Mrs. Brooklyn International Marjorie Vail Sounds Off on Pageants, Beauty, Identity and Gender Roles
Marjorie Vail was browsing the internet one day, when she learned of the Mrs. Brooklyn International pageant. She had always wanted to be part of a pageant that wasn’t too artificial, and this one, focusing on a wide variety of elements—beauty, fashion, poise, and so on—and more importantly having a socially conscious component—definitely fit the bill.
Born in New York into a Haitian family, Vail is the delegate-elect who will represent her borough at the state pageant in October. Blessed with beauty and brains, and extremely outspoken, Mrs. Vail had something to say just about everything, from her childhood in Brooklyn, to gender roles, and identity. Listen in…
What does it mean to you to have been named Mrs. Brooklyn International? Recently, Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance, with many people coming to represent the borough. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, so it’s not a place I have just come to because it’s trendy. Brooklyn has a strong Caribbean presence. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m Haitian first and a Brooklynite through and through. When you are in Brooklyn, it’s all about love, family, and traditions. I remember the lyric: “Spread love it’s the Brooklyn way.” That’s what I aim to do. I am excited that I get to share that love at the New York State pageant.
What are some of the memories that you have of growing up Haitian? When I was growing up, it was tough being a Haitian; it wasn’t socially acceptable. We were disliked, despised, and were constantly being attacked. It was actually unsafe to say you were Haitian in school. I never denied I was Haitian, but I certainly did not volunteer the information. Of course all that changed when I went to high school where all of a sudden it was the coolest thing to be Haitian. At home was a different story. I remember speaking Kreyòl to my mom and her making fun of the way I said certain Kreyòl words with an American accent. Having a Haitian proverb explained to me because I just didn’t get it. Conversations that sounded like arguments. Finding any reason to have a party. What ten year old’s party starts at midnight? I remember celebrating christenings, communions and birthday parties where I wore puffy dresses, stockings, leather shoes with ribbons and barrettes in my hair. I remember the aroma of a big pot of New Year’s soup joumou-–pumpkin and butternut squash soup—griyo—fried pork—diri ak djon djon—lack mushroom rice—lanbi—conch—and all the other excellent Haitian cuisine. I remember the lectures about how education is the key to success. Most of all, we laughed! Oh, how we laughed!
When did you first perceive the whole idea of gender roles? I don’t think anyone can grow up in a Haitian household and not be aware of gender roles. You constantly hear, “Young ladies don’t whistle, or young ladies should know how to cook… etc.” I didn’t hear it so much from my mom—well maybe the cooking part—but definitely from other family members. I felt it when I had to wake up every Saturday morning to clean the house with my sister while my cousin slept in. Of course, I felt like it wasn’t fair, but there was nothing I could do at the time, it is part of the culture. As I got older, I kept hearing those sayings but I did my own thing. I always had a bit of a rebellious streak and pretty much marched to the tune of my own drum. I let people talk about what they perceived as my “unlady-like” ways and all the while I worked hard to shine brightly.
How do you define beauty? My mom is a classic example of beauty because although someone who doesn’t know her would see an older lady, but because her heart and character are good, honest, and altruistic anyone who gets to know her would know she is a beautiful person. She is the best example of beauty I feel I would ever need. Beauty is approachable, has a beautiful smile, is concerned for others, is not rude, a constant friend, and always ready to serve. Beauty is “Innocent as a dove, shrewd as a snake.”
Did your parents play a role in your teenage years, in terms of giving you the confidence to eventually participate in a pageant? Since my youth, my mama has been my biggest fan. I would go as far as to say she put confidence into me. She would tell me, “You’re smart, and beautiful! You can do anything!” When she was with other people, she would speak about me in a good light which is so important to do as a parent. So I grew up having confidence in myself. My confidence would wane when I would immaturely compare myself to others. As I get older, my self-confidence gets stronger. If I truly want something, I go after it full force with bridles on.
Any pointers for those who wish to participate in a pageant of that sort? My advice for those who wish to participate in a pageant is to do your homework. All pageants are not created equal. You have to find the one that’s right for you, the one that speaks to your values—and the one you know you can truly represent—should you win the title.
Participating in a pageant takes a great deal of guts. Some feel intimidated by the very idea. Was it taxing finding the gumption to participate? It was taxing. Being in a pageant can be intimidating. You are trying to win a title that other beautiful women are going for. You have to stand out. You must prove you are the best person to represent their system. I told myself that I am not becoming something I am not to prove this, I just need to be the best me. Thank God I have a great support team that encouraged my dream. So one day, I filled out the application and sent it out before I could talk myself out of it.
When you were in middle school and elementary school, how did you view yourself? When I was in elementary school, I can’t really say I viewed myself in any particular way. I do feel like my whole outlook on life changed in the 6th grade. That school year, I and other neighborhood kids were bussed to a school in Bensonhurst-Bayridge which was predominately white. That was the first time in my life that I was aware of my blackness. Suddenly, I was in the minority—I was one of two black kids in my class. For a while, I tried to fit in but no matter what I did, I just couldn’t. My skin, hair, and style was just way too different. That school year was one of the toughest times of my youth. One of the white girls in my class befriended me. She too was struggling. Her struggle was different than mine, she didn’t fit in because of her weight. It hit me at some point that she and I were going through the same social struggle, the desire to be accepted. This wasn’t simply about color, but a lot to do with self-confidence. Self-confidence is crucial for survival in this life no matter what who you are.
How can a woman develop self-confidence? Wow! There are many factors that go into finding self-confidence. Everyone is different. For me, I grew up with a mom who told me that I am smart, beautiful and can do anything. As a believer, I had to embrace that I am who God says I am, meaning I was made in His image. Since I am made in His image, I can’t fail. When I fail, it’s not because I am a failure, but because I need to work harder or take an entirely different direction. Failure is not a reason to quit; it’s a stepping stone.
When was the last time you went to Haiti? The last time I went to Haiti was July 2010, six months after the earthquake. Several young professionals at my church yearned to go and help. We prayed about it, sought out whom needed our help, got donations and went to work. We went to a little town called Bognotte, Haiti just outside of Leogane. It’s a very remote little town. Had it not been for the pastor of the church working there this town would surely have been overlooked. We fed the people daily, held classes for the kids, did art therapy, held discussions, gave out clothes, held a health clinic and planted trees all in nine days. Those were the toughest yet fulfilling nine days of my life. When we returned, our not-for-profit organization Out To Reach was born. Since that time we have been supporting the school, created literacy and vocational classes for the adults in Bognotte. This is why Out To Reach is my platform. We aim to help the Haitian people not just with monetary donations, but we’re teaching them to be educated and self-supporting. We aim to do this one town at a time.
Most beauty pageant winners have a whole path carved out for them. What are your career plans? Well first, the state pageant is coming up in October. I need to have the time of my life there and God willing bring that title home to the BK. From there, I would need to compete in the nationals and go on from there. Regardless of how things turn out, my life has always been about serving others. I will continue to work with Out To Reach. We promised the school in Bognotte backpacks, uniforms and a library and we aim to come through on those promises. I also plan to work with other organizations that not only help Haitians, but help those in the States as well. My heart’s desire is to leave a legacy for my son that instills in him that you are never truly fulfilled in this life unless you are helping others.