When you hear of an Oxford-graduated, world-travelled, human rights lawyer, your first thought certainly wouldn’t be a beauty queen. But that’s just one way that the newest Miss World Trinidad and Tobago, Ysabel Bisnath, is working to break stereotypes.
With a résumé better suited to Amal Clooney – winning an Open Scholarship after her time in St. Joseph’s Convent (POS), graduating from top British universities like the University of Oxford and King’s College, speaking four languages fluently, working in law in Brussels and Italy, as well as spending time teaching English in China – it shocked most people to discover that someone like Ysabel was considering running for Miss World T&T. Because, well, at the end of the day, it’s considered a beauty pageant.
“I really thought about it quite a lot before I entered. I researched the Miss World organization, and saw that the focus is less on modelling and fashion necessarily than it is on charity work,” she explained. “What you get the most marks for, and what we’re really tightening up now, is the charity project, much more than appearances and designers and clothes. I think that really shows where the emphasis is.”
But don’t take that to mean that being interested in beauty and fashion is a frivolous thing either, because Ysabel thinks that there’s a balance – and you can be both well-educated and attractive, both charitable and fashionable, both interested in personal growth and looks.
“I think that you can be feminine and feminist at the same time. You can love beauty and taking care of yourself, but you can also be an independent woman, a lawyer, a doctor, whatever you want to be,” she continued.
“We’re not circumscribed to fit into different boxes anymore. We’re much more tolerant of diversity, and I hate to perpetuate that dichotomy and stereotype – that women who are interested in fashion and beauty are superficial and silly. I don’t want to continue that.”
It’s a powerful statement, but Ysabel is no stranger to taking control. In fact, even during the final question portion of the night at the Miss World T&T crowning, she held her hand out to hold the microphone herself, asking the male host Rome a simple ‘May I?”. The audience erupted in laughter, but she wasn’t joking. In fact, she was as serious as ever. But if you’d tell her years ago that she’d have the courage to do that in front of a live audience, she’d be the first to laugh at you.
“I was actually quite shy growing up. I didn’t really have a lot of self-confidence, I was quite introverted and initially in primary and secondary school, I struggled to make friends a little bit,” Ysabel explained. “After I started doing law, I realized the importance of putting myself out there and developing my public speaking skills. I see being a representative of Trinidad and Tobago now as an extension of that – I’m using my platform to voice my opinions and initiate social change”.
She’s always been passionate about social change. In fact, shortly after she moved home in March, Ysabel began working with a charity called For the Love of Reading TT as their ambassador. In fact, it was getting involved with the local charity and wanting to spread awareness throughout the country that really pushed her to attend the casting for Miss World in the first place. And while most women who enter beauty pageants will share stories of their family and friends convincing them to enter, it was the opposite for Ysabel.
“Actually, my parents were very hesitant about me entering the pageant. They have heard the press about previous franchises and pageant titleholders, and they felt that it was not the route I should go down,” she offered by explanation. “Law is a very conservative profession. Your reputation, your integrity and your independence mean so much in the professional world, so you can’t take anything that could potentially be counterproductive to that very lightly. But when they saw how the franchise was run and how the whole organisation has been, they completely changed their point of view.”
But even with her parents’ change of heart, she knew they were still very concerned about their daughter now becoming a public figure – both locally and internationally – and rightly so. Being so in the public now opens up the opportunity for criticism, encourages people to get involved in personal matters, and makes it even harder for private events to stay private. Think back to some of the Miss World and Miss Universe representatives from years past – people like Anya Ayoung-Chee and Sarah Jane Waddell, who the general public have taken a special interest in. So understandably, the idea of possibly receiving that level of fame or interest is a daunting one.
“People will always criticize you, I’m prepared for that. I understand that people may not like me. I may make mistakes and people may pick up on them, and call me out for it in a particularly negative way, but I think that when things like that happen, you just have to believe in yourself,” Ysabel said. “I genuinely believe that I would do a great job representing Trinidad and Tobago, and I hope, even though people might have their differences in perspective, or might disagree with something I say or certain things that I do, that fundamentally we as a people can unify behind our representatives. I really hope that Trinidad can unify behind me.”
