If I had to list the top things my countrymen are known for, I might mention jollof rice, stew, afrobeats, Nollywood and parents’ absolute refusal to buy you take-away meals because ‘there is rice at home’. Pageants would certainly not have crossed my mind.
Yet, there I was at a Nigerian beauty pageant in London, taking in the weird and wonderful experience that is watching people parade themselves on a stage in pursuit of a tiara and a sash.
I attended the Mr & Miss Nigeria UK pageant on 25 September 2016, which I came to find out is only one of many beauty pageants targeted at people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. Barely a few weeks later, Miss Africa GB crowned its 2016 winner Sarah Jegede on 8 October 2016. Other similar pageants include Mr & Miss Black Beauty and Miss Caribbean UK. They all position themselves as platforms created to celebrate culture and tackle negative stereotypes about blackness – whether with regards to beauty standards, history or tradition.
The cynic in me already wondered how much of that can really be achieved by people walking around in glittery dresses or velvet suits while answering questions about world peace.
The cynic in me already wondered how much of that can really be achieved by people walking around in glittery dresses or velvet suits while answering questions about world peace. I spoke to a few of the contestants and they seemed to tow the party line perfectly. Almost all of them described their motivations for entering the competition as a quest for a ‘platform’ to further some great cause.
20-year-old Tadelayo, an art and design student who moonlights as a part-time model, spoke of wanting to ‘leave some kind of legacy behind’. He was undoubtedly talented. During the talent round, he presented a pretty impressive portrait of Fela Kuti which he painted himself. One of the judges even promised to buy it after a flash auction erupted during his Q&A session. Indeed, you can take the Nigerian out of the market, but you can’t really take the market out of the Nigerian. Haggling is always a possibility, even at a beauty pageant.
Great art aside, I spoke to quite a few guests in the audience and the only legacy Tadelayo left behind that night was the crisp image of his excellent abs. Still, a legacy is a legacy, right?
Jide, another contestant saw it as an opportunity to ‘lead by example’ because his goal was to become an ‘ambassador’. When I asked what exactly being an ambassador entailed, Jide was pretty effusive but not exactly clear.
‘My skills and my vision… My creativity. And I love everyone. I want to put smiles on their faces. I am special. I believe I am special, anyways.’
Jide and Tadelayo’s responses were pretty representative of most of the male and female contestants’ responses. Key buzzwords like ‘platform’, ‘culture’ and ‘special’ came up like clockwork when they discussed their reasons for taking part. The ultimate prize was also quite vague – a goody bag of various products provided by sponsors, and an opportunity to be the face of a charitable project and promote Nigerian culture. Quite a few people present didn’t even know what exactly they were competing for.
The night was a fantastically bizarre parade of 20-something-year-olds dressed to the nines and basking in their 15 minutes of fame.
Yet, somehow none of this mattered. The night was a fantastically bizarre parade of 20-something-year-olds dressed to the nines and basking in their 15 minutes of fame. Some really stood out, particularly during the talent round. Ophelia, one of the female contestants, performed a spell-binding monologue about the horrors of war which absolutely captured an otherwise chatty and distracted audience.
However, the real star of the show was her best friend 22-year-old Teedum, whom I like to think of as Graham Norton’s Igbo twin. With a name like Teedum Confidence Best Nkee-ee, it’s not hard to see where his superlative personality comes from. His stage presence was undeniable and he completely had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand when he performed a worship song during his talent showcase. He was ultimately crowned Mr Nigeria UK 2016, alongside Hannah Agboola who was awarded the Miss Nigeria UK title after she performed a very well-received Afrobeats dance routine.
Yes, in one night, Islington Town Hall went from church to club and neither the audience nor pageant hopefuls skipped a beat. I saw more weave, make-up and glitter in one location than I had ever seen in my whole life, and I spent an entire evening watching university students dance, sing and twirl in very tight clothing, all for a chance to wear a plastic crown. It was definitely a spectacle, and it surpassed Ganiyat Alli’s expectations. She founded the pageant in 2013, and is still shocked by its success.
‘To be honest, I just can’t believe it. I honestly can’t believe it. It was such a little dream and it’s now such a big thing so I’m happy.’
What next for Mr & Miss Nigeria UK? Ganiyat says she wants her winners to inspire people and help change the world’s perception of Nigerians, harking back to the rhetoric echoed by the contestants. While I’m on the fence about the world-changing impact of events like this, I will say you certainly can’t knock it until you try it. I met several contestants from previous competitions and they unanimously agreed that their confidence had grown in leaps and bounds since they first contested in the pageant.
Go for it. You never know where it’s going to take you.
Bisi, a self-described ‘ex-tomboy’ who went on to become the first ever Miss Nigeria UK initially saw it as an ‘opportunity to challenge myself and see how capable I was of achieving things.’ Now, she encourages anyone even remotely interested in pageants to give it a try.
‘Go for it. You never know where it’s going to take you.’
If that night was anything to go by, I can certainly agree that pageants can be a bundle of surprises. For one, the guys absolutely stole the show so any guys out there looking to release their inner prima donnas might want to consider entering next year’s competition. Most importantly, the event itself was so much fun. I just might check it out next year – for the abs, if nothing else.