Former Miss Universe and Host and Executive Producer of Caribbean’s Next Top Model
Talks with Nu Woman
My very first encounter with Wendy Fitzwilliam was at the 1998 Miss Universe competition via a television set. I remember sitting at home in my living room with a friend and watching the show. The first impression of Wendy was that she was regal, she spoke eloquently, and had unbelievable posture, and I loved the fact that she was of Caribbean descent. When she won I was overjoyed, it felt as if we had all won. My second encounter with Wendy was through the pages of She Caribbean Magazine, where she spoke about her son Ailan, and her controversial pregnancy offering no apologies but simply stating her thoughts and it was then I thought, ‘I want to speak to this woman one day’. My third but brief encounter with Wendy was actually seeing her in person at my first Carnival experience in 2007 in Trinidad, where I played Mas with the group Island People Mas. I thought, ‘Wow! She is so down to earth, so human’. So you can call it Karmic Connection or Godly intervention that years later, I am the publisher of my own magazine and I’m able to conduct an interview via telephone with Wendy Fitzwilliam. Leading up to the interview, I had written her a week ago after joining her page on facebook and we had agreed on a date and time. The set time for the interview had been switched a few times as Wendy had been busy with her latest venture as the Executive Producer and Hostess of the upcoming Caribbean’s Next Top Model.
On the morning of the scheduled interview she emailed asking me to back it down by half an hour as an earlier appointment was running late. I called her back in half an hour but missed her, only to have her return my call a bit later. Wendy apologized profusely telling me that this was not the norm for her. What I notice immediately about her was how gracious she was. We talked for over an hour, on everything, on her latest role as hostess and Executive Producer of Caribbean’s Next Top Model (CNTM), to her time as Miss Universe to the birth of her son, Ailan, and her role as a social activist and business woman. Through it all Wendy spoke openly and honestly on all subjects, and my respect for this woman became cemented. I have broken the interview into several parts.
Wendy Fitzwilliam’s Interview with Nu Woman Magazine
Nu Woman: Hello Wendy, How are you doing?
Wendy: Good, really and clearly busy, do forgive me please Erica, this is not the norm, but I had a couple of interviews to wrap up in regards to Top Model, as we are going full speed ahead. It starts in less than 10 days now, on the 26th of this month (September). We are just starting up everything; it’s been absolutely crazy! Forgive me.
NW: I wanted to start a bit further back but seeing that you are focused on Top Model at the moment, let me focus on that.
Wendy on Caribbean’s Next Top Model
NW: How did this opportunity to start Top Model come about?
Wendy: Like most of the things in life, Erica, Top Model came to me sort of by chance, in that when Trinidad and Tobago launched Trinidad and Tobago Fashion Week a few years ago, which has done really well regionally and here for our designers, one of the gentlemen who worked with Fashion Week and also manages my website etc, the company for which he works, thought that it would be a good idea to get the winner of America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) at that time, who was a young lady called McKey and who has gone on to be a very productive working model (‘Mckey’ Sullivan won Cycle 11 of ANTM). She enjoyed the experience so much; she came back the next year. She raved and raved about Trinidad and Tobago to the production company (ANTM) and they got in touch with Ian (Royer) who was responsible for getting her to Trinidad and Tobago and taking care of her while she was here etc., and asked if he was interested in the Top Model franchise and he discussed it with me. This was last year at the time and it sort of came together and we put a team together. He is a very progressive human being; and I said that he is young, his heart is in the right place, he is full of integrity and I am going to work with him on this project. So we assembled a good team and that’s how it took off really.
Now that I’m in it fully, and have had the opportunity to do my homework with regards to the business of Top Model, it’s a really, really exciting project. Apart from the fact that it makes good TV, my sister who is also one of my business partners, (there are four of us) she has already seen the opportunities that can come to us, not only to Trinidad and Tobago but to the region once we get this thing right, you know, because it is Caribbean wide, because of the nature of the show Erica, it celebrates ‘everything fashion about us’. We will be featuring, regional designers, regional stylists, putting ourselves out there, while making good TV and finding a young lady who can work here, regionally, and internationally.
