There is an effortless, unflappable poise about Miss Universe Jamaica Miqueal-Symone Williams.
If you watched the 2021 Miss Universe pageant, held earlier this year at the guitar hotel in Hollywood, Florida, the 24-year-old international model clearly stood out — all graceful limbs and gleaming smile as she strutted across the stage to take her top-10 position. During the broadcast, in a glossy introduction video, she outlined her interest in mental health awareness.
The video’s narrative was a familiar one, representing the pageant’s ideals of inner beauty and social activism. But the brief segment revealed the deeply personal reason behind Miss Universe Jamaica Miqueal-Symone Williams’ passion for mental health advocacy — her personal struggle with the sudden, tragic loss of her mother in 2017. Williams’ voiceover shared treasured memories as the b-roll showed snapshots of their life together. One photo showed her mother, perhaps not much older than Williams is now, revealing a striking resemblance between them.
When the video ended, switching back to Williams standing under the bright stage lights, her signature polish slipped for a moment. Her expression conveyed a mixture of grief and pride.
“When I look at myself, I see my mother, and I see all my other ancestors who have fought for me to be where I am now. Every time I achieve a goal, I think I achieve a goal for all of us,” she says.
Mental Health Advocate
Beyond the glitz and glam of pageants, it is this sentiment that keeps beauty queens so popular and culturally relevant across the diaspora. For women from all walks of life, Miss Universe Jamaica — her beauty, her success, her ambitions and yes, even her grief — can represent our own aspirational hopes and ideals. At her young age, Williams is well-versed in living with heartbreak and finding renewed purpose after tragedy.
This year’s title embodied a full circle moment in her healing journey. She had entered the same pageant in 2017 but withdrew following the loss of her mother. Embracing therapy and prioritizing her mental health proved to be key to her success.
The following year, Williams won the Pulse Model Search and began traveling the world as a professional model. While starring in campaigns for L’Oréal and walking the runway for Valentino, working in fashion “exposed me to the experiences of so many other people,” she says. “Just hearing their stories and seeing how they relate to [mental health] — it was a very, very helpful time in my life in terms of my grieving process, and that’s what solidified my interest in mental health as a platform.”
Recognizing the importance of support systems, Williams launched The Bloom Initiative to support Jamaican children. The project focuses on providing internet service to students so they can attend online classes. Williams hoped the program would also help participants maintain relationships as schools shut down due to COVID-19. “If they couldn’t go to school and even virtually link up with their friends, it would negatively impact their mental health,” she notes.
Williams happily puts in volunteer hours as a mentor at the Wortley Home For Girls. Established in 1918, the home provides a space for vulnerable young ladies, including those who have been orphaned. When talking about her mentees, her face instantly brightens. She has connected with them on a deeply personal level through their shared loss. “They’ve had more traumatic things happen in their lives than other children their age,” Williams explains. “With my own experience losing my mother in the way that I did, I can give them that [very knowing] type of support.”
The greatest lesson she shares with them is the importance of emotional openness. “It’s only when you allow yourself to be broken that you can properly put yourself back together again.” Her mother, she laughs, “always gave me my space to go through my emotions.” Looking back, she recalls, “I went through quite a bit of teen angst myself.”
In honor of her mother, Williams hopes to launch a foundation providing psychological therapy and safe spaces for children.
Following the pandemic, greater support for mental health overall is desperately needed in Jamaica. Medical experts warn of a pending public crisis. The Ministry of Health and Wellness reported a major uptick in calls made into the mental health and suicide prevention hotline, approximately doubling at the start of the pandemic between March and April 2020. The challenges of managing these mental health issues are only compounded by the general stigma surrounding them.
Williams hopes her public advocacy can ease this cultural shame and encourage people to seek help. “There’s no reason why you should have to [act] strong when you feel like you need to lean on someone.”
The reigning queen herself leans on her family, including her father Michael, stepmother Maxine and a network of dedicated aunties. “I can’t leave any of them out!” she laughs. Their support has been instrumental in her success balancing the pageant with modeling, all while completing her bachelor’s degree in marketing this year at the University of the West Indies.
Though the country may look to Williams for an image of the nation’s feminine ideal, Williams turns to a community of women for guidance on the kind of woman she wants to be. “There’s a spirit of resiliency, courage and hope that lies with the Jamaican woman,” she says. “And I hope to embody that.”
Photography: Darrick Foster, DAC X Productions
Fashion: Dermoth Williams Resort @UzuriInternational
Stylists: Mark McDermoth & Karl Williams
Makeup: O’Neil Baugh, GlamByOneilmua6618
Hair: Marcia Lengard featuring Design Essential products
Location: AC Hotel by Marriott Kingston, Jamaica