Miss Universe GB: “We need to celebrate all skin shades as beautiful”

Posted by
Moya Lothian-McLean
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers made history by winning the title of Miss Universe Great Britain 2018. She explains to Stylist why her coronation is so significant. 

“I didn’t think I was going to be a pageant queen. From age five, my goal was always athletics; I was set on becoming an Olympian. When I started training I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest but I was determined, and it was that determination that took me to Commonwealth Games twice.

I’ve always been focused – if I see something I’m interested in, I put both feet into it. All my eggs were in the one basket of becoming a heptathlete. But then I was injured during the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

I knew the moment it happened that it was serious. It was my second-to-last event on my final day of competing. I was preparing to throw a javelin – always a tricky one for me – and then I felt my knee twist; it was probably one of the most painful moments of my life. I collapsed on the track and had a feeling, the way your gut just knows, that it was an end to all my dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. 

And it was. 

Miss Universe Great Britain 2018 winner Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Dee-Ann competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. 

I was very depressed for a while. I took time to pick myself up and find out who the new Dee-Ann was, now that she was no longer an Olympic hopeful. It was partly thanks to my grandmother that I did; she was always passing on quirky little sayings. One of those was ‘every disappointment is a blessing in disguise’. You don’t see the value in that until you’re in a position where you can actually appreciate it but it reinvigorated me. She made me think, ‘OK, I can’t do this. But I’ve still got time to try something else’.

It’s something I hope to teach young women in the future; that sometimes you’ll invest so much in one dream and it will come crashing down. You will feel like everything you’ve worked for is over. But often, that’s just the very beginning. It’s the start of the path you should really be going down.

In 2013 I started a law degree. But in the back of my mind, I’d started to wonder about pageantry. I would notice newspaper articles and, when spending summers in Anguilla, I bumped into previous Miss Anguilla queens in the supermarket. I started asking them questions about what it was like to compete and what the pageants had done for them. A lot of them told me it involved extensive self-development and had taught them to pursue their dreams. I thought that was fascinating; my interest was piqued.

I’d always been aware of pageants. In Anguilla, where I spent my childhood, we were taught about them in history lessons. They’re regarded very differently there; there’s a positive association with pageantry. Many Miss Anguilla queens go into politics and are responsible for creating big changes for the country, so there was never any shame or stigma to pageantry the way there is in Britain. 

That perception is something I want to challenge. Pageants can be an opportunity for women to become more confident and believe in themselves. They give you a network of sisters and a platform to speak from. There’s also been a big shift in how pageants view women and what candidates bring to the table. It’s not primarily about aesthetics now – rather, it’s about championing issues, promoting charitable causes and using your title to bring awareness to the things that matter to you in the world.

I’m personally supporting the charity A Sisterhood, which focuses on preventing female gential mutilation and acid attacks. I’ve also got links with homeless support networks for women. Furthering action to help women’s issues is my main agenda and pageantry is all about women. It offers us a way to pool ideas and raise our collective voice against injustices that are happening in society.

People see pageants as further competition between women but I don’t think that’s true. We’re actually taught the opposite; we celebrate our sisters and hype up their successes. When it’s the voices on the bottom pushing the person at the top, that’s when change happens.     

I entered Miss Anguilla and won, which spurred me on to apply for Miss Universe Great Britain. I had a goal to reach the top five – it felt like fate because I knew the finalists would be walking to Halo by Beyoncé. For my three best friends and I, that’s our special song. Whenever it comes on, we’re belting it out; we are the three most annoying people on earth when Halo plays. So when I saw it listed, I laughed and thought, ‘No matter what, I have to make it to the top five, just for that song’.

And then I won.

I can’t describe the feeling of not expecting your name to be called and then… it is. It’s like winning the lottery on your first time playing. This was the biggest pageant I’d ever done and I won it. I thought ‘Damn, Dee-Ann… you outdid yourself’. 

The reactions surprised me. Perhaps it’s my Anguillian upbringing, but I did not go into Miss Universe GB with the goal of being the first black woman to win it. I just had the goal of winning as Dee-Ann. But having seen the responses, I’ve realised that I have a responsibility to represent those who look up to me as a black woman. It was surprising to be the first but a good feeling to have in 2018; it feels like the ‘diversity’ conversations we’ve been having are finally starting to be put into practice.

My win also fed into an ongoing discussion about colourism, which was so important. I’ve grown up in a very diverse family who – thankfully – have never caused me to have any issues surrounding my darker skin. But I know it’s a sensitive subject for so many black women. Especially in the beauty industry where lighter–skinned women are often celebrated far more than darker-skinned ones. There’s been a lot of media attention on the topic this year, which is good. It’s so important to be able to celebrate different shades as beautiful in their own rights. 

At the same time, it’s difficult to just be seen for the colour of my skin. We’re all humans, we’re all flesh and blood. I hope one day the excitement is not about the second or third black woman to be crowned Miss Universe GB, but about the winner herself as a person. 

But for now I know I’m the first and that means I have a big legacy to build. In 20 years time, when I look at what I’ve achieved, I want to be able to say I’ve encouraged young women to go forward boldly into the world. It makes me so sad when I see girls and women shrinking themselves because they’ve been made to feel unwelcome at their full brightness. Men are so good at going forth and taking what they want, but women have been taught to be reserved. 

There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘This is mine. I want to achieve this.’ I think it’s a beautiful thing to see women going after something without reservation. And I hope I inspire young women to do that through my actions.”

Images: Getty, Kevin Wise