NW: I was looking at the website, and you said that the young lady would be signed to an agency, have you decided on an agency yet?
Wendy: Yes, but we will make that announcement. I don’t want to reveal that yet, we will make that announcement during the course of the show, because our agency sponsors will also be one of the judges for one of the cycles. So, I can’t give away the entire show (laughter).
NW: Okay, that’s understandable. So how many episodes are you looking at? On the website I saw eleven episodes, so are we looking at 11 episodes for the show?
Wendy: Yes, but it may be increased to 12, but as of right now we are looking at eleven.
NW: The show will be broadcast through an affiliate of CBS?
Wendy: Yes, that is correct. CBS International is part owner of America’s Next Top Model, and we have acquired the franchise from CBS International who is also providing production support.
NW: So how many young ladies are you choosing initially? And how many will participate on the show?
Wendy: After the final selection we would have chosen 12 young women. But we will be breaking it down from 30 semi-finalists, to 12 finalists.
On Miss Universe, her early childhood and how the HIV/AIDS platform came about.
NW: Growing up as a child were you always interested in pageantry, or was this something that just came about?
Wendy: Honestly, not so much. I was proud of Janelle Commissiong our first Miss Universe and the world’s first Miss Universe of colour. When she won the title in ‘77, my God, I named every doll I had after her; we named the puppy Janelle Penny Commissiong, that dog had the longest name in the world (chuckles). So I’ve always admired Penny and like most little girls, admired Miss Universe; but I never was a pageant fan, my indoctrination was always in fashion. I remember back in the day before there was a style network or Bravo, there was style with Elsa Klensch on CNN (1980-2000). And I taped every episode of Style with Elsa Klensch, ever aired. I loved fashion, always, always, always. I started modeling in Trinidad and Tobago when I was about 12. I did fashion shows, I started doing fashion shows for Meiling, which is like the top of your game here, when I was 14, 15… I started at 12 sitting for Boscoe Holder who was one of Trinidad and Tobago’s top artists, so every Saturday morning I went to Boscoe… just to give you an idea.
I got involved in pageantry because my very good friend Peter Elias, a designer here in Trinidad, was adamant that I go to Miss Trinidad and Tobago, as a matter of fact he made it happen for me. He put my pictures together and he was very supportive of me participating in Miss Trinidad and Tobago, so I said “why not give it a shot”. He said to me, ‘Wendy, what is the worst that could happen?’ I was at Hugh Wooding Law School at the time. ‘You win Miss Trinidad and Tobago, you go to Miss Universe and you have a good time. That is something fun to do before you become a lawyer’. So I was like okay, sure.
Once I got involved Erica, once I won, I would even say before winning Miss Trinidad and Tobago, but once I won Miss Trinidad and Tobago, I was like wow! This is an amazing opportunity, and it has to be taken very seriously. This is a business, and this is a great head start to a young woman’s career, you know. It was while competing at Miss Universe, I really got it.
NW: How was ‘winning the title’? What was your initial reaction?
Wendy: That’s an experience comparable to, like giving birth (giggles). You live those few seconds almost in slow motion. I clearly remember hearing my name and thinking ‘Seriously. No way!’
Wendy: The first thing I did to ground myself was to look across the audience to where I knew Peter was sitting, because he was busy waving the Trinidad and Tobago flag, and you know, I was popular in Hawaii (the pageant was held at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii) and he made sure I was even more so by the end of the night.
He was sitting next to the Venezuelan delegation, and Miss Venezuela, Veruska was the first runner-up. By the end of the night, I mean, if you Google the shot when they make that announcement, the camera ‘pans to’ Peter and then it comes back to me on stage, and if you look at that video and look at that scene as Peter is hugging some people around him, there is one guy in particular Jose Luis, from Venezuela, Jose Luis almost lost his passport, because every time that shot is shown all over the world the Venezuelan contingent is cheering for the chick who just beat their girl (giggles). Peter did a phenomenal job, fantastic!
