Jenelle Thongs' strut on the catwalk is fierce. When she speaks she exudes friendly confidence, ever so often easing into a smile that fully reveals striking white teeth against her smooth, ebony skin. The Miss Supranational Trinidad and Tobago 2020 titleholder admits that she has come a long way from her childhood persona of a little tomboy who felt uncomfortable in her own skin.
In an interview with Sunday Guardian last Monday, Thongs remembered moving from Belmont to Morvant with her parents and two older siblings at age six. She would have a mostly enjoyable childhood, going on to participate in gymnastics, dance, track, football, netball, volleyball and school choir. But being tall and athletic with a deep voice made her feel unfeminine, especially among her peers at St Francois Girls' College and the Polytechnic Institute where she attained her secondary education. Her Afro-Trinidadian hair and chocolate complexion also triggered feelings of inadequacy. Added to this was the fact that she was sexually abused in her early life, she said.
Thongs said at a young age, she had to learn to negotiate her identity and begin to embrace herself. She had to balance trials with being grateful for having loving and accepting parents, access to education and a healthy social life.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would. It’s my story,” she explained.
“It was certainly a journey; one that does not have a definite destination. As I continue to grow and evolve, so does embracing myself. Learning to love all of yourself is not easy. Pageantry really aided me in this. How could I want to be a beacon of hope, an ambassador of confidence and trailblazer of self-love, if I didn’t start with myself; if I did not believe these things about myself? I truly believe my life experiences are not only for my benefit.”
Coming into her own helped her cop the Miss Supranational crown just over six months ago and it is definitely something on which Thongs will capitalise when she represents T&T at the Miss Supranational Pageant from August 20-22 in Krakow, Poland.
Thongs will be the fifth T&T delegate to the pageant which ranks as one of the Big 5 pageants internationally.
Crowns and Sashes is the official licence holder of the Miss Supranational T&T Franchise and won the international President's “Rising Star Award” in 2019, with the T&T delegate, Yia-Loren Gomez, placing 21 out of 77 that same year. This country also placed in the top five of the National Costume and earned spots in the finals of the Top Model and Talent segments of the competition.
No stranger to the pageant world, Thongs made her debut towards the end of her teenage years. Being in the habit of emulating her older siblings, she watched as her sister, Janine, travelled abroad, representing this country at regional and international beauty contests. Admiring her confidence and eagerness to be an ambassador for T&T, Thongs followed suit.
“So, while my sister entered her last pageant, I entered my first and 11 years later here we are.’’
Over the years, the 5'9” beauty has amassed more than eight other titles, including Miss Carival T&T 2013 (SVG), Miss Beauty T&T 2016, Miss Heritage International 2016 (Sri Lanka), Miss Caribbean Culture T&T 2017 (St Kitts & Nevis) and Miss Caribbean United T&T 2018 (Grenada). However, athletics had been Thongs' first love and making it to the Olympics was one of her greatest dreams.
“I love track and field. I still do to this day. I remember my very first race and how exhilarated I felt. I was only five years old and at that moment I knew I wanted to represent Trinidad and Tobago. I envisioned myself on a podium, with flowers and a medal.”
Ballet, contemporary and folk dance also engaged much of Thongs' time as a teen, and by 17, she fell off of track and field and pressed deeper into her studies with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian. She completed a BSc in Biology at UWI and currently manages a dental clinic that has two locations and 12 staff members; a role Thongs said, she has found to be “very rewarding.”
Along the way, the ever-active Thongs started Carnipacks T&T, a small retail brand for Carnival lovers to access essentials and the charity, “Each One Reach One”. As a national ambassador and youth leader Thongs is pioneering the “Bridge the Gap” community service initiative through which she hopes to promote social integration and teach life skills.
Thongs said spirituality plays a significant role in her life, along with her solid support system of immediate family and friends. She was thankful for her mother, the “epitome of strength,” her father for teaching her to defy the odds, her sister for showing her how to be confident and her brother for helping her to be unapologetically herself. She also cherishes the areas in which she grew up as they inspired her sense of community, the beauty queen said.
Describing the pandemic as a “whirlwind”, Thongs said she did not feel cheated that COVID interrupted her reign. Instead, it had simply been “an unusual year for an extraordinary person” and she hoped that she had made her mark despite the circumstances, she said.
Having channelled her energies into volunteering at the TTSPCA (T&T Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), participated in beach clean-ups or planting trees to aid in reforestation over the years, the animal lover said she holds little regrets about never having become a vet or Olympian.
“I may not be on top of a podium with a medal, but I’ve been sashed with our country’s name over my heart and in a sense entered the beauty Olympics.”
To support our Miss Supranational 2020/2021 delegate, Jenelle Thongs, contribute to the “Sponsor a Mile” campaign at Crowns and Sashes, Republic Bank Ltd. Chequing a/c: 560 8027 89201.
Miss Supranational TT 2020, Jenelle Thongs.
Q&A with Jenelle
You've participated heavily in beauty pageants. How do you see beauty pageants being relevant in these times?
I can speak about how beauty pageants are relevant at every stage; from personal growth to community development and building relationships. What I hope is evident is that in the midst of all the uncertainty one thing is certain, that I am dedicated to being an ambassador to T&T and I am using my platform to be of service to my country. Currently, where the glamour aspect of pageantry is at a minimum it shows that the true essence of being a queen is in fact being a servant leader. This is holistic. It is about substance and purpose; being aspirational and inspirational.
Do you encounter people who have negative reactions to your confidence/pride in your own skin/childhood neighbourhood? If so, what do they say to you and what is your response to them?
I usually encounter people who are surprised when they hear my story or where I come from. I’ve heard that the way I carry myself or speak surprises them to know I am from Morvant. Or, if they see my name they’re surprised to see a black woman. I love breaking stereotypes. So now I make the greatest effort to show that there is no one way a person is expected to sound or look. If anything, I hope people see me and be inspired.
You mentioned online that you recently received the vaccine. What was that like? Any side effects?
Yes, I have! And I would definitely say if you can get it definitely so. I did have some side effects; fever, body pains, basically felt like I was getting a bit of a cold, but it lasted max two days and I feel great now. I’m really looking forward to getting my second dose and doing my part of not getting back to normal or a new normal but to a better normal.
Any other interests? How do you unwind?
Reading is one of my favourite things to do. I don’t have much time right now with my schedule but it’s hands down the top three best things for me. Creative outlets are also very important to me so I find myself dancing and writing in those moments when I need to let loose. But now the older I get a simple glass of wine and some R&B or Netflix also does the trick.
What's your favourite dish/own creative concoction?
I love curry! I can probably eat it every day with little to no complaint. Buss up shut with curry goat, mango and pumpkin–must-haves–and potato. But if I’m cooking, my favourite thing to prepare is really simple comfort foods. That can be anything from Ramen to tacos. Once it’s quick and easy and has cheese.’’
What do you like most about being Trinidadian?
We as a people have so much to celebrate. We have dominated in spaces musically, academically, in beauty, sports and the list go on. We celebrate the things that make us different and relish the things that bring us together. Being Trinbagonian is being extraordinary. I believe that’s in our DNA. And I hope that this is seen in Poland in August...as I carry all 1.3 million extraordinary beings with me.