Ms. Jamaica

“You’re asking me a tough question there, Mark.  I don’t know why it was that I chose to call myself “Angelica” on stage, because there is nothing angelic about me. LOL…Honestly, I can be a real bitch, but a nice one, if you know what I mean. My real name is Deborah Douglas.  I was called Deborah because my grandmother greatly admired the Deborah in the Bible.  She was a judge, as I’m sure very few people, except maybe those who go out for being Jeopardy contestants, remember.  My grandma expected a very bright future for me.

She used to tell me, “Deborah, if you have faith in God, and if you work hard, then you can be a teacher at Hampton.  And if you work VERY hard, my girl, then you can even be the Principal one day!”

 LOL…

“Hampton is a girls’ high school in Jamaica, so you see the scale of what my expectations from life were in those days.  And to be honest with you, I had no problem at all with aiming to be a teacher at Hampton.  I didn’t know that the world was so much bigger than that. I wanted to get ahead in Jamaica; the rest was inconceivable to me.

“The problem was that my grandma didn’t tell me exactly what it was that I had to do beyond studying hard at school and having faith enough to move mountains.  I was only left to guess that it wasn’t what I was doing because things weren’t really going right and she never seemed to be truly pleased with me.  I know that that was just her way though.  Maybe it was just because we didn’t have enough money to do the things that she wanted to do.  I know that she loved me in spite of the fact that I was really a burden to her.

“I lived with her in Springfield, St. Elizabeth from as far back as I can remember until I was sixteen and then I had to move to Kingston to live with my mother, Jasmine.  She was a real trip.  You’ve heard about someone being the “black sheep of the family”?  Well she would have been that… I’ve never heard of a “black ewe”… I know that that sounds bad, but there you have it… Her friends called her ‘Melissa’ and she invited me to, do the same.  I couldn’t explain why she preferred the name ‘Melissa’ to Jasmine but since I didn’t want to cause any trouble, I called her Melissa.

“I missed my Grandma; because although I was grateful to my mother for the opportunity to live with her in Kingston, it wasn’t quite what my grandmother had led me to expect.  She told me that I was to go to Kingston so that I could go to school.  I’m sure that is what she thought my mother meant when she persuaded her to send me to her.  I can’t believe that she knew that I would have to work to pay my way.  I expected to go to a Community College to do my A’Levels and then I would go to Mico just like Grandpa.  As it turned out, my mother only wanted an extra income earner to help her pay the rent.  She told me that going to EXED would have to wait until next year.  I thought about going back to Springfield but then I thought about how happy my grandmother had been when she believed that my mother was finally going to take up her responsibility and help me; and I couldn’t break the old lady’s heart.

“So that was how I found myself in Richmond Heights.  You see, I didn’t dance back then, because Miss Amy, my Grandma, didn’t really allow dancing when I was a child, so I couldn’t work in a club and I was still too young to get most other kinds of jobs, so I did what most young girls from the country did.  I got a recommendation from my Pastor, got a job as a house keeper/babysitter and made some new friends…

“I would have to say that I got into singing because of Beauty.  Beauty and I were in domestic service together.  We were what you would have called “helpers” in those days.  But we didn’t help anybody to do anything; we did it all on our own – the cooking and the washing and the cleaning and the child-caring.  We started talking one morning as we walked up the hill together.  I had been singing to myself, and she stepped up beside me and told me that she thought I sounded good.

“Beauty and I had a lot in common.  For one thing, we dreamed of a better life for ourselves.  She was also beautiful.  In fact that was why people called her Beauty.  Her real name was Cynthia Armstrong.  People were always telling her things like she was too beautiful to be so black.  I didn’t think so.  I just thought that she was too beautiful to be a helper in Richmond Heights; and I told her so.

“She was six feet and one inch tall.  In those days we still used feet and inches.  I don’t even know how tall she would be today.  Anyway she looked like one of those women who you saw on t.v. modelling for The Beat.  She was always saying that she wore her hair short because she had to – it just wouldn’t grow; but on her it looked pretty good anyway.  It was very thick and dark.  I told her that she should try out for one of those beauty contests; and soon, we both dreamed of the day that she would be Miss Jamaica.

“In Jamaica those days, you could still make a good living from having good looks.  If you had an education or some special talent, then so much the better for you; but even if you were only just beautiful, the possibilities were still very attractive – no pun intended.  We thought that if she could just win one of those big contests then she could win a car and all sorts of other prizes and her walking days to Richmond Heights would be over.