And then my next thought when I was walking and crying on stage, when they crowned me, they sashed me, the girls hugged me and then I’m walking on stage and I’m crying, I’m thinking, “Oh shoot, I have to write my exams in two weeks”….That was the first question I asked the president of Miss Universe at the time, Maureen Reidy. I said, ‘I am in my final weeks of law school and I am two weeks away from being a qualified attorney. How are we making this happen?’
NW: So you got to sit your finals obviously?
Wendy: Yes. There was no way with my obligations as Miss Universe I could have written my exams while I was Miss Universe, as it was a full-time job and on top of that you are all over the planet all the time.
When I left Trinidad to go to compete at Miss Universe, the law school was on study break, so I had already completed all my course work, all my assignments and it was just a question of writing the exam. What they did was they gave me a one-year sabbatical, and allowed me to pick up where I left off.
So as soon as I gave up my title (I gave up my title on a Thursday night) I went to Tobago for the weekend and relaxed for about three and a half days and the next Monday I was at the law school, meeting with my lecturers, meeting with my tutors because I had to write the exam. The competition was in late May I think? Yes, late May in 1999, and I was writing exams, supplementals by August of that year. So I had to get back on top of all that work, you know.
(She went back to Trinidad, taking four days off after she crowned Mpule, and went right back to her studies because she did not want to loose the opportunity to graduate that year. She crammed a year’s worth of work at Hugh Wooding law into three months).
I had to push myself to complete school within that three-month period.
NW: So I’ve noticed that the HIV/AIDS platform is a part of the Miss Universe Organization, but you seemed to have taken it to another level with the Hibiscus Foundation.
Wendy: Well, that’s an interesting story Erica, because it wasn’t so before I won Miss Universe.
NW: Oh, okay that’s interesting.
Wendy: Miss Universe Organization had never had an AIDS platform. But when I won Miss Universe, before Universe as a matter of fact, I was Miss Trinidad and Tobago, one of my friends, who also worked with the Miss Trinidad and Tobago Franchise holder at the time, Robert Solomon, his dad was the chief cook and bottle washer of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an organization under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church that takes care of older, poor people primarily in Trinidad and much of the Caribbean. They take care of families in need too. Like if you have been out of work for some time, or lost your home to fire or whatever, the Society would take care of you; to make sure you had meals, school books and uniforms and that kind of thing until you could get back on your feet.
The Society started a home (Cyril Ross Nursery) in Trinidad for children living with HIV who had been orphaned or abandoned. So these were kids at the bottom of the social ladder at that time in 1997, no one wanted to acknowledge that HIV existed in Trinidad and Tobago, furthermore live openly with the virus.
