Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers has made history as the first black Miss Universe Great Britain. She tells Katie Strick why her win matters.
It’s mid-afternoon in a crowded cocktail bar by St Pancras Station, and Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers, the reigning Miss Universe Great Britain, is sitting in a tiara and a sash holding forth about her passion for sudoku. “I started doing it with my late grandmother as a bonding activity and eventually it became a habit that I couldn’t resist,” she says. Now, she practises every day.
Puzzles may be an unusual pastime for a 25-year-old, but Kentish-Rogers is used to breaking the mould. Last month the law graduate and former Team GB athlete, who grew up in the British overseas territory of Anguilla in the Caribbean, became the first black woman to win the pageant in its 66-year history. She was also the first contestant to take part with dreadlocks after refusing to take down or straighten her natural hair.
There’s no prize money for Miss Universe GB, but if she wins the global title in the Philippines in December, she will receive a salary of $20,000 a month and get to live in a luxury New York apartment, rent-free.
Even though she is carrying a huge suitcase with outfits for photoshoots, she wears stilettos and is immaculately groomed, with perfect posture. She sits up straight, adjusts her sash, which she has left on after our photoshoot, and says the reaction to her win has been “startling”.
After the final, her Instagram following rocketed from 700 to 7,000 in just two days and she was inundated with messages from women, “some congratulating me, some saying I was a role model for their daughters”. She feels “happy” and “privileged” to be a role model. “I want everyone to feel important, so I want to be a role model for all women. I think they’re all innately kind and ambitious. Sometimes, women just need encouragement to reach their full potential.”
Although the colour of her skin wasn’t a factor going into the competition, she says she now recognises the importance of what her win means to other black women, “especially in this post-Brexit, post-Windrush era”. Indeed, the win is timely.
In June, Oprah Winfrey became the first black female entrepreneur to feature in Bloomberg’s list of the world’s 500 richest people, and last week Rihanna became the first black woman to grace the cover of British Vogue’s September issue in its 102-year history. Tyler Mitchell also made history this month by becoming the first black photographer to shoot an American Vogue cover, which will feature Beyoncé on its September issue.
Kentish-Rogers says she’s excited to see an increasing number of black role models for women. She cites Naomi Campbell “because she’s so demanding — she doesn’t take no for an answer”, and actress Thandie Newton, who in May became the first major black female character in the Star Wars films. Does she think black beauty standards are changing? “There’s definitely been a shift. I’ve seen black women embracing themselves for who they are and being much more unapologetic. People are saying: ‘This is me’.”
Standards may be shifting, but beauty pageants have not historically been known for their diversity. Donald Trump, for example, famously owned the Miss Universe organisation before he became US President and was said to eliminate finalists who were “too ethnic”. Kentish-Rogers gives a knowing sigh: “People bring it up all the time... but I think it’s a disservice to focus on who owns the enterprise because you’re discounting the voices of so many women in that conversation. My belief is that what we’re doing and the causes we’re furthering deserve so much more air-time. It is a beauty pageant but it’s so much more than that.”
This year’s contestants gave TED Talks and raised money for the women’s empowerment charity A Sisterhood, which supports victims of acid attacks in India and funds FGM centres in the UK. She has hosted workshops in schools about respecting women, a subject she feels passionately about after her experiences doing work experience as a lawyer and in athletics. “Sometimes I felt my male colleagues didn’t want to listen to me. I found myself having to say, ‘Listen, stop, I’m speaking’. To them, that reads: ‘Oh, she’s bossy’. That’s where my message of respect came from.”
She held salsa dancing evenings to fundraise for A Sisterhood and hopes to continue supporting the charity ahead of the final competition in December. “I know it seems like only the glitz and glam at the final stage, but there’s substance both beforehand and after,” she insists. She and her 30 fellow competitors were put through a series of tasks at the three-day final in Newport, Wales, one of which included walking on glass (she reassures me no one was hurt — apparently the key is to “be mindful”).
Does she think beauty pageants have a future? “Absolutely. I think it’s growing and starting to sprint, because people are seeing the value,” says Kentish-Rogers.
“I wouldn’t categorise the British public as being very into pageants compared with other nations, so hopefully this is a revival for them. People have to come and experience it first-hand.” She hopes her win will encourage other black women “to step forward and get into the race”.
Her sporting language is fitting: Kentish-Rogers always dreamt of competing for Great Britain — just not in a bikini. Growing up a in a family of male cousins on a farm in Anguilla (“there were 12 of us in the house — I had no personal space”), she was a tomboy, climbing trees and playing football. She quickly developed a flair for athletics, starting as a 400m runner, later switching to the heptathlon.
In 2014 she competed for Anguilla in her second Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She recalls the moment everything changed: “It was the last day and the second to last event. I was drawing the javelin back over my shoulder and for some reason I forgot about my knee and continued throwing the javelin — so my knee popped out.”
Her coach said if she if she didn’t stop competing she would injure both of her knees beyond recovery. “It was probably one of the most painful days of my life,” she remembers.
Her Olympic dream was over so she threw herself into a law degree at the University of Birmingham and embarked on a new kind of competition: beauty pageants. It’s an unlikely transition, but Kentish-Rogers says the two career paths are complementary. “In track and field, the better the posture of your spine, the more efficient it becomes. It’s quite similar in pageantry: your posture is really important. It’s all about how you carry yourself, and you have to prepare yourself mentally. You’re channelling your energy into building yourself.”
Her only hang-up was training her thumb not to stick out, a legacy from passing the relay baton. “My cousin calls it my track thumb,” she laughs.
Now Kentish-Rogers’ attention is on her next personal best: winning the overall Miss Universe title in the Philippines, after which, as a newly qualified barrister, she plans to focus on her legal career. She feels strongly about helping to tackle female empowerment in the workplace and the gender pay gap in sport, citing her heroes as Jessica Ennis-Hill, president of the Supreme Court Lady Baroness Hale, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists.
This evening, however, she plans to put her feet up and watch something a little more indulgent: the pageant film Miss Congeniality. “I watched it about eight times in the week it came out,” she admits. “That’s my next order of business: I’m going to watch it again now.”
© Evening Standard