By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
Pageants. They’re full of glitz and glam, beauty and talent, and sometimes… drama. Whether it was Steve Harvey mistakenly naming Miss Colombia the winner of Miss Universe 2015 after she was already crowned, or Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American, getting racist trolls questioning whether she was American and referring to her as a terrorist on Twitter – pageants can bring out both the best and worst in people.
Last month, New York City’s Guyanese community witnessed its very own pageant. The Miss Universe Guyana Pageant was held at York College Performing Arts Center on August 19th. The Miss Universe Guyana Organization is part of the larger parent organization, the Miss Universe Organization, formerly owned by Donald Trump. After Trump made some incendiary remarks on the campaign trail about Mexican immigrants, the franchise was bought over by WME/IMG. Like many pageant franchises, the Miss Universe Organization’s purpose is to “empower women to develop the confidence they need to achieve their personal best.” Titleholders go on to receive scholarships, advocate for humanitarian causes, and affect positive changes in the world.
Typically, for those countries participating in Miss Universe, the national preliminary competition is held in the participating country itself. For the first time this year, the national competition for Guyana was held outside of the country. Before the competition even began, rumblings could be heard around the Guyanese community about the choice of location for the pageant.
According to Jyoti Hardat, Director of Miss Universe Guyana, this decision was made because of access to sponsorship and prize benefits in NYC, which happens to be home to the largest Guyanese diaspora. Hardat said that the move to NYC was also made due to security concerns and was approved by the Miss Universe Organization for this year only.
What unfolded after the competition though, was far worse than gossip about the location. Allegations of favoritism towards the winner, misuse of funds, and even sexual harassment were made by upset contestants. As the Director, Hardat was at the center of the allegations. I first read about Hardat years ago, through the Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA) organization. Her sister, Guiatree Hardat, had been a victim of dating abuse. Guiatree was shot and killed by her then fiancé, a New York City Transit cop and a Guyanese, in NYC. Guiatree’s death inspired her sister to enter beauty competitions. She wanted to impact the lives of survivors and victims as well as educate to prevent domestic violence in future generations. Jyoti Hardat said, “With the crown, I can gather a wider audience for my movement.”
Given what I already knew of her, it was shocking to watch live videos aired on Facebook by contestants listing allegations regarding missteps Hardat took during the planning of the 2017 Miss Universe Guyana pageant. The contestants even reached out to PIX11’s “Help Me Howard” to voice their grievances. Sharisse Victor, the ultimate runner-up, said “Our pageant fees were $2,500. We were promised hotel, food, accommodation, travel, gowns if we did not have gowns. We were supposed to be reimbursed if we brought our own gowns, which is what I did. And we received the bare minimum of all that really.” Oriane Welch said that the only meal they received throughout the week was lunch. The contestants also complained that the winner Rafieyah Husain, unfairly got the crown, highlighting favoritism and a clause in their contract with Miss Universe Guyana which states: “I represent and warrant that I have never been a contestant or delegate in a previous Miss Universe pageant. I am not the current title holder or first runner-up in any other national pageant or competition.” (emphasis added)
The lawyer in me read this clause several times. A close reader would have interpreted it to mean that any contestant of the Miss Universe Guyana pageant could not have been a contestant in the Miss Universe pageant, not the national competition, like the one at York College, to select a country’s delegate for the final Miss Universe pageant. They would also have spotted the word “other” – which means that any contestant of a national competition can’t hold a title or be the first runner-up of another competition (such as Miss World, for example).
Myriad allegations spread like wildfire on social media. The Guyana Chronicle wrote a lengthy piece on the controversy. People were asking: “Why hasn’t Jyoti Hardat responded?” The saying goes that there’s three sets of stories – yours, mine, and the truth. So I reached out to Hardat. With the advice of her attorneys, Hardat sent me a long response.
“Our silence prior to this did not stem from an admission of guilt but rather, from the knowledge that this phenomena is common after every pageant, for those who did not lose gracefully, to retaliate out of hurt and anger,” said Hardat. She also had to wait on clearance from the parent organization.
In a point-by-point rebuttal to the allegations, Hardat explained that not all participants were able to fundraise the necessary $2,500 entry fee. One paid in full, two paid 84%, most others paid only a portion (two paid 12%, three paid 20%, one paid 32% and one paid 60%,) and six participants paid nothing at all. The decision was made to allow all the contestants to compete, whether or not they paid in full. Organizers felt that was the most inclusive option. The pageant ran at a loss. Hardat submitted documentation to the parent organization to verify that no money was unaccounted for. Through revenue from sponsorship, ticket sales, and the participation fee from each contestant, organizers paid for the franchise fee as well as venue rentals and participant needs such as airfare and accommodations. Hardat explained that this model is consistent with other Miss Universe national organizations. Perhaps those who could not pay the full fee should have been barred from competing; maybe accusations would not have manifested.
Regarding eligibility, the clause in the contract is being misconstrued. According to Hardat, Rafieya Husain was in fact eligible and was not given special treatment. Hardat cited the example of Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, who competed for three years in the Philippines before winning the national title. Hardat said, “This makes sense: If you are good enough to win first runner up, shouldn’t you have the chance to go for the crown in a subsequent year?” Regarding claims of sexual harassment, Hardat indicated that no formal complaint of sexual harassment has been received by the Miss Universe Guyana committee. She said therefore that, “It is difficult for us to respond to this allegation. Our policy remains the same: we have a zero tolerance for such activities and indeed fought to reclaim the Miss Universe Guyana franchise to ensure the equitable treatment of women.”
Regarding volunteer departures, Hardat stated that while some of the volunteers might have had their favorites, “it is ultimately our judges and not our volunteers who decide who is crowned.” Decisions were verified by a third-party auditor. Hardat indicated that one volunteer appeared to have ulterior motives and indeed exhibited harassing behavior the night of the production. Security was informed and took the necessary action.
Hardat likened the contestants’ allegations to a “crabs in a barrel” mentality. “While I fervently believe in the empowerment of women and want to encourage them to use the power of their voice, which is why I volunteer my time to organize Miss Universe Guyana, I also recognize that using your voice to slander others not only robs them of their power but diminishes your own. It is the most literal form of a lose-lose,” Hardat said.
(Left to right) National director Jyoti Hardat; Miss Universe 2016, Iris Mittenaere; and the newly crowned Miss Universe Guyana, Rafieya Husain at the 2017 Miss Universe Guyana Competition.