Robert said to us, the candidates of Miss Trinidad and Tobago, he asked us to go and spend an afternoon with these kids, who had not gotten a real hug from a family member or anything like that for months. A few of us, roughly seven of us, went to that home, and that experience still is (despite the many things I have been through in my life) one of my absolute, favourite experiences of all times. You know like when you talk about your first kiss, or your first pair of high heels, or winning Miss Universe one of those, like ‘life defining moment’. And why it was so special? It was totally unexpected. I had no idea what to expect, like if they were going to be sick or whatever. At the time they were all doing well physically, they hugged us up and I kissed them on the cheeks, and it was absolutely delightful, the most fun I had for a long time, and tragic in one way, because these are amazing kids, who were kept hidden away, you know because of their HIV status, and because the home was close to my law school, the Hugh Wooding Law School, I just decided that I would keep going. I would pop by, and I would read with them, and I would play with them between classes and study, and I just became a regular, and by the time I was leaving Trinidad to go to Miss Universe, I was like totally addicted to these children, totally addicted to that home. One of our reporters; Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘only paparazzi’ I call him, Andre, he saw me, because he lived on the same street as the home, saw me going to the home and he knew what the home was for, when all of the neighbours right around the home had no idea that this was a home for kids with HIV. And Andre said, you know Wendy, and he took pictures of me, and I said Andre please, you cannot publish any pictures of me, and further more you cannot disclose what goes on here because if you do, you will compromise these children, and their quality of life, blah, blah, blah…
So we made a deal. He said to me fine, but if you win Miss Universe, you know I’m going to have to publish (use) these. Of course I agreed because I thought the chances of me winning were like 1 in 85, 1 in 90? So, I said sure we have a deal and of course, sure enough I did win. He published the pictures and the resident rep at the UN at the time, Mr. Hans Geiser, (he was the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative for the Caribbean) wrote to Geneva saying that this girl has just won Miss Universe and that this is not something that is scripted, she does it in her spare time, she is very committed to these kids and they love her. Because of the problem with HIV in the Caribbean and Africa (in 1998 it was Africa and then us, the Caribbean right behind in terms of the severity of the epidemic) he said that this would be a great opportunity, so that’s how it came about. The United Nations made me a Goodwill Ambassador, and the Miss Universe Organization which was run by Molly Miles and Maureen J. Reidy at the time, saw an amazing opportunity for the pageant to ground itself and lend an air to a cause that can really have an impact on the places that the pageant is most popular, which is the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, Asia, you know and that’s how it started.
So after me, I worked with Miss Universe to bring the other title-holders into the fray, who had been committed in their own right. After me there was Mpule Kwelagobe of Botswana, and Mpule was already a youth counselor in Botswana, working with youths living with HIV. With Lara (Miss India who followed in 2000), it was basically the same thing. So it worked really well for the company having the three of us back to back, and their relationships with the various HIV organizations around the world, whether it was research, awareness, you name it. And it has just grown since.
Wendy talks about how the Hibiscus Foundation was established.
NW: You started the Hibiscus Foundation? This is something outside of the Miss Universe? How did this come about and what does the foundation do?
Wendy: Well again, the Hibiscus Foundation came about as a result of Miss Universe, winning Miss Universe. When I won the pageant, every company in Trinidad and Tobago took out a million advertisements as they are prone to do. You know “We are so proud of our girl Wendy…. Congratulation to Trinidad and Tobago”… “We are so proud of you Wendy… Royal Bank.” So I said when I came home for my homecoming, I said I’m so proud and pleased and humbled by the support that I am getting from my Nationals, particularly the business community, but instead of taking out those ads congratulating me, if they could choose their favourite charitable organization, and give the money that they are spending on me, to both the Cyril Ross Nursery and their favourite charity, and then during my home-coming I can’t tell you how many of them responded positively, and this is something I love about the private sector here. If you ask and you ask nicely, a few usually respond and respond very positively. So I started to get money, people were writing me checks, and I said you know what, I need to organize this, and I need to think through how I am going to organize this.
So that was one element (my homecoming in June 1998) and then working through the Miss Universe Organization; there were some prizes that were absolutely lovely but did not make sense. (Wendy talks about how she became inventive in cashing in portions of her prizes to contribute to her charity).
One example of this was Clairol, my hair product sponsor at the time; they gave a prize package of like $20,000 and all the hair products you can use for a year. They are catering for a white girl, not so Erica?
NW: Yes (laughter).
