First Black Miss Universe Contestant: Ginette Cidalise-Montais, “Miss Martinique”

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Back in the 1950s and 60s Long Beach became a focus for the international news media when it hosted the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and International Beauty contests. Much was written about the contests and contestants, but I recently discovered a piece of forgotten black history in researching for my next book, African-Americans in Long Beach and Southern California. The white press largely ignored the African-American community in early years, but I’ve uncovered fragments of that history in black owned newspapers such as the California Eagle, the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Informer. Unfortunately, only fragments of those newspapers remain, but interesting tidbits about goings on can be found through perseverance. It’s interesting to note that the California Informer was published in Long Beach from 1948 to 1950. The only remaining copies are at Long Beach Public Library on microfilm, but aren’t in the library’s catalog. It would be wonderful if it was and if it was digitized for easy access.

A little recognized piece of black history took place in Long Beach in July 1957. It was largely ignored by most media, except the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African-American owned newspaper. True, there was much “action” in that year’s Miss Universe and Miss USA contests -it was the first year a Miss USA wouldn’t be in the Miss Universe pageant. The new Miss USA, Leona Gage, was disqualified when it was shown she was married, and it was found out too late for the runner up, Charlotte Sheffield, to compete. When 18-year-old Peruvian Gladys Zender was crowned “Miss Universe 1958” everything seemed fine. Later it was discovered the newly crowned world queen was under the age limit. Amidst all of this, the fact that the first black contestant, Miss Martinique, was competing should have been major news, but it wasn’t.

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A reporter in the 1950s covered the historic Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants that were held in Long Beach. During his coverage, the reporter noted that a young West Indian woman from Port-of-France, Martinique, named Ginette Cidalise-Montaise, who competed in the pageant, was not treated fairly.

On July 25, 1957, Sentinel columnist Stanley Robertson wrote that the daily press, wire services, radio and television completely ignored the “biggest story” to come out of the dissension-ridden Miss Universe pageant. Robertson believed it was a story with much greater international implication than a married Miss USA or a too-young-to-be-a-Miss Universe. It was a story that showed that racial discrimination was alive in America, regrettably inflicted upon a young West Indian woman from Port-of-France, Martinique, named Ginette Cidalise-Montaise who really believed that she had a chance to become Miss Universe.

It was in 1951 that Catalina Swimwear, the sponsor of the Miss America contest (which started there in 1921), became upset that Atlantic City officials were now concentrating more on talent than beauty. They decided to sponsor a new contest focused on beauty (and Catalina swimsuits) that would encompass not only America (with a newly created Miss USA contest) but the world—the Miss Universe pageant. They chose Long Beach, California, as the site of both the Miss USA and Miss Universe competitions. Since then photography and publicity had much to say in who would be crowned the world’s most beautiful woman.

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Ginette Cidalise-Montais

For some reason, Robertson wrote, when the Sentinel tried to interview Cidalise-Montaise for an article, they were told by officials that “Miss Martinique doesn’t speak any English, so unless you speak French, you’re wasting your time talking to her.” When the reporter replied that he could get a translator, the reporter was hung up on.

During the gala events leading up to the contest, Robertson reported that Cidalise-Montaise’s photo didn’t appear as often as the other contestants. Robertson stated, she wasn’t one of those who were “being catered to” by contest officials who somehow “managed” to see to it that the girls representing the larger European countries were given the most publicity and made the most accessible to members of the press. Another reporter told Robertson; “That girl (Miss Martinique) was so badly treated that I heard many reporters and photographers mention it. Whenever we tried to get her in some pictures with some of the favorites in the contest, somebody connected with the contest always managed to see to it that she was asked to do something else.”

Probably the worst insult came the day that photographers covering the contest voted on the contestant they felt to be the “most photogenic.” After the balloting had been allegedly completed, it was discovered that Miss Martinique had received more first place votes than any other contestants. However, a hurried “conference” of contest officials resulted in a re-count. The balloting still came out the same; Miss Martinique was the winner. Another hurried “conference” was called. This time the result was different. Officials ruled that Miss Germany was the actual winner because Miss Martinique didn’t have enough second and third place votes. As the Sentinel pointed out– A strange way to judge a contest!

Following this re-writing of the rules, the Sentinel received a call stating that what “a dirty shame” it was that Miss Martinique was being treated so poorly by people in Long Beach. Sentinel reporter Stanley Robertson agreed and once more went to Long Beach for an attempted interview.

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Ginette Cidalise-Montais

After several hours of trying, he got through to Mrs. Joseph Canning, Miss Martinique’s hostess. When he asked to speak to Cidalise-Montaise, he was again told she didn’t speak English. Robertson then revealed he spoke French and Mrs. Canning allowed him to speak to the young woman, who spoke better English than the officials wanted people to believe. Cidalise-Montaise told him in English that she liked the United States but she wanted to go home. When asked if she had been treated fairly, she said: “Well, I…” at which point Mrs. Canning interrupted saying Cidalise-Montaise didn’t understand the question. At that point the interview was concluded, Mrs. Canning stated it was time for Cidalise-Montaise to “get ready” for the final judging that night, even though she was not in the group of 15 girls in the final competition.

When Robertson and his photographer went to the auditorium and tried to get a photo of Miss Martinique and the newly crowned Miss Universe, he was told “very gruffly” to “move along.” Robertson tried again to contact Cidalise-Montaise and was told by officials that she had already left for home. This was strange, Robertson wrote, since she had told him she wouldn’t be leaving the country until later.

Not one to give up, Robertson asked several contestants what their feeling was concerning the treatment given Miss Martinique and each one replied that they had felt very sorry for the young woman. A local radio broadcaster later told him that he had heard that several countries which might be sending non-white girls to the contest in the future were thinking about withdrawing.

Cidalise-Montaise, the first brown-skinned, 18-year-old to ever enter the six-year-old contest as “Miss Martinique,” hadn’t realized that prejudice and racism, something she had never experienced at home or in Europe, awaited her in America. Neither had her country. Martinique did not send a contestant to the Miss Universe pageant again until 1981.

In 1959 the Los Angeles Sentinel held its own contest to find a local African-American woman to enter the Miss California competition, a precursor to the Miss USA and Miss Universe contests. Jackie McGinnis was the Los Angeles winner, and though she wasn’t chosen Miss California, the Sentinel felt African-Americans had made major strides in breaking through the race barrier.

In 1977 Miss Trinidad, Janelle Penny Commissiong, would become the first woman of African ancestry to be crowned Miss Universe; in 1983 Vanessa Williams the first African-American winner of the Miss America contest; in 1990 Carole Anne-Marie Gist became the first African-American Miss USA.