Fiji has a new Miss World contestant after a debacle that has shamed the local organisers and severely dented sponsor confidence in the country’s ability to stage credible events. The original winner of the competition – 16-year old Torika Watters – has been deemed ineligible, on the grounds of age, to participate in the forthcoming Miss World in Mongolia and will be replaced by runner-up Koini Vakaloloma. The switch has been accompanied by a raft of allegations of incompetence and impropriety, including claims that Torika’s victory was “pre-determined” by a relative who organised the event. Torika herself has referred, in a public statement, to “lies, deception and lack of transparency” in a saga that has Suva’s beau monde in a lather of fevered speculation and gossip.
The 16-year old schoolgirl shot to global attention a fortnight ago when critics of the competition questioned whether she “looked Fijian enough” or “native enough” to represent the country as Miss World. Torika – whose mother comes from a Kailoma or mixed-race Fiji family but whose father is European – found herself at the centre of storm that goes to the heart of Fiji’s continuing racial divide. There was a furious backlash against her critics, notably in the social media, and she was embraced by many as a symbol of the multiracial ideal being promoted by the government of Frank Bainimarama.
That debate has now been put on hold. Koini Vakaloloma – Torika’s replacement – has an indigenous name but is also without the conspicuous indigenous features – especially the buiniga hairstyle – that sparked much of the furore in the first place. What puts Koini on the plane to Mongolia wearing Torika’s crown is that she meets the stipulation of the global Miss World organisers that entrants must have reached their 17thbirthday to take part in the competition. Quite why the Fiji organisers chose a 16-year old in the first place is just one of the many unanswered questions hovering over this unfortunate saga. But there’s now evidently an agreement that Torika remain on the sidelines for a year and contest the 2013 Miss World contest in Bali when she’s finally eligible.
Meanwhile, Suva is abuzz with controversy about the conduct of the local competition, much of it centred on the director of the Miss World Fiji franchise, Andhy Blake. Even before the current furor erupted, Blake was in the spotlight for perceived shortcomings on the awards night itself, with reports that it was so poorly organised that many invited guests left in disgust. Then, there’s the question of what happened to the charity funds raised for Suva’s St Giles Hospital to increase awareness of mental health. Blake reportedly declines to say whether the money has been passed on.
But more serious are allegations that the contest was a rigged, with Andhy Blake supposedly intent all along on having Torika Watters declared the winner. One of the judges – designer Hupfeld Hoerder – says the six-member judging panel – including former NZ supermodel Rachel Hunter – had no input in selecting Miss World Fiji. Thirteen contestants, he says, were put before the judges and they were required to select the final three. Yet according to Hoerder, Torika Watters wasn’t one of them and was simply installed as competition winner in a contest Hoerder alleges was “decided from the start”. Weeks before the crowning – the designer alleged – Blake had repeatedly declared his preference for Watters to win the pageant. And he detailed a host of alleged “irregularities” in the judging, including only one meeting between the contestants and judges, no selection criteria nor the customary allocation of points that usually decides such line-ups.
For her part, Torika Watters finds herself not only at the centre of an unpleasant racial row but facing claims that she didn’t win Miss World Fiji fair and square. Not surprisingly for a 16-year old, she’s retreated to the bosom of her family in Nadi, where she attends the International School. But not before she issued a withering statement distancing herself from Andhy Blake and the entire sorry episode.
Describing the process as “underhand” and a “fiasco”, Torika cited her “worry” about “lies, deception, a lack of transparency and a lack of professionalism” and said there were “issues with money”. She claimed she had “no involvement” in what had happened. “I have been blind to this entire drama going on behind the scenes ( and) had no knowledge of any pre-selection or pre-judging. I had no intentions of doing anything sneaky or wrong and like the other contestants, entered the competition for what I believed to be the right reasons – to be an ambassador for Fiji and raise money for charitable causes”, she said.
Torika revealed that it was Andhy Blake who’d approached her to enter the competitition, telling her he’d reserved her a place in the semi finals because she was on a visit to Sydney. She also claims Blake said he’d obtained special dispensation for her to take part as a 16-year old from the CEO of Miss World, Julia Morley. Last week, she said, he’d told her he’d been wrong and instructed her to inform the other girls in the competition that she wouldn’t be going to Mongolia after all and that Koini Vakaloloma would take her place. Some of these girls had “ not received their promised prize money and were unhappy”, she said. “I am now back in Nadi with my Mum and just want to get on with my life”.
As Andhy Blake finds himself in the firing line, it’s not just Miss World Fiji that has been tarnished. Organisers of other events in Fiji, including the successful Fiji Fashion Week, fear they may also suffer from the fallout as corporate sponsors become wary of the potential for other organisational disasters. In an angry missive to Blake, the CEO of Fashion Week, Ellen Whippy Knight, described Miss World Fiji as “embarrassing” and a “disgrace”. “You personally rang Torika in Australia and asked her to come back for the competition. You knew who you wanted as Miss Fiji from the outset so why have judges, why bother to carry out the event?”, she said. It’s an allegation Andhy Blake has yet to address.
Embarrassment seems to be the leitmotif of Miss World Fiji 2012. The organisers stand accused of a “stitch-up”, sponsors and supposed beneficiaries have had their names sullied, Fiji’s international image has taken a beating from an ugly racial row and a 16-year old girl has found out the hard way that the traditional tears of joy associated with beauty pageants can soon dissolve into tears of bitter disappointment.
POSTSCRIPT: Andhy Blake has since told the Fiji Times that he’s unfazed about criticism of the Miss World Fiji pageant. He said he was only accountable to the London-based Miss World committee and it had been “very happy” with his work. “Really, that’s a testament in itself”, he said. Mmm.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.