Wendy: Thank you, someone who shampoos her hair everyday. I am a Black chick, I shampoo my hair once a week, I don’t need that much shampoo and conditioner (giggles). I said to Clairol, at a meeting in Puerto Rico, I am going to use a quarter of this, can you guys give me the monetary value of the rest of this, and I can contribute to this organization at home, because I was obsessed with the Cyril Ross Nursery at the time, and they agreed, Planet Hollywood agreed to give me some money, and a few others. I sat down with a couple of my friends, Peter Elias included (who got me involved in pageantry in the first place), Derwin Howell, who was a senior executive at Republic Bank, and another friend and fellow attorney, Diane Shurland, and we mapped exactly what we would do. All of us were very busy people; I wanted every cent I collected to go to the people and the organizations who needed it. I didn’t need to give organizations like the Red Cross or United Way money, which could attract this in their own right. I focused on places like the Cyril Ross Nursery, who didn’t have the savvy or the resources to get grants funding for various projects, and the little projects that I could assist with by getting monies or other resources. If you needed training, I could get it. You know what I mean, because I was building a global network through Miss Universe, so that’s what we did. We created The Hibiscus Foundation (THF), which in Trinidad and Tobago acts like a little brokerage firm, for not only the Cyril Ross Nursery, but for other youth-related NGOs. At Cyril Ross we started a clinic that helps to take care of our HIV positive kids. The Nursery’s outpatient program is actually bigger than our resident clinic. Our residents are 30 and our outpatient program is roughly 170 Nationals. THF annually works with a couple of other organizations – there is this organization that refurbishes old computers in Trinidad and allows kids to come to a safe environment to “lime” supervised on computers. It got kids off the street after school, whose parents are working late, and had no agenda. So it’s that kind of thing, Hibiscus acts almost as a brokerage firm, I like to say, we source what you need , we bring it to the table, and every year we work with three organizations and the Cyril Ross Nursery, and fill a gap, fill a need, complete a project on behalf of an organization.
On the Miss Angola, Leila Lopas’ win
NW: What are you thoughts on Miss Angola winning the title of Miss Universe?
W: Oh my God, I’m thrilled! Could you imagine?
NW: I was excited also. Did you see it?
Wendy: I missed it, but will definitely see it! I got a million calls at 11 o’clock. My friend Peter told me that she was most deserving. He said Wendy everyone was beautiful, no one messed up their questions, but ‘you know what Angola had, she was consistent, she was regal and real, you felt sincerity from that young woman,’ you know.
NW: It appears that many Brazilians pulled for her
W: Well, yes Brazil and Angola have a great deal in common. They are both former Portuguese colonies, it’s a 5 hour flight from Rio de Janeiro to Luanda, the Angolan capital, and all of Brazil’s entertainers work in Angola, you know their music, Kizomba, is very, very similar to Samba, because really there is a tremendous affinity. So it was like Brazil won the world cup because they came third and first.
NW: What advice would you give to Miss Angola?
Wendy: For one, because of the reports I’ve gotten in terms of her calm, her grace, her maturity, what I would tell her, the most important thing for her to remember this year, it is a year, so make the most of it. Next year, there will be another Miss Universe. All of the amazing contacts and experiences she will have this year, keep in touch with those people. Keep notes of all the opportunities wherever they are. Never be too tired for a kind word, or to shake someone’s hand, because even though it may be that you have shaken a thousand hands on that day before, for that person, it’s there first time meeting you, and they really want to, and they really respect you, and in some instances idolize you…. So just continue to be her graceful, amazing self, because the time goes by so quickly and there is so much happening all the time so keep in touch, and write everything down.
When you go to a restaurant and you want to get back to that place, write down the name of it, write down the name of the bottle of wine that you really enjoy. Keep the cards as you will get hundreds of them, possibly thousands. Take notes where you meet someone, at the back of those cards as to where you met someone, because that has served me well over the years, and things that pop up that may not pop up everyday, like if I see someone in the news of someone I’ve met, you know, I drop them a note, ‘congratulations’ on this event or other…‘so sorry to hear about’ whatever the situation is, you know, and that helps. If you are smart as Miss Universe, you build a global network that could rival Nelson Mandela’s, because you are meeting everyone, from world leaders, head fashion bookers… you get to meet everyone as Miss Universe, and the title gives you a ‘leg up’ as a young woman in any industry.
