By Erica Meus-Saunders
I first had the opportunity to meet Leila Lopes at the Miss Bahamas Double Crown Pageant held this past July at the Atlantis ballroom. Initially, I had not intended to attend the pageant as I was still in mourning over the loss of my mother, but the fact that Leila was going to be present gave me an added drive to make this event.
I was late in attending the pageant, but was delighted to realize that my seat was just a few feet from the judge’s table and I took glimpses of Leila during the pageant.
A few hours later, I had an opportunity to talk with her one-on-one after the pageant at the social event planned. I really wanted to do an interview right then, but Leila didn’t have a moment to herself as persons were approaching her for photos and to get a moment of her time. I did notice that she seemed tired but she was graceful and smiled, nodded and posed with various onlookers. I spoke to my long time friend Esther (Director of Talent with the Miss Universe Organization) and we arranged an interview for a few days later via telephone from New York. Ester was good to her word and connected me to Jackie (PR on the Miss Universe Team) who set up the interview a few days later. I received the telephone call Thursday morning from Jackie, and Leila and I got into conversation immediately. I had been expecting the usual rehearsed answers, but was pleasantly surprised by how honest she was in her responses.
Leila: Hello Erica, how are you?
Erica: Morning Leila, I am all right. I’m so happy you took this opportunity to talk with me. I had sent some questions, did you have an opportunity to look at them.
Leila: Yes, I just did.
Erica: Okay, I’ll just start with some basic questions. They probably won’t be in order. How demanding is your schedule for one thing?
Leila: Sometimes it’s very demanding. I find it very hard especially when doing hair and make-up, attending events, and always having to be on for everything, always having to be very well presented. Sometimes, it’s very hard to keep up.
Erica: What was winning Miss Universe like for you as an African woman, and what does the title of Miss Universe mean to you?
Leila: It’s a big thing. Actually, it’s the first time someone from my country won something internationally. It’s great for me, I put my country on the map, and it’s the second time an African/Black woman has won. Which is also great, empowering African beauty, African women. I can only say that it’s the biggest achievement I’ve had.
Erica: When you entered the pageant did you think that you would win?
Leila: I was hoping; I was very hopeful. I thought I could win, with hope always we can do things, with confidence and hope.
Erica: What has this experience taught you so far?
Leila: Being Miss Universe has taught me that with education (how can I put this) determination, hope and respect for everybody, and my platform that we can overcome so many challenges. But, it’s not easy being Miss Universe. As I have said, my schedule is extremely tight, especially when I’m traveling. I have to have so much assistance in getting this or that done.
Erica: Give us an idea about your schedule, say you’re traveling in a week, how many stops do you make?
Leila: Well, it depends. For example, I did tours to Africa – I went to 5 countries in 6 days.
Leila: It was really hard. Sometimes I would spend the night in one country; I would land, do interviews, make an appearance and then leave. Being on the road can be very stressful. I had to be like always on, always happy, always smiling, always very well presented.
Erica: How do you cope on a daily basis? What do you do to help you relax?
Leila: Well, I don’t know, I try to put in my mind that I have to be strong, I have to focus. I put on my mind that I want to be more, I want to improve. So I don’t let the stress get to me. I don’t get really sad because at the end of the day, this is my job so I’m very conscious about it.
Erica: Another question, and this is an easy one. What are your hobbies?
Leila: I like going to the movies, I like playing with a friend, going out, clubbing; now it’s hard because of my schedule. I can’t stay out late as there is always something to do in the early morning so I’m afraid to go clubbing late. But for me to spend some time with a friend, I go sometimes just for one hour for a little bit to shake the stress away.
Erica: How important is your work with HIV and AIDS? And I know as a Miss Universe you have certain things that you must do in working with your platform, so how important is that to you?
Leila: For me it’s very important as Miss Angola was doing it already, so I was eager. I had the opportunity to work in every country; I had the opportunity to talk about it . And like before, I used to think small – only in terms of Angola, Africa, when actually, it’s the entire world that needs to be educated. For me, having the opportunity to at least touch somebody’s heart; having somebody hearing what I have to say it’s very important to me.