“Me?  No one ever called me pretty, but I could really sing.  When I sang it made my spirit soar.  In a way that was hard to explain, my singing set me free.  I wasn’t just like old Deborah Douglas from Springfield anymore.  I was Ella Fitzgerald and Karen Smith, Regina Belle and Whitney and Diana King and Tessanne Chin and Celine Dion and Toni Braxton all rolled into one.  I felt like I could do anything.  I had real power when I sang.  I even thought of entering the Talent Tent Contest, and I really believed that I would win it if I did.  I could just see myself belting out Dionne Warwick’s No Night So Long… LOL Yes, I know that it’s more of a croon, but I saw myself belting it.  I was young, I saw a lot of things. LOL I could see myself working the stage like Tina Turner.  I’d never done it before, but you know when you just know a thing?  I could almost see the people throwing themselves at my feet like they did for Michael Jackson and The Beatles.  It would be fantastic!

“But the truth deep, deep down though was that I knew that I would be too scared to enter any contests myself; and I sort of knew that I definitely couldn’t win first prize in anything except for the Sunday School Bible Quiz; but between you and me, I was even more afraid to admit that to myself because I couldn’t really see how anything would work out for me if I didn’t get up and help myself; and I just didn’t know how to do that.  I didn’t want to be a household helper.  I knew that much.  I also knew that I was the best singer that I knew personally.  I really believed in my soul that one day I could be a superstar if I only had the right kind of push start.  Somebody would have to hear me sing and discover me.  I wasn’t sure how I wanted it to happen, but I wanted it to be really special.  I would just have to wait…  Anyway, we were talking about Beauty.  She was the one who had the real chance to become something big, and I knew that I could help her…

“You know, it’s funny, I remember this just as if it happened yesterday.  I can tell you exactly what we said at the time.

“So wah yu gwine tell dem wen dem ask yu why yu come, Beauty?”

“We had debated the possibility of her entering the Miss Jamaica contest for nearly two weeks when she suddenly capitulated, and agreed that it might be a good idea.  We were working to get her prepared for her debut.

“Fi a farm fi di contes,” she replied.

“No man. Yuh ha fi seh it betta dan dat.”

“Aright, ah would seh ‘Ah came for a form for di contes, please’” She chose her words very carefully.

“Forget di ‘please’”

“Lawd man; leave mi alone.  You doan soun any betta dan me.”  She was becoming annoyed; frustrated with the half hour of practice that we had done as we walked up the hill together.

“What she had said was true.  I had been patronizing her.  She had struck home.

“You have to practice yuh know, Beauty.”  I was sympathetic but firm.  I decided that I would have to lead her by example.

“We had rehearsed what she would say when asked what she hoped to gain by entering the contest; what her favourite food was; what she did in her spare time.  We had even discussed the possibility of her taking some cosmetology classes so that she could list herself as being either a ‘cosmetologist’ or a ‘student’ on the form.  Neither of us could remember ever having seen a household helper either enter or win a beauty contest.

“So how is your ting going?”  She was referring to my singing.

“Fine man. I’m alright,” I said.

“I lied.  I didn’t want her to shift her focus.  She had to succeed for both of us; just in case I didn’t ever get to be an entertainer.

“Yuh know,” she continued later, “I hear dat blue soap wi keep di bumps off yuh face.”

“You don’t have any bumps, Beauty.”

“Ah know, but is still good to know dat.”  We walked on, she still marvelling in her new found respect for blue soap.

“Come, aks me anodda question…”

“Ask me another question,” I echoed.

“ Did you watch di news las night, Beauty?”

“Yes; an it was very interesting.”  She was very definite.

“What happened?” I gasped, caught for a while.

“Nutten special,” she assured me, and went on to relate most of the things that made the newscasts aired on both television stations during the evening before.

“Good.”

“I was pleased.  We had both been listening to the newscasts and radio talk show programmes broadcast during the past two weeks because I wanted Beauty to be ‘aware’.  We both watched ‘Oprah’ to make her confident.  It had worked, and when she began to develop an American twang, I became jealous.

“So what do you think of the Jamaican people?  What is the Jamaican character?  What makes us special?”  I asked hotly, trying to ignore the way I felt.

“This called for a philosophical answer, and required abstract thinking of the kind that she was not yet capable on her own.  I wanted to deflate her sails a little, and keep her in her place: dependent on me.

