East Croydon Cool talks…Beauty Pageants

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. This week has seen the discussion surrounding Beauty Pageants heat up again after three Miss France contestants (who failed to make the grade) joined a leading feminist group in suing the beauty pageant for alleged discrimination based on their appearance. Controversy over pageants is not new, and the last few decades have seen numerous changes to the judging criteria to create a more inclusive approach and one that’s more relevant to today’s society.
Having just won Ms Great Britain (a new category added to the Miss Great Britain competition to recognise women over the age of 28) we caught up with Croydon born Kat Henry to get her thoughts on it all…

Hi Kat, firstly – huge congrats on your win! Tell us a bit more about yourself
Well, I’m originally from Thornton Heath but I moved to Oxted in Surrey back in 2011. I’m a mother of one; my 20 year old daughter Mya is currently at University of Westminster studying Psychology and live with Andy, my partner of 19 years, who is a Commercial Airline Pilot. I’m a self-employed entrepreneur working as a full time Zumba Instructor, Blogger and Plus Size Model. Prior to this, I had worked for over 20 years in the corporate world, having various roles within management and finance in the legal, recruitment, banking and insurance sectors. I was made redundant as a result of COVID-19 in Jan 2021 and took the opportunity to follow my dreams and turn my passions into my full time day job!

And how did you get into Pageants?
Well, it all started in 2015, when I represented Surrey and entered my first pageant on a whim. I saw an advert on twitter for Miss British Beauty Curve; a Plus Size Pageant, searching for women over a UK size 14. I didn’t think I would even be accepted but I did and I threw my all into representing Surrey to the best of my ability with zero pageant experience! I must have done something right, as I took home my first crown as Ms British Beauty Curve 2015/16 and that set me off on my pageant journey. They say that pageants are like Pringles; “once you pop, you can’t stop!” and ain’t that the truth! I had definitely caught the “pageant bug”!

In 2017, I entered United Kingdom Galaxy Pageants. This is considered a mainstream pageant that is fully inclusive of women of varying ages, races and sizes. However, they have never had a plus size woman of colour win, so I was proud to be placed within the Top 10 on my first go, in such a highly regarded system, here in the UK pageant scene.
Later in 2017, I entered Miss International Curve; the international contingent of Miss British Beauty Curve representing England. I was crowned the first Ms International Curve 2017/18.

I had always dreamt of competing in Miss Great Britain, but their age limit capped at 27. I entered pageantry in my 30’s so I never thought I would get the opportunity to grace that stage. However in 2020, for their 75th Anniversary, they introduced a new division; the “Ms” category for women over the age of 28! I was thrilled, it must have been a sign! I approached Ridge Radio, to see if they would consider sponsoring my journey and luckily they saw something in me and agreed. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to compete for such a highly coveted title. I didn’t win, but I placed 2nd Runner Up (third place). As soon as I stepped off the stage I knew I wasn’t giving up until I succeeded, so I returned this year and I proudly won the title of Ms Great Britain 2021/22!

Would it be fair to say you don’t have the stereotypical Pageant look that many have come to expect of the winners?
In the past the stereotypical pageant queen has been labelled a woman who is tall, statuesque, toned and typically Caucasian with either blonde or brunette hair. However I think over the last 5-10 years that stereotype has been proven to be out-dated. If you look at pageantry as whole, across the world, there are people of all different ages, shapes, sizes and even genders being crowned. This proves that the old school stereotype of a pageant queen no longer fits and that makes me incredibly proud to be part of that evolution. With all that being said, the UK are way behind our US counterparts in regards to diversity and inclusion especially within mainstream pageantry. However in the last five years, we have made huge in-roads by crowning women of colour with titles such as Miss Universe Great Britain and Miss England and now I proudly stand the first plus size woman of colour to hold a prestigious Great Britain title.

