringing informs what you take from a beauty pageant. I was raised as a hard worker, fair and kind, and that’s what I think I brought to the pageant world.
So beauty, having gone through the Universe experience myself as a competitor and a judge on three occasions, is not just about the physical—it’s beauty as distinct from pretty; pretty is just, to me, physical. The girls who win are the girls, 99% of the time, who give a little more—whose eyes read as real, who are engaging, who can walk into a room and command attention, not just because of their prettiness.
AH: It’s a balance of beauty and something intangible, but authentic.
WF: Exactly. After winning Miss Universe, my homecoming was insane. There were thousands and thousands of Trinidadians lining the streets everywhere I went for an entire week – at the airport, they would sleep outside of the hotel, send me roses, Hindu prayers, Hindu deities… everything! At the end of the week, I said to my grandmother, “Granny, how am I ever going to live up to their expectations? There’s no way.” At that point, my public persona had, in my head, far surpassed who I was as a human being. And my granny said to me, “Being you got you to this point; being you is going to see you through for the rest of your life. You just continue to be you.” And that meant the world to me.
I am a woman of faith, shamelessly, and you can’t buy that quality, you can’t train it into someone. So, the women and men who stand the test of time and who may not even be in the spotlight – they have a combination of the physical and the indefinable. That ethereal quality, I call it. Pageants like Miss Universe look for that, I can promise you. To see that there is a soul behind the symmetrically aligned features.
AH: Do you feel a connection to something larger than yourself, to this idea that we are all connected to something bigger?
WF: Absolutely. I prefer to wake up an hour earlier than I have to every day so I can have my quiet time in the morning and center myself, and chat with God. Even if some people think I’m talking to myself when I pray, I believe I’m talking to God, to a higher being who has my back, and it helps me calm down and work my way through it.
Religions are man-made, so all of them have flaws. Every single one. Big flaws, little flaws – you patch it up and you move on. It’s not hard and fast. You find the religion that works for you, if you need one to facilitate your relationship with a higher being.
AH: Can you tell me what balance means to you?
WF: It’s not about having it all, but having equilibrium. Being comfortable with wherever you are. It’s being content in your professional life, even if things aren’t perfect. Even if you’re having a killer day, you know that, overall, you are on the path you want to be on, and it’s not overtaking your personal life. It’s enjoying my kid to the max and striving all the time, dogmatically, to do that.
And you also have to learn how to pull back and find that time for you, every single day.
AH: And what does love mean to you?
WF: Over the years, my definition of love has changed so dramatically. Before my son’s birth, love was all about me and my satisfaction. Until Ailan’s birth, I don’t think I really understood what love was. But, even once I found out I was carrying this child, my life became about loving him and that meant doing whatever was best for him – sometimes to my detriment but, 99% of the time, to my benefit as well.
Love is about being selfless. It’s about losing control in the healthiest way imaginable: I don’t have control over the way I feel about my child. Even when he’s irritating me to death, I still love him. And that has informed the way I now love my parents, my sister, my friends, my boyfriend… I can’t turn it off. That’s out of my control now, and that’s love.
AH: You’re a literature enthusiast. Is there a story or a book that particularly moved you?
WF: I studied Great Expectations at O-Level and think of it often. Miss Havisham’s definition of love really stands out to me. She said,
“Love is a blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter.”
True, you have to give up a little bit of who you are to love, which is scary. But this version of love – (Miss Havisham’s) is missing something, though. It’s missing the growth and healing that comes from falling deeply in love.
Another important element of love is finding yourself, and that’s how you know what love is. When you become much more comfortable with you. A relationship you have with your child, with a significant other, or with a friend that helps you to grow into your own skin – that’s a huge part of love.
AH: It’s an important distinction you make – that we have to know how to love ourselves before we can extend that same love out to others.
WF: Very, very much so. If you don’t have it, you can’t give it.
Wendy’s MindMeet charity is Shashamane Sunrise, registered in America as well as the Caribbean and Africa. They work to rehabilitate schools in rural communities in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Jamaica, Trinidad and Haiti. Wendy says, “What I love is that they never turn their backs on these schools. They don’t build their own schools but work with ones already in the community, upgrading the academic programs. They use the current students – the kids who are studying now at these schools—to administer the program. It’s phenomenal”.