How Entering a Beauty Pageant Helped Me Make My Debut Feature

She Paradise writer-director Maya Cozier on how she used Miss Trinidad & Tobago as an unlikely launchpad for her film career.

In an all-white futuristic room, I sit upright with a fake smile plastered across my face as a cosmetic doctor gives a talk on the “science” of beauty. Her first tip, which I may never wipe clean from my memory, is that posing with your head tilted slightly downwards, to look diminutive and vulnerable, exudes fertility and gives men the message that you’re demure, helpless and in need of protection.

The doctor, who I will leave anonymous, tilts her head downwards, ever so slightly, the way Ariana Grande seems to do naturally in every picture, and in a gentle voice, she whispers, “Come help me.” As she shows slides with freckle-faced and gap-toothed women who she scientifically deems as not beautiful, I begin to wonder if I’ve walked into some satirical alternate universe, or if this is real life?

It was real. I was a contestant at a pageant in 2018 and this was a white woman who made bank as an expert on beauty standards on an island with a predominantly Black and Indian population.

Maya Cozier on the set of She Paradise. (Image via Instagram.)

Without giving it much thought, I’d agreed to enter a pageant soon after returning home to Trinidad from film school in New York. Was it curiosity? Did I want to reassert my presence in Trinidad after being abroad for so long? Was it vanity? Was I bored and wanted something to do? I’m still not sure.

I knew nothing about pageants and rolled myself out of bed to attend an interview where I became a finalist. I had a long debate with myself before agreeing to participate. I thought, “Does this go against everything I believe in as a woman? Is pitting women against each other for their looks or intelligence acceptable in 2018? Do people even care about pageantry anymore? Aren’t pageants outdated?”

As I asked myself these questions, someone close to me gently reminded me, “You have a movie you want to make, right?” A lot of women use beauty pageants as stepping stones to achieve their goals, and while pageants are certainly problematic, I’m also tired of criticizing women who use these problematic structures to their advantage. It’s also wrong to diminish the subjectivity of women by assuming they’re victims of these structures instead of being able to exploit them to their advantage. I desperately wanted to make a movie, and ironically, this was one bizarre and intriguing way I thought I could.

The contestants laughed until they were falling over as I clumsily held a curling iron to my hair in hairdressing class. I broke my eyebrow pencil repeatedly in makeup class. I did not realize there were crumbs all over my face while eating and got myself into trouble during an interview when I opened up about how embarrassed I was about being in the pageant. Unsurprisingly, when the pageant came to an end, I did not win.

But the next day, with a lot of the country looking my way, I launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund my film. The pageant was a hot topic across the country and I was striking while the iron was hot. There is privilege in never needing to make compromises, enter spaces that you don’t really want to or participate in activities that you simply do not fit into. I remember when rumors about the pageant being rigged had been solidified and I wanted nothing more than to quit. I remember walking around backstage with one heel on and one eyelash hanging off my face, reminding myself over and over that I had a movie to fund. I remember my professor from film school being shocked and confused when he found out about the pageant. The same Maya from art school with the septum piercing who wore black lipstick, dirty white sneakers and T-shirts everyday entered a pageant?

Yes, it was hilarious. However, despite being clumsy all the way through, I ended up gaining a fan base that rallied around my work afterwards. To this day, people stop me to tell me how upset they are that I was cheated, and one judge confessed to giving me top scores in every category only to have the pageant directors recalculate them. I don’t blame the directors. They saw right through my fake smile and are wise for it. I’m far too cynical, and the thought of parading around with a crown for a year was hilarious to me. Despite being a fish out of water, I knew it opened the door for me to get momentum around what really mattered: directing my first feature.

The Indiegogo campaign was an instant success and soon after, I got a call from the Ministry of Community Development Culture and the Arts that my application for a micro-budget grant to shoot my first film was successful. I remember breaking down in tears during the call. I had finally done it. “OK …” I thought, “time to put this energy to good use.”

The budget was challenging, but I had something to work with to make a film happen. I was determined to get it done at any cost. We shot She Paradise hoping for miracles and endless good luck. It was the only way to make it to the end with a skeleton crew and a no-permit, guerilla-style production. People came out in numbers to be as extras in the film and thanks to my badass producers, Jolene Mendes and Marie-Elena Joseph, we were able to charm our way into favors almost every day, from free contact lenses for an actress who was livid that the wardrobe stylist lost them, to 12 decked-out cars when we only asked for 2, to free KFC on set every day and access to a popular nightclub location for free. We got it done.

I’ve always admired the chameleonic nature of Black women and as a Black woman director, I know I will never be easily defined or placed into a box. My work and art requires an openness to new experiences. I think my lived experiences inform my work, and I doubt I will ever lose the impulse to throw myself into new worlds or experiences.

A still from Maya Cozier’s She Paradise.

The best advice I’ve ever heard on filmmaking comes from Werner Herzog: “Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation.”

Maya Cozier’s debut feature, She Paradise, is out now through Samuel Goldwyn Films. Cozier was raised by artist parents — Irenée Shaw and Christopher Cozier — in the Caribbean twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago. She gained years of experience working as a dancer/choreographer for music videos and television shows (on her own and as part of a champion hip-hop crew that represented the island at the World Hip-Hop Dance Championships). At age 18, Maya had her first international gig when Nicki Minaj flew to Trinidad with Hype Williams to direct the “Pound the Alarm” music video. It was on set as a background model that she became fascinated with the process of filmmaking. After being awarded a national academic scholarship, she enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, to pursue a degree in film. Her first short film was about a childhood friend, Shan, a limbo dancer, touring the United States with a Circus. Her thesis film, Short Drop, a story in which a recently widowed retiree’s car is mistaken for an illegal taxi bringing together unlikely individuals in Port of Spain, won the NYWIFT student award and has shown at over 20 film festivals worldwide winning best Caribbean short film at Curacao film festival and best short film at Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.