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Aleisha Robertson
Breadon Bryers/B-line Photography

Aleisha Robertson New Zealand’s first international pageant titleholder in years

Bringing home a crown

One would think Aleisha Robertson would be a lot more in the public eye after bringing New Zealand one of its few international pageant victories, at Miss TEEN 2012. Lucire redresses the balance: Jack Yan interviews her


 

Aleisha Robertson took time away from a school trip with Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland to travel to Houston in July 2012 to compete at Miss TEEN (the official title has full stops after each letter; TEEN is an acronym for Teens Exemplifying Excellence Nationally). She had already won her national title in New Zealand, and while the country has brought home international victories at less well known pageants, minds still wander back to the 1983 victory of Lorraine Downes at Miss Universe.

Jade Collins’s win at World Miss University in 2005 hardly merited a mention (its strange methods of counting in 2012 might have given it more), and while certain Miss New Zealands have gone on to do well publicly—Amber Peebles and Laural Barrett have pursued careers in the public eye—certain pageants have struggled to get positive attention in Aotearoa.

It was unsurprising, then, that Robertson talks of having no expectations of a victory when she went to Houston: ‘People would tell me, “You’re going to do so well,” or “You can definitely win this” but I just thought they were being nice and supportive,’ she recalls. ‘I was hoping just to reach the top ten. When I was called for top five I was completely shocked.’

 

Robertson may be the first sign of the tide turning in the beauty pageants’ favour in New Zealand. After a year rocked with scandal at Miss Universe New Zealand—which seemed to be the only way the previous organization could muster attention in the press without the aid of others—Miss TEEN New Zealand and its organizer, Dianne Foley, quietly went about preparing Robertson for her trip to Texas.

Nevertheless, the portrayal of the pageant world in American films had Robertson more concerned. ‘I was quite worried about what Texas would be like. Movies such as Miss Congeniality created this idea that pageants were filled with catty girls. So going over to Texas, I was preparing for the worst.’

But the family feeling she had experienced in New Zealand continued in the United States. ‘From the moment I arrived I was welcomed into the Miss TEEN family. It sometimes seemed as if making friends was more important that the actual pageant.’ Her experience gelled with what national titleholders have reported at the international level, never mind what the blogosphere reports from its sources. ‘Despite some language barriers at the beginning, everyone (with the use of our self-made sign language) got along really well. We were all in the same boat, miles away from our friends and family, which made us value each other. Everyone had different experiences and knowledge that we could share with one another. After spending only a week with them, it was weird going to breakfast in the morning and not having them all there.’

Robertson wound up rooming with Miss TEEN Philippines, Tracey del Rosario. However, the schedule that the contestants kept was as gruelling as any at the international level. ‘We would wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for the day and often wouldn’t return until 11 p.m. so by that time we were more than ready to fall asleep,’ says Robertson. In another sign of international solidarity, ‘Waking up was another story but everyone was in the same position so we all made sure we woke each other up if we slept through our alarms.’

She experienced no issue with the question of faith, contrary to the high-profile spat between Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean and judge Perez Hilton in 2009. ‘With contestants from all over the world, everyone has their own faith and beliefs and with the Miss TEEN pageant, you're encouraged to stand for what you believe in. The Miss TEEN pageant is an organization which recognizes and values the different cultures and beliefs that the girls live by.’

 

The jitters you see on television from the top-five placeholders in pageants are quite real.

‘I remember after the top five announcement we went backstage into the changing rooms,’ Robertson recalls. ‘I was still in shock and everyone around me was panicking about the on-stage question. I was not prepared for an on-stage question as I didn’t think I would make the top five. Some contestants were rehearsing “possible answers” while others were going over tips from their pageant coach.’