“I think that we are very interesting and ambitious; but we take our blessings for granted.  We are in di miggle af di worl’.  We have influence from all over.  Yu can seet in how we ‘ave our fambilies an look at di food dat wi eat.  An reggae; everybody in di worl’ know ‘bout reggae.  Look at di enviranment far instance, di birds an di sunshine an ting – Land of wood an’ water – that is Jamaica.”

“This surprised me; because although we had rehearsed several responses, this was an aggregate of the views of about four different perspectives, I had not expected her to remember what she was to say, let alone come up with something like this.  Forget her English, I was really very proud of her, and sorry that I was being so mean.

“Did you pick up di form yesterday Beauty?”

“Yes man, seet here.” she said, taking it carefully from her bag.

“She offered it to me proudly, and I accepted it with due reverence.  It was more impressive than any form that I had ever seen before, and I had had to fill out several in my time.  We both regarded it as if it were a piece of jewellery. She had asked to be given time-off on the previous evening so that she could collect the form before the rush hour traffic made it impossible for her to get to the contest headquarters before closing time.  She had told Mrs. Hernandez, her employer, that her mother had become ill and needed to be taken to the doctor.

“Yuh nuh tell har yet?” I had asked.  She gwine fin’ out about you and this contest thing yu know Beauty.”

“Yes, but by den I wi be Miss Jamaican an she cyan touch me!” she laughed.

“Yuh get di money yet?”

“Have you got the money yet?…” I paused to let that sink in before I continued, “Yes I have it.”

“I had just received my Partner draw and had planned to lend it to her; all twenty-five thousand dollars of it, so that she could buy some clothes for the night of the contest.  I was beginning to have second thoughts though – what if she didn’t win – would she ever be able to repay me?  But we had worked too hard, and I couldn’t give up on her now…

“Are yuh going to tell har today, Beauty?”

“Yes.”

“We walked up the hill more slowly that day.  It was the day that she would give her two weeks’ notice to Mrs. H. that she would be leaving.  She had been accepted into the SDC programme in ‘Dunkirk’ to do cosmetology.  This was very convenient because she lived right there in McIntyre Lands.  She had wanted to enrol in the HEART programme, but I persuaded her to apply in more than one place – just in case, you know.  So she tried Girl’s Town, HEART and the SDC, and she had been successful with the SDC people.

“It was a nice school, and she got to wear a blue uniform.  She came around to my house to show it to me on her first day, but I wasn’t there because Mrs. James, my employer, was having a dinner party for some big shots and I had to work late that evening.  I didn’t mind because I like to watch people like those.  Some of them are really funny, you know, and I would be able to tell Beauty about some of the things that they said and did.  It helped me too since it was from these people that I began to suspect that the world was such a vast place and that Jamaicans could be a part of it.  The James family knew a lot of people, some of them very important in Jamaica, and I learned a lot about life by just watching them.

“Anyway, the SDC classes would be over by three in the afternoon so she would have time to do a little buying and selling to support herself before she went to her training sessions for the contest in the evenings.  This was a good thing, because just between us, Beauty couldn’t sit down properly, and she couldn’t really use a knife and fork.  All this didn’t bother me too much because I knew that the girls would get classes, and I knew that the contest people would try to straighten Beauty out.

“We had walked in silence most of the way up the hill.  I didn’t feel like singing.  I was thinking that I wanted to cry, and so I was a little startled when she paused and spoke to me before she turned through the gate of the Hernandez home.

“So, how is your ting going?” she asked.

“Everyting is alright, man.  Me cool,” I replied, automatically. And you know, all of a sudden, everything did seem to be alright.  The morning was beautiful and I thought of my grandma in Springfield.  I wanted to make her proud of me.

“I didn’t see much of Beauty for several weeks because she didn’t seem to have any spare time after making appearances with the other contestants, going to her classes and to the gym!  Beauty didn’t really look as if she needed to go to the gym, but since everyone else was going, she went too; and besides, it was free, so it didn’t matter.

“My mother who saw her more often than I did said that the child looked nice; and then she cursed me for not having any ambition.  I just had to walk her out, you know; because if I hadn’t done that, I would probably have said something that I would have regretted later.  So I just bit my tongue and went for a walk over to one of my church sisters down Osbourne Road way…

“There was a really big crowd there that night.  They were going to eliminate some of the people who entered the contest.  I prayed for Beauty so that she wouldn’t be eliminated.  The tickets were almost sold out, and so to get in cost me five thousand dollars; but I wanted to go to cheer for her because she was my friend, and because we had worked hard, and we had both dreamed of getting ahead in this life…

“Beauty was popular; very popular.  A lot of people were laughing, and cheering for her.  In fact, it almost looked like the whole audience was cheering for Beauty.

