For Davina Bennett, everything changed after she made one hair decision. Before gracing the stage at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, the Miss Jamaica title holder made the choice of embracing her natural beauty by wearing an afro. Refusing to succumb to preconceived beauty standards, the 22-year-old and her natural ‘do confidently strutted the catwalk and catapulted into the social media spotlight.
Not only did her unapologetic move propel her name into the minds and aspirations of little black and brown girls everywhere, the Jamaican model made pageant history. Though her regal disposition makes it easy to believe the natural beauty popped out of the womb a confident goddess, the Clarendon Parish native admits it took her a lot of roaming in the dark before reaching the end of the winding road to self-love.
In honor of International Women’s Day, VIBE spoke with the Jamaican model about her journey to womanhood, how she exudes confidence and manages to be a role the realties of being a human being.
When did you start to realize, “I’m actually this beautiful woman and I need to love myself”? And when did the gears start turning for that?
When you’re 21, you’re still going through those phases. I tend to have those phases still, now and then. I think it’s a mindset because I know I have this responsibility of others looking up to me for motivation, for encouragement. I become that figure, I become that character that is that person who is supposed to exude confidence. We have our time to time as a girl when we go through our phases, “ugh, I don’t look good today” or “I look boss today.” I do have my ups and downs, but it really is a process from where I was to where I am today. I think it’s about having the right people around you. I have to say my circle is really small but it’s small with the right people that say the right things. Over time, if you keep hearing it as well, people saying to [me], “Oh, Davina, you look beautiful and you can do this,” even when I don’t believe it sometimes I slightly think, “Oh, he says that, so I can do that.” Over time if you keep hearing something, you tend to take a little bit of what each person says, it becomes your own and you make it your own until I can say, “All right, I’m a confident person.”
What are some highlights and lowlights of your life as a kid?
My highlights would be I was always a person that was energetic and fun and I loved sports. When I was in prep school I was named sports girl of the year. I have over 20 medals and trophies and plaques. I was a superstar in sports. When I’m around my family. I think that’s a really strong highlight for me. When I’m around them during Christmas or Easter or just to get together to talk, to sit. I think that’s one of the best things in my childhood.
Growing up I wasn’t treated so nicely by other persons. I was bullied. Some people would criticize my hair. I had long nappy hair with some big plaits. I had people pulling on it and calling me names. I was called names because I was tall and slim and at that time, the children of my average height, I was a bit taller. So I got teased for being slim and tall. People would say I’m not beautiful and I don’t have a good shape. I did get bullied from time to time in school [and] I’ve also been a victim of cyberbullying. I have a lot of lowlights. I mean you can be honest with that. [When] being Miss Universe, people think, “Oh this girl is perfect” and it’s not like that all.
What happened with the cyberbullying?
I think people overall have a tendency when you’re moving forward or you’re moving upwards, they tend to believe that they need to pull you down. I became a victim of that, where I was propelling forward and people thought as I shouldn’t. Or I’m moving too quickly for my age. I would get a lot of backlash and people would lambast me differently. I have to say I have my down moments. As I said, when you have good people around you to keep motivating you and supporting you then it’s easier to pick yourself back up.
Have you been natural your whole life? I know you said you had long natural hair that you kept in plaits.
Yeah, I’ve had natural hair up to about the eighth grade. I was like, I can’t deal with it no more. It’s too thick. I was in high school and Mommy is still [doing] my hair in three [plaits] and everybody was laughing at me. I was like I need to grow up. I can’t keep having bubbles and stuff in my hair going into high school. I was like I need to get long straight hair. At the time, I always wanted to be a model and there wasn’t much representation in magazines that looked like me. I wanted to look like the girls with straight hair. So that’s what really made me think that would make me look more beautiful. My mother was resistant of me doing it. But I was like no, “I want to do it. I want to look pretty.” She’s like, “All right, ‘gwan damage your hair. Do what you want to do. After a while you will realize.” And I have come to the realization. You really don’t need to do anything to embrace your to be beautiful. I’m really proud of the decisions that I’ve made today because I can see that it has made a very big impact in the world today.
Did you do the big chop?
Yes, I did. My hair was about this length [demonstrates hair very close to her scalp] when I cut it off. It was in 2016.
Oh my gosh your hair grew really fast!
Yes, yes. And I’ve actually cut it again because I don’t like when it’s getting too long. But I really had just really cut it out of frustration. My grandma passed in that year and to be very honest, it was the day before the funeral and my hair was being combed. The person was tugging on it and I was like, “You know what, just cut it off my head.” And everybody was like “What!? What you mean cut it off?” I was like, “Just cut it off.” We did the big chop, [and] off it went, and I was like, “You know what? I like this vibe.” After a while everybody kept complimenting me like, “Oh, we love your hair. Don’t do anything to your hair.” It kept growing and people keep saying, “Keep it, keep it,” even up to the point of going into the Miss Universe competition. My managers Carl and Mark, they were the ones that said “You should definitely keep it.” That’s how I ended up keeping it for the competition.
Did you have anyone that was like, “I think you should wear your hair straight.”
Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of people on social media were like “You can’t win with your hair like that. It doesn’t look good. They’re not used to hair like that in the competition. You can’t make it past [the] top 16. You have to change. You need to look like the other girls.” I had a lot of that, especially before heading to Vegas. People were like it makes no sense because people are not going to pick you. It’s really surprising to me when I got back to my room and I was like let me check what’s happening on social media.
Manager: To add to that when we got to Vegas, like four days before the competition, all the national directors and people, when they realized we were associated with Jamaica, they were like “Oh, Mrs. Jamaica! She’s special, her hair, her skin.” And it was so weird.
But that’s how black people look.
That’s the thing. It’s like in that world, in the pageant world, it’s not what they’re used to. It’s like nobody has been bold enough to decide that they’re going to do it. I think it’s because they knew I was a strong contender and they believed I was going to lose it because I’m making the decision to keep my hair. I was like, let’s burn the stigma. I decided I was not going to do anything to it while I was there. People kept messaging me. I had to get someone to run my social media because I didn’t want to be pulled down into the negativity of people asking “why don’t you do something with your hair? You’re competing with all these girls with the straight hair. Get a weave.”
All those messages. I’m surprised to say as I got back to the room and said I was going to check what was going on on social media, and it was all about the hair. People were like, “Oh my gosh, she actually did it.” I remember immediately after the show ended, my coach, that’s Lu Sierra, she came to me and she hugged me. I was crying at the moment and she says “Miss Jamaica, you made history tonight. I’ve been here for quite a while and no one like you has reached this far and I’m proud of you.” For me that was everything, coming from Lu Sierra. I admire her for so many years because of what she’s accomplished and what she’s able to do and to do for girls around the world.
You are an advocate for black women to embrace their natural beauty and you have this campaign that you’ve started on Instagram, #AfroFriday. How did that come about?
It was actually from our queens in Jamaica, one of which is Terri Karelle, a former Miss World. Everybody was really pushing it, and saying “you did very well and thank you for representing our people, majority of the people. We look up to you for this,” and was like why don’t we start something. Start something for a particular day. I was like all right. I remember when all the posts was happening, it was actually [on a] Friday. I was like all right, Afro Friday. Now, even in Jamaica, the Ministry of Education is lobbying to have natural hair in schools. It’s now a debate amongst the boards to get afro hair in schools. A lot of the schools and workplaces, people are told to pull your hair back because it doesn’t look properly groomed, it doesn’t look professional, it’s not elegant. So now I can say the tables are turning. The tables are turning and a difference is definitely going to be made.
And you also talked about black representation in the beauty industry. How do you feel about celebrities like Rihanna that are taking it upon themselves to be more inclusive in representation?
I think it’s a big deal because as you know when you’re a celebrity or you’re someone that people look up to, if you decide you’re going to become someone of representation of even representing your own kind, it’s a big deal. Because now I can’t only look up to you like “oh you sing well.” But I can look up to you to say you’re someone like me. You’re someone that’s relatable. You’re someone that I can look up to and say I wanna be like her. Even if I’m not able to sing, I can be like her because she looks like, or she’s representing what I am. I think representation is a big deal. I’m a testimony of this because since I’ve done the competition. There are many females, young girls, babies, men that have said thank you for doing this. Thank you for doing it on the biggest stage, that’s never been done and we’re grateful to have it and so you’ve inspired us to wear our hair like this. It’s become a thing. I even see celebrities rocking their ‘fros on the red carpet, and it might not be from me, but I do know it’s out there in the atmosphere that afros are definitely the thing to be wearing.
What new do you have going on or anything with you, personally or through your organization?
We do have a few things in the pipeline to accomplish. We have some endorsements and contracts and ambassadorship deals coming. I can say I’m clearly excited about everything. I’m not limited to any one thing. I believe that because of such a platform that I was on, I was able to speak for what I believe in which I promoted deaf awareness. I spoke about all the things. I can say for being on a platform that big I definitely see myself going into any direction. From talking about civil rights to — I wouldn’t say I’m a revolutionist — but I’m definitely someone who stands up for what is right. Women have been under victimization of many things, and if I can be that representation wherever the path leads me to, I will be there. Also, I have a foundation which is the Davina Bennett Foundation For The Deaf, and I have to say we have partnered with the Sigma Run.
Sigma Run is a big thing that we have in Jamaica, which is where we run for a cause. We walk, we run, we wheel for a cause. It’s a 5k run and we select a route and we all run for a particular cause. This year the beneficiaries are St. Christopher’s School For The Deaf which needs a lot of assistance. And Spanish Town [a city in Jamaica] needs a ventilation unit. So there’s only one ventilator in the hospital and there are a lot of babies being born. So we are definitely running for a cause and to give back to the beneficiaries this year and I have to see that it is something that I am truly happy about because it speaks to the level of how great the Miss Universe platform is. That awareness was created for the deaf community.
What would you tell your 10-year-old self?
Just be you. Be confident. Everything is going to be ok. As a 10-year-old, I have to say I overthought a lot. I didn’t have a very high self-esteem. I never thought I was beautiful. I never thought I was good at anything. I always thought I wasn’t going to reach anywhere. I would just tell myself to just relax. It’s all going to fall into play.