Despite not having a pageant coach there, and no prepared answers, her reaction was to maintain some calm. When we enquired some years ago of Downes as to what one should look for in a Miss New Zealand, she stated that the winner must not be fazed at the international level. She had taken that approach in 1983 and it had worked for her; Robertson appears to have done the same thing. ‘I decided I wouldn’t let myself stress about it. When I got on stage I wasn’t as prepared as the other girls but that ended up giving me an advantage as I came across more natural.’ That natural response, Robertson believes, nudged her into first place.

While Downes wasn’t the first person that came into her mind when crowned, she surfaced soon afterwards. ‘That made me feel like I had done New Zealand proud.’

After her win, she was keen to return to her school trip, heading to Vietnam. She had adjusted to US Central Daylight Time thanks to her arrival in Houston a few days before the pageant began, and took the time she had with stopovers in Los Angeles and Hong Kong to catch up on sleep. ‘In Vietnam, my days were action-packed and so I was forced to adjust to the time zone pretty quickly. After arriving back in New Zealand I slept for a couple of days only, waking late in the evening.’

Robertson was glad to be back in her routine at school after that. ‘There was not much of a change. Congratulations from teachers and friends who I hadn’t already caught up with, but other than that school went on as usual.’

Despite an international win, she hasn’t been subjected to a jet-set life of luxury—one has to remember that despite the old-style glam at Miss TEEN in Houston, its contestants are aged between 13 and 19, and school comes first. Exams at Diocesan meant that Robertson had to forgo a trip to attend Miss TEEN Brazil in September, and she declined an opportunity to watch her fellow national titleholder, Melissa Novak, who was also Miss United States Intercontinental, compete at Miss Intercontinental because of her NCEA Level 2 exams. The one trip that she cannot decline is crowning her successor in June 2013 in the US, but Robertson remains hopeful there will be other travel opportunities with her title this year.

 

Just as any contestant at an international pageant attests, after the event, bonds are made. They realize they are in an exclusive club, one which very few have the honour to be in. There are the shared experiences that few appreciate. Robertson talks of staying in touch with her fellow contestants, wanting to visit them in their countries when the time comes. It remains her number-one reason in response to whether pageants are relevant in the 2010s.

‘Pageants are a great way to meet people from all over your country and the world. With the opportunities which social media gives us, life-long friendships can be made and sustained through the pageant industry. Pageants also encourage girls to become responsible role models in their community by supporting volunteer work, which is less common among teens in the 2010s,’ she says.

She also defends what pageants are really about. ‘I think people just need to become more aware of what pageants are. Too many people have this idea in their head that pageants are just pretty faces showing off their body in order to make themselves feel good. The fact is that pageants are filled with bright, talented girls who enter for different reasons: some do it to meet new people, some do it to boost their confidence and some do it to show off all their hard work they have put into living a healthy lifestyle. To address some of the criticisms, we need to properly educate the public about the aims of pageants.’

Her defence is not made in isolation, and she argues it passionately. Bear in mind that post-college, her plans are to attend law school, so cogent arguments have to be part of her stock in trade.

In fact, she chose law as a career because of her love of ‘reading, researching and writing,’, finding it ‘very interesting how one person would stand up for someone who couldn’t fight for themselves.’ Work experience at a law firm sealed her decision.

Robertson admits that the world is image-driven but one would be mistaken if one thinks that pageants were solely about that. ‘Often the media drills into our minds that skinny is good and fat is bad. But that is not what pageants portray. Pageants reward women who have worked hard to eat healthy, work out and take care of their body, which I personally think is my “ideal image”. So if this healthy lifestyle is the image pageants are spreading and it is encouraging people to lead healthy lifestyles, I think that pageants are inspiring.’

Robertson plans to develop her modelling career alongside her studies, but school is her main priority after she hands her crown over. ‘Maybe in a few years I’ll do another pageant, but only time will tell. I think competing in Miss Universe would be an amazing experience, but we will just have to wait and see!’ •

 

 


Claudia Easton

After the campaign Photographs of Aleisha Robertson for Wildpair

 

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Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.