On being a single mother, entrepreneur and what has affected her most
NW: So how do you keep a balance, Wendy? You run a company, you are involved in all these extra-curricular activities…
W: Yes, I do a great deal and I have an amazing son, a complete sweetheart…
NW: I’m getting to that in a minute… but, how do you keep balance in your life?
Wendy: I prioritize, I am not a multi-tasker, but I can do many things well sequentially… and I have a good support team, you know, so that’s very important, understanding what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, and working with your strengths…
I keep my balance by prioritizing, recognizing that I can’t do it all, and at the same time always taking a little time out for Wendy. I am by my nature more than slightly ambitious, I get caught up and carried away with work, and before Ailan, I always used to schedule, every quarter down time…I would take a weekend, I would go to a place to regroup, one of my places was Guyana, and why because it’s quiet and beautiful, and nobody goes there, it’s totally unsexy to most, but to me it’s magical, and it’s the perfect place, so I go there. I would go there before Ailan was born and I would relax for one week, every three months. Now with Ailan, things are a bit different. Having a child causes one to refocus, you know. For example, I general don’t take phone calls before I drop him to school in the morning, unless it is my mother or his paternal grand parents, or his dad calling him, I never answer that phone before I drop him to school, because that is our time. So I can’t run away now, every quarter, but I make sure everyday I have a little time, that’s just Wendy time or Wendy and Ailan time. Mornings are Wendy and Ailan, and after I put him to bed at night usually there is a half hour or so that is my time, and if I fall asleep with him, which happens alot, one of the habits of being a mom (laughs)… I am a morning person, so I wake up very early in the morning, I just take a little time to focus, or maybe dig into some book, that I am really enjoying, and then I get started with my day, before everyone else in the world is up. You know, so that keeps me focused and grounded.
NW: So having him has basically re-grounded you.
W: Completely! A good example of how drastically a child changes you life… You know I’ve been everywhere on the planet, before Ailan, I would fill my time being busy partying or whatever, because Erica there was nothing else to do. Now I cherish that period, that week between Christmas and the 27th of December to, I would say, the second, third of January, because I would always run away to someplace with him that is quiet and lovely, and would be in bed by 9 p.m. with Ailan. I ring in the New Year hugging up my son sleeping, and why, because it’s a great time to spend with my son and just have fun with him….building sand castles or hiking to some waterfall.
The other example is that you have someone else to worry about beside yourself, it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s all about him, his needs, first and foremost.
NW: So was it difficult for you at first? Being a single parent, I know he has a dad…
Wendy: Yes. I have to say, honestly it’s not in terms of taking care of him, it’s the other things… If you have ever read my book…
NW: I started to read it, but haven’t gotten a copy of the actual book yet, but plan to.
Wendy: I was very ready to be a mom, very, very ready, so ready I really can’t say. Even when Ailan does naughty things, like write on my bathtub with markers, I would reprimand him, and discipline him, but I do it ‘with love’. I’m enjoying every moment of being a mom…of course there are aspects about being a parent that are very difficult, but my mom has been very supportive of me and Ailan has an excellent relationship with his father and I also have live-in help, which helps a lot, because if you are working, and have to come home and take care of meals etc, then that’s all I would do, you understand… work, do laundry, prepare meals, keep the house clean. Because I have someone to take that responsibility from me, it makes it easier for me, I could spend my time with my son, so when I get home and it’s evening, just before he goes to bed, I tuck him in, I have dinner with him, I read with him, because I’m not worried about tomorrow’s school uniform, you understand where I’m coming from? That helps tremendously, I have to say. My mom as I said, is also very, very supportive, always there for us, and my sister, so you know, the parenting aspect of my life, is actually the area of my life that gives me the most joy.
