ladies behind the ladies, The
Clayton Goodwin whose other life is in the promotion of beauty pageants, writes here about the ladies behind the African beauty pageants in the UK.
African beauty contests in the United Kingdom are something special. Three thousand Ghanaians cannot be wrong – and that was just the number of spectators who were able to obtain entry to the venue for the Miss Ghana UK at Stratford in London. They were not just Ghanaians, because Africans of all nationalities, and their friends, were also there to support the occasion.
As with so many such pageants, one of the prime organisers behind the proceedings was a young lady …. as beautiful as the lovely ladies in the parade itself. Mavis Amankwah is the undisputed Queen of African beauty contests in London.
The surprising thing about Ms Amankwah is her youth. In spite of several years of concentrated promotional experience, she is still only 26 years old. In fact she looks much younger – Mavis would not look out of place in a schoolgirl’s gymslip – but she is a married lady with two children to her credit, the youngest born just a few weeks before the Miss Ghana UK pageant on 26 August this year.
Schoolgirl is an appropriate term, because it was while she was at a convent school that Mavis, who even then had been noticed for having an adventurous spirit, decided to do something to promote her community, her culture and her country.
Mavis was born and educated in London, but has been always close to her mother, Dora Karikari, and her mother’s homeland in Asante Bekwai.
As a Ghanaian, she was often overwhelmed by the prevailing Caribbean culture of her neighbourhood. Most people assumed that she had to be Jamaican or from some other island in the Caribbean.
Gradually, however, she became aware of her cultural identity, of the shared heritage with Caribbeans through the experience of slavery, and of her own social context. Once she had grasped that, Mavis decided to present public events which would induce Ghanaians to have pride in their country’s achievements and would make others aware of those achievements. It was, at the beginning of the last decade, when African heritage beauty contests were just beginning to take hold. Naturally her first inclination was to enter as a contestant, but by the time she had got around to it the original promoter, Yvonne Boateng, had found the increased activity to be too much for her and wanted to hand over the reins.
That is where Mavis saw her opportunity to get a foothold in promotion. For the last eight years she has been involved in organising Miss Ghana UK, with the Society of Young Ghanaians, or, more usually, in association with Rich Promotions, the enterprise of her husband, Richmond Agyekum; and 90% Entertainment (London’s top DJs and entertainers). She has been involved in other shows as well.
The other girl For some time, Ms Amankwah’s only serious competitor, and at times colleague, has been Justina Mutale who was similarly moved to set up Miss Zambia UK by her concern to promote her homeland and to raise funds to combat the much publicised spread of Aids in that country.
She was proud also of introducing Zambian beauty queens, such as Mambwe Kamanga and Nina Kanema, who have campaigned with conspicuous success in other contests. Yet her very success has presented Justina with a problem in that the workload began to intrude on her professional career and she has had to cut back.
Mavis believes that female promoters have been so successful because contestants feel more comfortable in taking their personal problems to them than to a male. Also by living in the same area as the participants, and being of a similar generation, they understand the social and economic pressures.
It helps, too, if they, themselves, their sisters, cousins or even daughters have been through the process. For that reason she is particularly happy to co-opt onto her team those former contestants who show the necessary flair and aptitude.
That is important because the various African national communities have been usually introspective and reluctant to trust a perceived outsider. Besides, the sheer number of promotions has meant that some must be of a somewhat dubious character, and in some well-known cases women have shown themselves to be every bit as devious as men. It is a tribute to Ms Amankwah’s reputation that East Africans and Caribbeans are prepared to invite her in to their market. Yet even decades before Mavis was born, the social and commercial strength of the early Commonwealth, primarily West Indian communities, lay with the “madames” of the hair-dressing salons.
These public hair-styling graduations and fashion shows of the 1950s and early-1960s, through which the designers drew attention to their skills and recruited students, were often the only chance for the new arrivals to “dress up and go out” and were the nursery for Caribbean musicians, models and journalists oo have their first experience of playing, parading and reporting before an audience.
Without Madame Rose, Dame Elizabeth and their contemporaries, there may well have been no Bob Marley or Naomi Campbell. Caribbean lady promoters still provide a background to the industry in two particular areas. Firstly, in those contests associated with a specific country, of which the longestrunning is Miss Jamaica UK presented by June Daley.
Angela Cox, originally from Trinidad, still presents the annual Miss Big & Beautiful pageant for the larger ladies. In spite of their restricted entry, African contestants have always achieved a measure of success in Caribbean-led contests. Nor should it be forgotten that the Nigerian television celebrity, Crystal Rose, made her name initially as a contestant in Miss Black Britain and then as a promoter with her sisters of Mr Supercool for male participants.
The steam has run out of Caribbean contests – in their UK heritage population, certainly not in the islands themselves!
Cometh the new millennium, however, cometh the new dimension – an African dimension. August closed with Miss Ghana UK, September with Miss Nigeria Independence UK, and October with Miss Uganda UK. Three thousand Ghanaians cannot be wrong, and when you add to that the many hundred Nigerians, and Ugandans, and … now you get the point that African beauty contests in the UK are indeed something special. MA
Copyright International Communications Nov 2000
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