How Two Black Pageant Queens Exposed the World’s Beauty Biases
|Mar 22, 2019|
The night that Janelle “Penny” Commissiong became the first Black Miss Universe was a historic moment. It was July 16, 1977, well into a decade defined by the explosive Black Power Movement and a coinciding aesthetic that amplified Black women’s natural beauty. A global delegation of contestants from 80 countries traveled to Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, to compete for the title of Miss Universe.
Despite previous winners from Asia and South America, the pageant had been slow to break from the Eurocentric beauty standards that informed its 26-year history. Participants of color complained more than once that photographers deliberately ignored them during photo shoots and telecasts. Still, 16 Black women were among the contenders that night in 1977, most of them from the Caribbean and African countries. Commissiong, the reigning Miss Trinidad and Tobago, was the only one selected to move forward to the semifinals.
Commissiong was soft-spoken but confident, with deep dimples and a hazelnut complexion infused by her Trini and Venezuelan heritage. At 24 years old, Penny had a natural poise that surpassed the typical pageant girl grooming. She’d already won Miss Photogenic but suspected it was a preemptive consolation prize. Experts didn’t count her as a favorite for the crown (their pick was Miss Austria, Eva Duringer), but being dismissed as a non-contender made Commissiong even more determined to win. She strutted in the standard-issue bathing suit, answered a ridiculous interview question with an unflappable cool, and swaggered through the evening gown competition in a luminous gold column dress.
At the end of the night, as the four finalists stood anxiously in tandem, host Bob Barker announced the third and second runners-up, making Duringer and Commissiong the last two women standing. Seconds later, he introduced Janelle Commissiong as Miss Universe 1977.
Dionne Warwick, one of two Black judges who served on the 12-person panel that evening, wept unapologetic tears of pride. Later she said, “I felt as if I had won.” For the first time on an international pageant platform, Black beauty, intelligence, and grace had been the unanimous best. It was a personal victory for Commissiong, but her win made her a queen to Black girls and women who could see themselves in her, even those who’d competed against her that same night.
“You're in a pageant and it's a competition. Everyone's eyeing each other. When I look back at the tape now, at the point when I was announced and I sat down, all of the contestants of color were running towards me. That’s because we knew what we went through. I'll never forget, Miss Liberia was sobbing. It was very emotional,” said Commissiong, now 65 and still a resident of Trinidad. “It was a victory for every woman of color who was in that competition. Winning for Trinidad is great, but I've recognized that it was for everyone, not just for me. That’s what means so much to me.”
In the 1970s, America’s general perception of beauty was filtered through a Farrah Fawcett lens. She was the mainstream prototype — tanned skin, wispy blonde hair, thin but athletic build — that dictated who and what was considered appealing. Miss USA Kimberly Tomes, a blonde from Texas who competed with Commissiong on the Miss Universe stage that year, possessed that list of rote, stereotypically all-American qualities. But even white women were having a hard time reaching that bar and the decade saw a significant increase in diagnosed cases of anorexia. Pageant queens, in particular, were expected to look one way, “You know, 5'10", blonde,” Commissiong said. And because she didn’t, trolls sent hate mail to her home and the Miss Universe headquarters.
Mainstream media did the absolute least to celebrate the new queen. The New York Times covered her historic victory in a photoless, four-sentence blurb on the bottom of page 9. The Baltimore Sun published a brief story titled “First black wins Miss Universe contest” which was only slightly bigger than an advertisement beneath it for a JoS. A. Bank’s summer suit sale. Black newspapers like The Amsterdam News, however, captured the sense of community and shared excitement in front-page stories that led with electric headlines: “Caribbean Beauty is Miss Universe: We’re Proud of Her.”
A groundbreaking victory was a catalyst. In 1983, Vanessa Williams experienced the same contagious joy when she became the first Black woman to win the Miss America pageant. “To be able to make history and a worldwide effect — unintentionally — as tremendous. Nearly 35 years later, people say, ‘It was our accomplishment’ and ‘You're my Miss America and you make me feel beautiful.’ It was definitely a communal triumph for people who saw me get crowned,” Williams remembers.