The challenges for me as a mom comes from the things that are difficult for most moms, like maybe another child who is bullying your child, how do you deal with that? Because your instinct as mom, is lioness, you want to ‘deck’ the child, but you need to step back as mom as well, and think you know this child may be dealing with situations at home personally, so you have to decide how you balance, how you protect your kid and allow for the growing pains, that Erica, is the most difficult aspect for me, about being a parent, single or otherwise. It’s knowing when to pull back, when to let go and let them experience, when to protect.
NW: Tell me about the book “Letters to Ailan”, why was it important to write this book?
Wendy: It was very important to me, to express my story in my own words…because in the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, my pregnancy was very controversial. Because I had decided to become a single mother and as I’ve said before, I never lived my private life very publicly before Ailan. Pregnancy is not something that you can or should want to hide, I am and have always been a small frame woman, but if I get pregnant, you are going to know, you know (giggles). So I wanted to tell my story in my own words, if only for my son, he is a very intelligent human being, and he will read everything that has been written and said about me during that time at some point in his life. He will ask questions on why his mom and dad are not together, eventually, and I wanted him to have that story whether I’m alive or not from me. So, I kept a journal, I always do. Secondly my manager at the time Tyron Barrington, when I told him I was pregnant, he said, ‘lovely darling, you must write a book’, and we will call it “Letters to your child”, so even before, I had any idea what the book would look like, Ty had insisted that I start writing, and this was in my first trimester, I told him even before I told my mother. So that was reason number two, because it was ‘in train’ already. And then as my story unfolded, I realized that it was unique in some ways, but that it’s universal. So many people can relate to my story. There was so many lessons I learned from my experience of becoming a mom in terms of my relationship with my child, my relationship with my son’s father and I thought it was worth sharing, and that’s why I published. And I always believed that if I had not published ‘Letters to Ailan’, I would have written it, but I’m very happy that I have published, because the feedback has been overwhelming.
NW: Another question. I know a lot of strong Caribbean women, they would like to have a career, they would like to have a family, they would like to do all the things they want to do as in making a positive impact on society, how ‘doable’ or realistic of a goal would you say this is? Or how difficult do you think it is to accomplish?
Wendy: I think it’s very hard to have it all at the same time. You have to do things somewhat sequentially, but not just here in the Caribbean. You know they are so many women who have done it well, you have to be strong, you have to put your foot down sometimes, and know what is right and what is wrong.
I clearly remember when I was at e TecK, at a meeting our acting president insisting that we have a meeting at 7:30 a.m. one morning, this is after a week as an executive working everyday until like 8/9 o’clock at night, and I said to her in no uncertain terms, “I won’t give up my mornings with my child because it’s his most important time of the day. I will give up one morning for you for this meeting, but I’m leaving here at 2 p.m. tomorrow to go pick him up at school. You can either have me for the whole day or for the whole evening (because we were having a board meeting) or I am going to be here at 9 a.m. and not a second before”. Why so dogmatic? Because you are not going to get those years back.
So you CAN have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time, and you have to prioritize, and sometimes that might mean offending the boss, who may have to step back in reason, and figure it out, and appreciate the fact that you are so dogmatic in your approach to both your career and family.
I remember when my mom would call me on the job and say, “Oh my God he is so cute”, I’m like mommy, when I’m working don’t call me, and why, because if you call me in the middle of my day when it’s not scheduled I will assume that something is wrong, I will think that my child has ‘bust’ his head open or something is wrong. When I’m on the job I’m giving 220%, call me only if there is an emergency, and when I’m with my child, it’s his time. I think that’s how you do it. But, you also have to be confident enough to step up to your boss to say if you can have this time or not, and you can only do that if you are comfortable in your career, or your own right as a woman. The way the world works now, having a child very young is a very, very, difficult and frightening prospect, I think. Even if you are in a relationship, or you are married, it’s easier mentally and physically to some extent if you are very, very, ready for that step on many levels.
