Unhappy crown: Torika Watters (Photo: Mai Life magazine)

A sixteen-year-old girl is at the centre of an ugly row in Fiji over her suitability to represent the country in the Miss World competition. Torika Watters is a mixed race European/ indigenous Fijian – known locally as a Kailoma – who beat a field of full-blooded indigenous and Indo-Fijian contestants to win the Miss World Fiji crown.  There’s controversy about whether a sixteen-year-old should have been allowed to enter the competition in the first place, with the Fiji Times branding Torika the “baby queen”. But that controversy has been overshadowed by a bigger argument over her racial characteristics and “non-Fijian” appearance.

Ever since she was crowned last weekend, Torika has found herself dissected – some might say eviscerated – on both the “coconut radio” of local gossip and social media such as Facebook. Why? Incredibly, because of her “European” looks and the fact that she doesn’t look “typically Fijian”, presumably without the broad nose and fuzzy hair of an indigenous i’taukei or the lithe sultriness of the descendant of a transplant from the Indian subcontinent. Evidently, her crime is to be simply too white in a population with a typical colour spectrum ranging from cafe latte to strong black.

All sorts : Miss World Fiji contestants (Photo: Fiji Times)

The debate goes to the heart of the continuing obsession with race in Fiji that has always thwarted the country’s social and political development. The truly disturbing aspect is that deep-seated racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be the preserve of uneducated backwoodsmen. Some of the more overtly racist comments in the Miss World Fiji furore have been made by Facebook contributors who are both internet savvy and relatively affluent, including a prominent Suva lawyer.

Racial division has produced three of Fiji’s four coups since independence. The fourth – Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 takeover – was largely anti-racial, an attempt by Bainimarama to enforce equality and declare every citizen a Fijian for the first time. Yet if anything, the Miss World fracas shows that while the regime may be able to formally enforce equality at the point of a gun, it can’t legislate against entrenched ethno-nationalist attitudes and blind prejudice.

The buiniga as worn (l) by former Miss Hibiscus Lenora Qereqeretabua, seen here with the first Miss Hibiscus 1956, Liebling Marlow, a Kailoma. (Photo: Fintel)

The Facebook row over Torika’s win has even extended to a debate over hair, with some contributors saying that any Fijian Miss World should sport a buiniga ( a frizzy i’taukei style ) over the winner’s flowing western-style locks. Then there were complaints about the way indigenous people were portrayed on stage, with allegations that the i’taukei girl sitting at Torika’s feet and the warrior with the club by her side presented a demeaning image to the world of Fiji’s original inhabitants.

Some have even seen a white conspiracy in the choice of Torika over indigenous and Indo-Fijian contestants. The chief judge was Rachel Hunter – the New Zealand supermodel and former spouse of rocker Rod Stewart – who was joined by Fear Factor USA grand champion Mark Hewlett and a clutch of local judges, none of them of purely indigenous descent. While this may have been unwise under the circumstances, was it a “white stitch-up”? Surely only the most racially motivated would see any conspiracy.

White stitch-up? : The winner with supermodel Rachel Hunter

Many Kailoma in Fiji have long felt they occupy something of a netherworld – neither European nor Fijian – and the Miss World row has stirred some deep-seated sensitivities and even feelings of rejection. In the way of mixed race people the world over, many of them are physically attractive – combining the best attributes of both – and are therefore more likely, perhaps, to conform with conventional western stereotypes of beauty.   This is undoubtedly so in the case of Torika Watters. So are her critics motivated by racism or merely a latent sensitivity that expressions of their own racial characteristics aren’t being properly acknowledged for their own undoubted beauty? Either way, it’s been an ugly spectacle at a time when race is again at the centre of the national debate in Fiji, with hotly-contested claims by a paramount chief, Ro Teimumu Kepa, that indigenous Fijians are again being disadvantaged over other races.

The sole comfort to be derived from this sorry episode is the outcry on Torika’s behalf and the equally furious denunciation of the critics of her win. As one Kailoma supporter told Grubsheet – “At least we now know who some of these racists are. Before they pretended to be our friends and said these things behind our backs”. What effect will all this have on the psyche of a sixteen-year-old, who is still a student at the Nadi International School ? That’s been the immediate concern of Torika’s family and friends. But there’s a wider concern about the pressure that will inevitably come when Torika goes to the Miss World pageant in Mongolia later in the year. Because the events of recent days make it almost inevitable that she won’t just be just another entrant but the standard bearer for a multiracial Fiji.