She was a 20-year-old college student then and, unlike Commissiong who was relatively new to pageants, Williams rocketed through them — not for the glory and prestige, but the scholarship money to finish her bachelor’s degree in musical theater at Syracuse University. The daughter of two music teachers, she was smart and stunning, and translated both qualities masterfully on each stage she walked. Williams won the local Miss Syracuse competition in April 1983, Miss New York in July, and then Miss America in September. In just six months, Williams went from an average college co-ed to the most prestigious pageant titleholder in the country.
But this is America and, to the patriotic zealots and rabid racists, notable positions are spaces exclusively reserved for whiteness. Williams had experienced overt prejudices before, but her win exposed her to outright violence. “I had death threats. I had Secret Service. I had an FBI file of hateful stuff. I had snipers on the top of buildings when I had my homecoming. This was 1983, so it had nothing to do with beauty. It had to do with color,” she said.
Her history-making turn translated into more appearances than previous winners, more interview demands, more media attention. Among African Americans, her blue eyes and honey-toned skin were conversation starters about how Black is Black enough but, at the same time, she was more closely scrutinized by the general public still adjusting to the idea of a Miss America with color.
Then nude photos of her surfaced. Williams had posed for them under the assumption of privacy when she was just 19 and the photographer — who’d promised that only her silhouette would be discernible — capitalized by selling the images to Penthouse. The images played into a long history of the hypersexualization of Black women as morally vapid seductresses and the Miss America organization, which prided in its wholesome reputation, pressured Williams to resign just seven weeks before the end of her tenure. She did, also hoping to spare her parents and community the shame of the scandalized story.
The African American community threw its support behind her, recognizing that the highest crime wasn’t the photos themselves but the strategic destruction of the first Black Miss America’s reign and reputation. Internal debates ensued: should she have stepped down? Should she have fought for the crown she worked for and rightfully deserved? But externally, Black folks were a largely united front. “Vanessa was chosen Miss America based on beauty, poise, personality, and talent. Are they now saying that they made a big mistake and that those qualities are no longer accepted because of what happened two years ago?” a reader wrote in a published letter to the editor of Ebony magazine. “It’s becoming very obvious to me that when it comes to being Black (no matter how light you may be), the rules can be changed or broken.”
Williams estimates the scandal and her attempts to recover from it set her back nearly 10 years, both personally and professionally. Once, she auditioned to replace model and actress Twiggy in a Broadway musical called My One and Only. She was excellent, and the director who’d invited her to try out told her so. He also regretfully informed her that executive producer Lee Gershwin told him, "I just want it to be clear: I don’t want that whore in my play.” The scarlet letter followed Williams for years as she carved out a career in entertainment. In any industry or field, the space that Black women occupy has been forged, not offered. Williams triumphed twice: the initial victory of winning and the eventual overcoming of the controversy designed to destroy her and her career.
There’s a certain amount of self-sacrifice that goes along with being the first to break down a barrier, and it must be measured carefully against the projected outcome. Commissiong, Williams, and other pageant queens who weaponized their beauty and poise — among them, Suzette Charles, Williams’ runner-up and eventual Miss America replacement and Carole Ann Marie Gist, the first Black Miss USA — fought to make Black women seen and demanded equal respect for our brown skin, full features, and curvy bodies. In a circle of competition that’s regularly dismissed for being sexist, reductive, and superficial, it’s been their way of pioneering yet another unwelcoming place for themselves and others who would later want to follow the same dream. “I think as we went along, Black women came into their own and became more confident. I don't follow the pageants all the time, but if you look through the years, you see the changes,” said Commissiong. “Black women now wear their own natural hair in pageants. That's not something you would have seen 20, 30, 40 years ago. It has evolved just as I think Black women's confidence has. And I think comes from one word: visibility.”
About the Author
Janelle Harris is a senior writer for The North Star. Her work has appeared in many outlets including Essence and Ebony. She has a master's degree in African American Studies from Temple University and writes on various topics, including social justice, activism, and culture.