Back in the day, when my mom and her peers were having kids, that’s primarily what they did for five years or so, you know. Now, you are expected to work, you’re expected in and outside of the home to be ‘super mom’. It’s like raising a woman to be super woman, and if you are as I am and have made the choice to be a single mother, it is very, very demanding. You can’t think when the child is ‘balling his eyes out’ (crying), whether he is six months, six years or sixteen, ‘God I’m really tired, I’ve had a long day at work and I have a presentation at work in the morning as I’m about to close a deal, I really can’t take this child anymore’, no, you have to be there. You can’t leave those kinds of responsibilities to a nanny.
So it is demanding, but once you are ready for it, like anything else, if you are in a career that you really like, then it’s not just a job, it a profession and something that you enjoy doing, and parenting is no different if you really are ready for parenthood, it is the most, by far, rewarding experience.
Every single day, my son gives me something, he says something, that just makes me think ‘Oh my God, I am so blessed.’ A few days ago on the weekend, on Sunday morning he got up and he said to me, ‘Mama, I just had a movie in my eyes’, so I said, ‘a movie in your eyes Ailan?’ He said, ‘Yes mama’. I said, ‘You mean a dream?’ He said, ‘I saw a man try to break into our home, and I came to the rescue like superman.’ And I hugged him up and kissed him up all over, and I thought ‘a movie in your eye’, when have you ever heard a dream expressed in these terms. Little things, you just pay attention to… the little things, you get such a rush. Whereas, before Ailan, I got a rush from a pair of fabulous shoes, but not nearly as much as I do now. It’s like now, I need a pair of decent shoes … it’s not like I’m ‘jonsing’ to get the most fabulous pair of Loboutins, I don’t care. I care much more about ‘the movie in my eye’ (laughs).
NW: I have one more question before you go. From all of your life experiences, what would you say have been your best lessons?
Wendy: Oh, best lessons… I can’t give you one Erica, I have to give you three; the three experiences that are at the top for me in order of priority. And we are doing it like a countdown to Miss Universe, and the winner is going to be called …..
Number three would definitely be in terms of life experiences/lessons, would be my relationship with my son’s father, learning patience, humility, how to be assertive, things that I was not particularly good at. I’ve gotten much better at that.
Number two would be a tie, between Miss Universe and the Cyril Ross Nursery, and that chance encounter I had with those kids as a result of Robert Solomon in 1997, and both of them wildly different but similar. Like totally unexpected, both of them, I did not know what I was in for in either experience, and both caused me to grow up quickly. Both taught me to see the world very, very differently, appreciate the many, many blessings that I have. These are experiences that most people don’t have. Of all the people on this planet there have only been 60 Miss Universes, and you don’t achieve that title for a particular talent, it’s not like I sing well, or I can act, like Meryl Streep or Angela Bassett, it’s because of who you are, because the activities you are engaged in are so varied. I remember clearly having a breakfast meeting with Harry Belafonte and Michael Douglas, that same evening I was at a shelter in Puerto Rico for victims of a hurricane that had basically wiped them out, they were families, like my family in Trinidad, you know, regular ‘happy go lucky’, hard-working people, like my parents, and my sister and I are. So that experience and the lessons learnt, to my interaction with the kids at the Cyril Ross Nursery and learning their stories, how they came to be at the Cyril Ross Nursery, really taught me some strong life lessons.
At the top of course, is Ailan. Nothing beats giving birth and raising a child. Nothing! It’s pure instinct. It reminds me that I’m a part of the animal kingdom, raising my son. It’s as natural and instinctive as anything can be. It’s also a sharp learning curve. I mean like, do you know anybody with a PhD in Parenting?
NW: No (laughs)!
Wendy: Exactly, you don’t get years and years of study.
NW: Wendy, thank you so much for your time and openness. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. This meant a lot to me.
Wendy: Thank you Erica, if you need anything else from me, please let me know. Again, I apologize for the late start, please forgive me. Thanks Erica.
Copyright Nu Woman Magazine 2011. This story was featured in Nu Woman’s Fall 2011/Winter issue.
Photography by Calvin French