One of the most significant contests in the title’s history – held on the St Nicholas towards the end of 1986 – almost did not take place and when it did seemed likely to end in disaster. Margarette Kyei came through the hazards of a seamen’s strike and storm at sea to become the first African title-holder. Because of the industrial action the date of the contest had to be postponed and Phil Parker, marketing manager of Sealink, advised promoter Clayton Goodwin to open negotiations with rival company Olau ferries before peace was restored and the show got underway. Even then the drama had hardly begun: at that time of year the North Sea can be very stormy and if the gale hits the boat amidships anything can happen.
The publicity from previous contests was so great that the problem lay in selecting from applicants rather than in attracting contestants. Consequently only those who came with a recommendation from a recognised promoter or entity were accepted. There was however a couple of preliminary heats for newcomers who had not had the experience to make the necessary contacts or impression. A popular feature at this time was the re-appearance of contestants who had competed already. Carron Duncan had proved conclusively that many entrants did improve the second (or third) time round. Unlike other contests we were able to project the promotion primarily on the personalities of the participants than on the promise of pageantry spectacle.
Other promoters were keen to recommend their best representatives. This year saw the start of the rivalry between those entrants put forward by Miss Elegance, promoted by dressmaker Mrs Etty Kerr and hairdresser Mrs Desmie McLean, and Miss Class, promoted by dressmaker Sandra Andrew, respectively. Both enterprises also contributed models and designs to the accompanying fashion show. Sandra was also a very good jazz singer who created the role of performing while the judges considered their verdict. Surprisingly, however, neither the winner nor runners-up came from their recommended contestants. Their time would come. The result reflected the wide extent of the support which Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth enjoyed from across the West Indian / African heritage community, and beyond. The coach parties of supporters set out to enjoy the weekend with hardly a thought for the weather forecast reports of the gathering storm.
The outward journey ran smoothly. Although he received intensified storm-warnings as the ship turned round in the Hook of Holland for the return journey, promoter Clayton Goodwin was worried more by rumours that the strike would be renewed – while they were out at sea. That seemed to be confirmed shortly after the show started when a man in merchant-sailor’s jumper came on stage behind him. However it turned out to be a drunk who mimicked Clayton’s actions and dogged his footsteps. Clayton solved the problem by walking into the wings, and the intruder followed him, where he was grabbed by the stewards. Now the attendance could sit back and watch the contest.
The first sign that all was not well was that the flower-garlands on stage began to sway. Then cups, saucers and glasses on the tables slid to the floor. Contestants started to stumble as they paraded on the floor. Some participants, including future television celebrity Mo Akintunde (Abudu) had to steady themselves on stage by holding on to Clayton or compere Richard Moon. The latter had to step down and take over when the d.j. passed out. He was one of many people overtaken by sea-sickness. Fortunately none of the judging panel were affected and the contestants survived – at least, until the decision had been given. “If the ship goes down, in which order will we be saved?” asked one nervous young lady.
Margarette Kyei kept remarkably cool and composed. As an air-hostess she was used to the turbulence of the elements. Margarette, a Ghanaian from south-east Greenwich, south-east London, had been recommended to the contest initially by Errol Jones of Leopard Music two years earlier. Valerie Stephens, a Kittitian from Birmingham, gave her a good contest. She had been present the previous year as part of the entourage of video-operator Reg Brotherson. The other runners-up were Eartha Burke, a Dominican from Paddington, west London and member of the singing duo Déjà vu (with future television presenter Crystal Rose), and Marjorie Lewis, a Jamaican from Tottenham, north London and representative of the Shady Grove club. Three of the top four were not Jamaican, an indication of how the title had developed from its earlier community base.
Margarette’s reign naturally extended the presence of Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth into social areas which other Caribbean-based contests did not reach. She was received by Christina Odoro, the Deputy High Commissioner of Ghana, but a similar invitation from Guy Barnett, MP for Greenwich, had to be aborted when the politician passed away suddenly, thus triggering a famous Parliamentary by-election. Her appearances included a visit to a home in south-east London for disabled and mentally disadvantaged children. The boys and girls were delighted that a “queen” had come to see them even if it wasn’t the one who lived in Buckingham Palace.
Margarette took her main trip to St Lucia – the first winner to go to a country other than that of her family home. The island must have made a deep impression on her because years later she married David Alcindor, a St Lucian. The invitation to St Lucia came as Veronica Gibbons, manager of the island’s tourism office in London, had complimented the promoters on the “well-organised” contest. Ms Kyei had her deputies were also guests at the Utrecht Carnival on a private visit sponsored by the officials Julian Patterson and Rudi Wilson. The main event took place at the Utrecht Ice-rink with soca/calypsonian Arrow, singer of the international hit “Hot, hot, hot”, the main attraction and staying at the same Ibis hotel.
Nevertheless, the attention is given to the title – any title – by the Caribbean/African press had dropped appreciably. That market, itself, had foundered. Over the previous 12 to 18 months the Westindian World had ceased publication and, following a change of franchise, the Weekly Gleaner was restricted to a lower circulation. Although The Voice was founded to fill that gap, it preferred to offer a black voice on national and international events rather than to blend that news and comment with focus on happenings within the community. And, besides, beauty contests had become socially unacceptable. Radical local boroughs were denying the use of public venues for such purposes. Thank goodness we still had St Nicholas while many of our contemporaries were forced to close.
Disappointed that they could not after all host the Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth contest, Olau ferries supported a special Carnival on the Water promoted by Clayton Goodwin and Alex Pascall, Chairman of the Notting Hill Carnival on the route between Sheerness and Vlissingen. The entertainment included a special title (Miss Caribbean-Continental) contested between UK-based and Netherlands-based girls which was won by Jeanette Marti of Utrecht. The enjoyment was spoiled by learning afterwards that the Holland office of the company had not matched the agreement of their Kent counterparts and Julian Patterson had to pay the travel/accommodation of the Dutch contingent out of his own pocket. “I gave my promise to the promoters that there would be a Dutch team” he declared. “And I keep that promise even if the circumstances did not work out as I had been led to believe”. Julian – like Karl-Heinz Milferstaedt who had looked after Hadda in Berlin and Phil Parker of Sealink – was a great, as well as generous, man.