It was July 13, 1968, and on a stage in Miami Beach a young school teacher from Curaçao made history becoming the first black woman to be a finalist at the Miss Universe contest, almost winning the crown. It was only Curaçao’s 6th participation in the contest, so it could have been expected that the island would have its first Miss Universe crown soon after. Yet in the 48 years since, none of the contestants from Curaçao, some of which did make the semi-finals, have been able to equal yet alone surpass the performance of that young lady, Anne-marie Braafheid, First Runner-up to Miss Universe 1968.
The reigning Miss Curaçao, Imelda Thodé, approached Anne-marie to enter the local competition. It was the cultural baggage accumulated through her education as a teacher and her participation in theatre, ballet and modeling that motivated Anne-marie to accept the invitation. By reading international magazines such as Vogue and in her travels to Europe Anne-marie became familiar with the international beauty standards of the late sixties, in which black and slim was also considered beautiful, contrary to the local view that only white and voluptuous was beautiful. She was further encouraged by the interest in her as a model by a local photographer and modelling school.
Anne-marie was sure that she possessed all the ingredients to win the Miss Curaçao title, like the right measurements, beauty, talent, education, public speaking capabilities and proficiency in five languages including English. Anne-marie remembers: “that the jury consisted of a panel of international tourists also helped to boost my confidence. I took advice from experts to prepare myself to the utmost”.
To prepare for the Miss Universe pageant, Anne-marie ignored the wave of criticism in the local community from those who did not agree that a black girl born in Surinam had become Miss Curaçao. She told everyone that from the age of three she was raised in Curaçao and that “I am a Yu di Korsou and that black is beautiful” Anne-marie also spent a lot of time with the Miss Venezuela candidates who had come to Curaçao for their training that year. She practiced social skills, etiquette and protocol with them and was invited to attend the Miss Venezuela pageant in Caracas (the winner, Peggy Kopp, finished in fourth place behind Anne-marie at Miss Universe). In Caracas Anne-marie got further training in public speaking, took makeup lessons and gave interviews on television. The government of Curaçao also invested a reasonable amount of money in her wardrobe and gave her a chaperone, who also guided her wardrobe choices.
Anne-marie told us that she always competes to win and the Miss Universe contest was no exception: “due to the attention I got during the rehearsals, events and photo sessions my expectation grew. When two days before the final night I was chosen in the fifteen semi-finalists I realised that the crown could be in our reach”.
Anne-marie recalls that many people worldwide, including herself, were surprised when Miss Brazil, who had only cried in the interview competition, walked away with the title. Anne-marie’s participation on the other hand was sassy and she answered Bob Barker’s last question as to who would be the winner, by acting out the children’s rhyme “Ini Mini Maini Moo”. This is something pageant fans worldwide still remember about the woman who many believe should have been the first Miss Universe from Curaçao.
When asked why she thinks that in the years since that faithful night Curaçao has never come as close to winning the Miss Universe title, Anne-marie states that the high cost of participation prevents many girls from entering the competition, with the result that “often we do not get the right girl on the right place”. She also finds that the public interest in beauty pageants has dropped in Curaçao. The high price of tickets to the events has contributed to this, particularly among young people: “sponsors are more difficult to be found. The government is less involved. Also often girls that might have a chance to win prefer to finish their studies. Our training periods are too short. Often our candidates are schoolgirls who are too young, have never travelled outside of Curaçao and do not possess the maturity to participate at the Miss Universe level”.
We also asked Anne-marie whether she thinks a young woman from Curaçao can ever win the Miss Universe competition. In her opinion in recent years the pageant is influenced by economics and Curaçao is a very small economic entity. “The spirit of time is not in our favor” she appraises, “yet one can never know when the time will be ripe again for us. In my days I think that, apart from my beauty and talent, due to my color I was part of the spirit of time”. Anne-marie considers that this was reflected in the outcome of the pageant. It was time for “Black is Beautiful”, just months after the asassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Anne-marie does have a message for young women wishing to compete in their local preliminary to the Miss Universe pageant: “have fun, be happy, enjoy your training period and participation as a valuable addition for the rest of your life. Increase your cultural and general knowledge, get your body in optimal condition, be eccentric! Read international magazines and newspapers. Watch documentaries. Travel. Learn to communicate at all levels. Join one of the youth divisions of social clubs like Junior Chambers, Rotary, Lions. Start in time preparing yourself mentally and physically. Eat healthy, greens and fruits. Get a good hair dresser in time. Know your look in time. Seek for advice by professionals concerning dress code, makeup, hair fashion. Contact former delegates to learn from their experiences. Contact people in the world of theater to enhance your breathing technique when speaking. Make etiquette part of your life style. Once you are participating give it your all”.
That is quite a number of recommendations. Then again, it will take considerable preparation and hard work to reach the bar that was set so high on that July 13th in Miami Beach.
This interview with Anne-marie Braafheid by Richard John Isa was first published in the “Amigoe Express” magazine in her native Curaçao.