 “Good evenin’ Ladies and Genkleman…”  Applause.  “My name is Cyntia Amstrang…” wild cheering especially from a group of young men in the front.  “…and I proudly wear di sash of Miss Sof an’ Shinin’ Hair Products (Caribbean) Ltd.  Tank you all far comin’ to di Ms. Jamaica contes…”

“It went on like this for the whole evening – Beauty whipping an increasingly large section of the crowd into a frenzy with her winning personality, her striking appearance, and the answers that we had rehearsed.  They even asked her what it was that made the Jamaican people unique!  I don’t think that she knew what ‘unique’ meant, but she answered the question as if the man asked her what made the people ‘special’ so  it was all the same to the judges.

“When it was time for the names of the twenty finalists to be called, I expected that her name would be at the top of the list.  It wasn’t; and even though the emcee said that the names weren’t being called in any specific order, I began to worry when it wasn’t called among the first ten.  The crowd began to stir at about that time too, and became decidedly restless when Beauty wasn’t among the top fifteen.  There was some booing for Heather Afflalo – Ms. LLAW Ltd. – a nice little browning that everybody seemed to like only twenty minutes before.

“Number seventeen… Remember, ladies and gentlemen, please remember that the contestants are being called in random order.  Number seventeen is… Miss Montego Aquatic Centre and Theme Park Ltd!…. Yvette Anderson!”

“There was open booing now, and I heard the crash of breaking glass.  The emcee hesitated, and seemed to look carefully at the piece of paper in his hand.  He glanced at the judges and then at us.

“Number eighteen…”

“It betta be Charmaine…” declared the woman next to me.  “Dem already pack up di ting wid a whole heap a white woman, and it cyan go so!  Dem out a ardar…” she said.  “It betta be Charmaine!” she shouted in the direction of the judges.

“I understood then that what Beauty and I had tried to do was far more important than even we had realised.  Beauty was the working class challenging the social norms, and the class structure in Jamaica at the time.  She was part of a bloodless revolution that really made the society better, I think.  It’s not only rich people have class, you know.  Here was a woman who was ready to do battle for her, and yet, she didn’t even know Beauty’s name.  This woman was not the sort to go to watch beauty contests ordinarily, but word about Beauty being a former household helper, and how she had entered the Miss Jamaica contest had got out, and ordinary Jamaicans had shown up to show their support for her.  This was bigger news in Jamaica than I had ever imagined it would be.

“The emcee looked at the judges again.  Two of them looked down, and one was clutching her bag. It didn’t look promising.  Then the emcee looked at us and grinned openly.

“Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome contestant number eighteen, Miss Soft n’ Shining Hair Products (Caribbean) Ltd. – Cynthia Armstrong!…”

 “I don’t know if it was the emcee, or if she had really done it!  Whatever it was though, Beauty was in.  We didn’t hear who the last two contestants were because a cacophony of celebration erupted in the room that night at the news that Cynthia Armstrong had made the final twenty for the Miss Jamaica contest that year.

“I didn’t see anything of her for about two months after that because she was forced into an even more hectic schedule of guest appearances with the other contestants all over the island, and she seemed to be enjoying herself.  I remember one picture of her in the paper where she was riding a horse.  Now you have to understand this; Beauty had never ridden a horse in her entire life before that day.  The thing though was that her grandfather had a mule in St. Mary and she used to ride it all the time when she was a child.

“It’s the same as ridin’ a mule,” she told me later.

“There were more classes and workouts to hone her special strengths and eliminate her weaknesses.  I missed being able to talk to her, but I was happy that she was doing well.  I just wished that I had someone to help me through my own climb to the top of the hill; but I think that it was about then that I decided that if I really wanted to do something big then I would just have to do it by myself.  I wanted to be a singer, and I wanted to be so big that grandma would stay in Springfield and hear about me.  I had a chance; the finals of the Talent Tent Contest were coming up.