I have suffered bullying throughout my life due to both the colour of my skin and my appearance. I have vitiligo – which is a long-term auto-immune disorder where pale white patches develop on the skin. It’s caused by the lack of melanin, which is the pigment in skin. Vitiligo can affect any area of skin, but it commonly happens on the face, neck and hands, and in skin creases.
I fell pregnant at a young age and was told I was worthless and would never amount to anything in life. I gained a lot of weight more so than the average pregnancy and went from a UK size 12 to a size 28 in just 9 months. I battled an eating disorder and had a terrible relationship with food. As a result of this I lived with body dysmorphia for years and absolutely hated the woman in the mirror.
I was also born with a calcium deficiency which would leave my teeth extremely brittle and prone to infections and tooth loss/breakage. I lived for over 15 years with many broken teeth, in constant pain with severe dental phobia. I became addicted to over-the-counter pain relief and I was so embarrassed of how I looked. One day one of my front teeth broke and I had no choice but to conquer my biggest fear and finally went to the dentist. I had 16 broken teeth/roots removed in one go and I now live with a permanent denture.
Rebuilding my smile gave me the confidence to attend my first modelling casting with Ms Curvaceous UK back in 2014. That experience changed my life and catapulted me into the world of plus size modelling. I realised that it wasn’t my weight, cellulite or stretch marks that was holding me back from reaching for my goals; it was my fear. Conquering one of my biggest fears made me realise that my key to success lay solely in my hands. My smile was the catalyst for change for me, not any crazy weight loss journey, it was a self-love revolution. It was a journey towards acceptance of my body and my own self worth.

Entering Pageants and being judged (regardless of the criteria) must require a lot of resilience. How have you managed with that?
You need thick skin in society today. Everyone has an opinion and social media has made it easy for people to voice said opinions without consideration of other people’s feelings under the guise of “freedom of speech” Now, I understand that everyone is entitled to form and hold an opinion; however your opinion should not impact anyone else in a negative way. By all means share your opinion but be mindful that your opinion may differ to other’s and perhaps find a tactful way of speaking your mind without causing anyone any harm with your wordsI myself have faced adversity at many times in my life. Growing up in a single parent family I saw the struggles my own mother faced being a well-educated, female of colour in high-profile leadership roles. She raised my brother and I to always strive for our goals, to remain tenacious, never give up and remain resilient in the face of adversity.
Having suffered bullying throughout my life, dealt with various health issues and being told I was worthless and would never amount to anything in life (after falling pregnant at a young age) my resolve has definitely been tested at times, but my mother raised me well and I will never let people’s negative opinions influence my own growth.

Do you think Pageants are anti-feminist?
No, not at all. I think in the past yes it could be seen as so. The rigidity of the entrance criteria such as the inability to enter if you were married or a mother is outdated, however with that being said there are systems like Miss Universe or Miss World which if won can require the winner to devote a full year to international travel. If that winner were a mother to a newborn or young child, that could be difficult to juggle. However I think in this day and age, women are powerhouses and many of us have strong support systems of people who can assist in those circumstances. I personally think that each contestant’s circumstances should be considered individually and if they are able to commit to serving the title with the same level of dedication and time regardless of them having children then there should be no problem with them holding the title.

Also I have found the pageant community to be nothing but empowering and liberating. I have first hand seen women thrive within pageantry. Women who have little confidence but big dreams, evolving into proud and influential role models in society, just by the experiences gained through pageantry. The women who compete are intelligent, hard working people, many of which have dedicated countless hours to charitable causes, philanthropic work and fundraising. These women are servicewomen, doctors, mothers, teachers, labourers and so much more, but they love the feeling of being part of a community of empowered women who are working collaboratively to make a positive impact in society today. I think if you haven’t ever experienced pageantry first hand then your immediate opinion will be to liken it to “Miss Congeniality” or “Drop Dead Gorgeous” but it goes far deeper than the aesthetic. The judging criteria for pageants takes into consideration attributes like confidence, poise, smile and elegance and each contestant undergoes a personal interview with the judges, where they get to know who they are underneath the skin. Yes of course it is a “beauty pageant” however each one has a different judging panel and each judge has a different take on what makes a “pageant queen”. Remember, the idea of beauty is subjective and each judge is different.