I volunteer with organizations; I’ve done an HIV and AIDS public test to encourage people to do it. It wasn’t easy, even though I know I protect myself, but it wasn’t easy to do the public test, it wasn’t easy at all. But I wanted to show people that this was the best way we can have healthier lives by knowing our status.
Erica: I read that you would like to open up a cosmetics company in Angola after your reign. Tell us a little bit more about this.
Leila: Yes, unfortunately in Angola, we have to import everything., every single thing, from Brazil, from Portugal, from South Africa. With my time in New York, I’ve met a lot of people, most of them are experts in one field or another. I’m in the beauty world so I’m exposed to this crowd, and I’m very interested in this. Angolan women really love make-up, and I like to see women taking care of themselves. So for me it would be a great opportunity to contribute to my country; to have it for lower prices. It’s so expensive when you have to import everything.
Erica: What do you love most about your country?
Leila: My people, I love them so much.
Erica: What do you love specifically about your people?
Leila: They are very happy, very hopeful – I would say that they are. We were in a war for more than 30 years and we never gave up. We were still believing that things could get better for our country, and after 33 years, it got better and now we are rebuilding the country. So that’s what I like most about my country, the people, because the people, they are the ones that make the country a great place.
Erica: What advice would you offer any young lady who wants to pursue the title of Miss Universe? What advice can you give them from your experience?
Leila: When I decided to compete for Miss Angola, a lot of people told me that I was just a pretty girl, that I didn’t have the confidence, a lot of people thought that they knew it all. But, I was confident and I felt that I could do it. So my advice for every girl is that if you have this in your heart and feel like you can do it, just go for it, just go for it. At least give it a try. It doesn’t matter if you are going to lose or win, just give it a try. Don’t give up.
Erica: What is the one thing that you would like people to remember about you and your reign as a Miss Universe?
Leila: I don’t know, I don’t feel as if I’m done, even after I’ve finished my reign, I’ll continue to do all the charity work that I’ve been doing because I really enjoy it. I really enjoy helping people, so I want to be remembered as a person who cares about others. Like I’m always trying to make people feel comfortable (laughter)
This question makes me feel sad, it’s like I’m almost done.
Erica: Well even though you are almost done with your reign, you want to continue doing what you have been doing, so that’s a good thing and this is just a beginning for you. Has the experience been all you thought it would be?
Leila: Nope (laughter). No, no, not at all. One thing that I always say, it doesn’t matter. Former Miss Universe could come to me and say, Leila, when you win it will be like this; it’s different, we all experience things in a different way. It’s impossible for all of us to think the same, to take it all the same. For me I like traveling, and now it’s like traveling ALL the time. I like going to events, but now it’s like going to events ALL the time. And sometimes I just don’t feel like doing anything at all, but you have to, you have to, you have to.
The world is there like (how can I say) waiting for you. The pressure; it’s a lot of things going on at the same time. So this was something that I wasn’t prepared for. I don’t think anybody was, so I can’t say that it was everything I was expecting it to be, it’s way different. It’s good, and I have like good and bad moments. The good moments are really good, but the bad moments are really bad.
Erica: What are some of the things that you would like to take from this experience? What can you take back to this into everyday life?
Leila: I wasn’t too good working with pressure; I was really, really bad, when it came to working with pressure. There were some things that I was not sure I was able to accomplish, to attack, like university. But now, I know that I have to, it’s a must.
Erica: So you are going back to school after this?
Leila: Yes, I will and I’ll be a pro, because now I’m ready for everything. This title, O my God, it’s crazy. It’s not just a job, it’s a school for life. It teaches everything that life has to teach.
Erica: I think that is all the questions I had lined up for you and I truly appreciate you taking the time to talk to me Leila.
Leila: Thank you Erica
Erica: Thank you so much Leila.
This article was featured in NU Woman’s Fall 2011 issue. Leila Lopes was one of three models on the covers (it was a three-cover issue).
©Nu Woman magazine 2012. All rights reserved.