“My mother, who saw her name in the newspapers, often said that I ought to learn something from Beauty.  She never tired of telling me that. One day, she said that I was an embarrassment to her because there was nothing special about me.  I thought about that and smiled to myself.  Is she only knew what I could do…

“The crowd at the stage show that night was even bigger than on the night of the elimination contest; bigger than the Miss Jamaica Contest.  But I was ready.  Nobody from church would recognise me with my stage name – Angelica.  At the elimination show on the night that I had quarrelled with my mother I had definitely been the crowd’s favourite; but I wouldn’t be complacent here.  I was the one who had received the adulation of the fans, just as Beauty had done in her contest, because I was so angry that night that I sang from my soul.  The woman around the back just dawb a likkle make up- on mi face and push me on the stage, and I just belted out hit after hit, and I hit every high note.  I was too angry to even think of being scared.  I sang and I danced and I worked the stage that night.  You should have seen me!… Don’t let nobody tell ya, what you cannot do… Wait, you’re going to play that now?!  Yes, it was my first hit; thank you Melba Moore!  Yes, I did that one at the Talent Tent Contest. You’ll never know what’s on the other side of the rainbow… You’ll never know what’s at your journey’s end… You’d better be good to me…The Tina Turner too!

“You see, what had happened was that I had been on my way to Osbourne Road to cool off the night my mother and I had quarrelled, but as I passed the Talent Tent, I saw the crowd gathering there for the start of the show and I decided to try.  I had already sent my entry form in, but I didn’t tell anyone, no, not even Beauty, because I didn’t want her to shift her attention from her preparation for the Miss Jamaica competition; and in any case, I was so afraid that nothing would come out of it that I didn’t really plan to go on the night… Isn’t that funny?  Heaven knows, I didn’t even remember the contest was going to be held that evening when I left the house…Serendipity, man.  There’s nothing like it!

“Well, I won the Talent Tent contest that year and I have gone on to have three triple platinum CDs and nine platinum albums; and I have been to forty different countries on tour; and that’s not even part of my world tour.  We’ll start that in another year and a half in, Kyoto, Japan.  Yes, I have used some of the money that I’ve made to go to school… I did Business Administration at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica… No, I haven’t bought a house in Richmond Heights… I’m really enjoying my life right now.  If I died tomorrow, it would be okay.  At least I’d go out doing what I enjoy.  I’m happy and confident and I’m working.  I’m doing really well, knock wood!  I feel as if I’m singing every minute.  It’s just as exciting as it ever was.  I see each day as the beginning of my career.  Of course, it’s hard work, but God never said it would be easy.  My friend, Beauty, taught me to live my dreams, and I do that every day now… All along I had thought that I was the one helping her to get ready for that contest, but the truth is that she helped me.  She showed me that I had what it took, and I actually benefitted from her entering the Miss Jamaica contest.  True beauty and strength to do things has to come from inside of you, you understand?

“No, Beauty didn’t actually win the Miss Jamaica contest after all.  She was eliminated in the first round on the night of the finals.  She came to see me about two days after the Talent Tent Contest.  We had a nice long chat.  She had seen my name and picture in all the newspapers when I did my thing, and she was wondering how I was doing.  I was doing very well.  My mother’s attitude toward me had changed, but I realised that I didn’t need her anymore.

“She told me that she was not as disappointed to lose the Miss Jamaica contest as she thought she would have been.  She had been given a little job at Soft n’ Shining Hair; they were her sponsors in the Contest.  She said that they thought that her image was good for the company. They used to call her Ms. Jamaica, not Miss Jamaica; you understand?  They entered her in another contest about two years after that, but she only made it to the semi-finals… The last thing I heard was that she had opened a little beauty salon… “Get Ahead!” or something like that… That was about fifteen years ago…”

“…That was an excerpt of an interview which we conducted last year with Jamaican pop superstar, Deborah Douglas, more popularly known as “Angelica”.  As you may have heard, the aircraft transporting Ms. Douglas and her entourage to the Melbourne leg of her world tour plunged into the Pacific this morning.  Unconfirmed reports are that there are no survivors.  Ms. Douglas and her husband-manager, Adam Copeland, are survived by a three-year old son, Christian, several other relatives and friends and a legion of fans around the world, including the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Shane Sydney-Queensland, who gave this tribute to Ms. Douglas…

We will have more for you as this story unfolds… And in other news tonight…”

About Gabrielle Burns

I am a Jamaican at play here in this vast playground in cyberspace....Yes, at times I do like to live dangerously, but I AM also working hard at becoming more interesting by the day... :)
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