Pageants have seemingly tried to become more inclusive over the years. What do you think about this? Could they/Should they do more?
I am extremely proud to be involved in this evolution within pageantry. The world is a melting pot of different cultures, nationalities, genders, abilities and sizes and I think we must continue to strive to fair and equal representation for all within mainstream media and that includes pageantry. I think we have a LONG way to go before we can say we are fully inclusive but each small representation is a step towards positive change in society today.

What’s your attitude to your health and fitness nowadays?
People assume that you cannot be fat and fit or even healthy – but I am! I have been a plus size fitness instructor for 6 years. However, I studied musical theatre and so have been dancing since the age of 3. I love to dance however due to my size I have always faced adversity especially within the fitness industry. Over the years I have lost weight, it’s inevitable when you teach 21 fitness classes a week, however I love my body and I’m in not intentionally trying to lose weight. I love food and love enjoying it with my friends and family in social situations. I don’t watch what I eat at all – I have spent far too many years desperately trying to lose weight, with fad diets, pills, starvation and was even referred for weight-loss surgery when I was at my heaviest (a UK size 28) however I fully accept that I only have one body and one life to live and so I plan to live that life unapologetically being the best version of me that I can be. My body will fluctuate throughout life, we are human after all but I am utterly happy just the way I am.

What do you say to those who think plus size models are glorifying obesity?
I always say the same – I am not asking people to look like me; I want people to be more like me, the person I am inside. I am kind, loyal, hard-working and honest. I am a powerful, strong and intelligent plus size woman of colour who is proud to be British but is also incredibly proud of my South African and Mauritian roots. My size, race or ability does not determine my worth, I am asking people to judge each other less and to look past our differences and not treat each other differently because of them.

How does it feel to have won the title of Ms Great Britain?!
Incredible! I am proud to be the first plus size woman of colour to take home a Miss Great Britain title in the competition’s 76-year history. In my opinion it is a positive step forward towards inclusion and diversity within both the pageant community but also mainstream media. This makes history and I hope paves the way for further positive change. Representation is something that is pivotal in society today. People deserve the right to be seen and heard regardless of the colour of their skin, ability, gender or even the size of their clothes. We are all human, worthy of love and respect and capable of achieving great things. People should also be able to look at a magazine or watch TV and see people who look like them in depicted in strong, powerful roles. This gives people who often feel unseen the opportunity to feel represented. Proving that there is enough space at the table for us all to achieve success. As a British born woman to two British parents who were not born in the UK, I should not have to prove my worth to represent my country because I am a woman of colour. I should not have my worth or ability questioned because of the colour of my skin. I should be treated fairly and equally. I am immensely proud to be British, this is my home but make no mistake…I am also very proud of my roots. My nationality may well be British, but I am also proud to be South African & Mauritian. We should do more to embrace multiculturalism as the world is truly a mix of all different ethnicities and nationalities and in my opinion, diversity doesn’t dilute Britain; it makes it Greater!

What are your fondest memories of Croydon and when was the last time you were here?
I grew up in amongst Croydon’s once bustling night life – whiling the hours away on the dancefloors of Bar Se7en, Reflex, the Blue Orchid, Edwards, Yates’ and Tiger Tiger. It has definitely changed over the years but I still love a good old Karaoke night at Memory Box with my old Croydon mates. I’ll be back in the area next month and have heard great things about Big Mike’s at Boxpark so am looking forward to giving that a try!
I see Croydon as a truly vibrant community, a place where many creative and influential people are born and bred. Croydon is and always will be my home. They say “you can take the girl outta Croydon, but never the Croydon outta the girl” and I honestly believe that couldn’t be more true.

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