And the criticism has already started for 25-year-old Ysabel, who’s lived abroad since she was 18, for speaking with a slightly more British tonation than our local creole twang. While our natural Trinbagonian accent certainly has some sort of a British undertone to many, to local Brits, it’s a completely foreign language, and Ysabel found herself struggling to communicate in class without having to repeat herself over and over. So she consciously had to mimic certain pronunciations and tonations to be understood more clearly – and it’s become a part of her accent after a while. But don’t let her slightly-different accent convince you that she’s any less Trini. Nope, Ysabel is confident she’ll be able to represent our twin island nation proudly – accent and all.
“I really don’t think that it’ll affect my ability to represent Trinidad and Tobago, because I grew up in Trinidad, I went to school here, and when I was away I was always known as ‘the girl from Trinidad and Tobago’ who was always talking about T&T or carnival or encouraging people to come visit,” she added.
“That is my identity, and that is what I represent to other people, and that doesn’t change because I speak with more of an accent because I lived away for a little while or not, because that’s who I am.”
She’s a proud Trinbagonian clearly, and this is not the first time she’s represented our country internationally. In fact, she only had the opportunity to attend Oxford after winning an Open Scholarship from our government. Although she’s had a world of experiences since then, none of it would have been possible without the help she received from the government in the first place. And so she sees representing Trinidad and Tobago at Miss World as just another way to give back.
“I’ve always been a firm believer in the scholarship system. If the government of Trinidad and Tobago pays for your education – and I really enjoyed my degree, but it’s incredibly expensive and difficult to finance – I think that you have a duty to give back in some way,” she explained, telling me that she’s now working to negotiate her contract with the government to allow her to prepare adequately for the pageant in December. “This is still another form of national service. I’m now representing Trinidad and Tobago globally.”
And with the pageant in China on the horizon, Ysabel is more ready than ever to represent Trinidad and Tobago well. Having been lucky enough to travel in the past, including to China, she knows what it means to experience some of the world’s most incredible cultures and see some of the most beautiful places, but she admits that it somehow always reminds her of how incredible back home really is.
“Trinbagonians are very outward-looking people, and that’s what’s so great about us. A lot of people go to New York, to Miami, to Canada if they have the opportunity to do so,” she said. “But at the same time, I think we musn’t forget ourselves and what we can offer the world as a nation. I think there’s always room for even stronger patriotism.”
She’s excited to take this patriotism with her to Miss World, to enhance her public speaking skills, to meet the other women from all around the world, to learn more about their different cultures, and to really become the best version of herself. But perhaps she’s most excited about the charity aspect of the pageant. And the charity that she’ll be representing reflects two things that she’s incredibly passionate about: human rights and education.
“It’s called the Silver Lining home school. It’s a fantastic school for children who are differently-abled, whether because of learning disabilities, autism, severe bullying that really reduces their self-confidence, children struggling with their sexual identity, any child that doesn’t sort of fit within the school system in Trinidad and Tobago,” she added. “We all know that school can be brutal. Children can be difficult to get along with, and for children who are more vulnerable, it makes it really hard for them to learn. So it’s important to have a system like that in place to support children.”
For Ysabel, this is the perfect marriage of her passion and her job. She currently works as a lawyer with the Ministry of Education, but her passion for education, human rights and equality, combined with her experience through the teaching program in China and For the Love of Reading TT, makes this the perfect cause for her to bring along with her to the pageant.
She mentions looking forward to learning about all of the causes that her fellow Miss World candidates are passionate about, and smiles when thinking about the group of ladies she’ll soon meet. But she’s quick to mention how incredible of an experience she had with the smaller-scale pageant here.
“All of us were very supportive of one another and very kind. I had a really nice time training with everyone, and I think that people were very open to each other,” she said, of the Spirit of the Pageant award that she received on Sunday, voted by her fellow contestants. “I think the award really reflects that community and that sisterhood that we share.”
Armed with a world of education and experiences under her belt, Ysabel prepares herself for the journey of a lifetime. She’s excited to teach the world about our nation, our culture, our people. She’s ready to show how we love and experience life here in the Caribbean. And she’s hopeful to bring home the crown for Trinidad and Tobago once again.