At this international pageant, trans women around the world blend beauty and activism
1 quinceañera ball gown with crown; 1 black cocktail dress for introduction, 1 colorful cocktail dress with hat; 1 talent costume and 1 national costume; 1 indoor interview outfit; 1 black swimsuit; 1 metal boned waist corset; 1 pair of blue jeans and a white top for a tour of London; 1 long glamorous preliminary dress; and 1 long glamorous gown for the grand final.
Chedino Martin — a trans activist from Cape Town, South Africa, and the first ever Miss Trans Africa — looked at the piles of carefully folded outfits on her bed and wondered if she'd forgotten anything. Then she remembered her makeup, wigs, jewelry, shoes and a few precious comforts from home.
Together with her designer, Chedino had spent two months and more than 40,000 rand (approximately $2,100) designing and making the gowns, dresses and outfits for what she considered the crowning achievement of her 20-year pageant career: competing in Miss Trans Global 2023, an international advocacy pageant for transgender women.
Chedino, who had just turned 40, felt like she had achieved the impossible: "I never thought that would happen."
We reported on Chedino in two earlier stories. In the first, we shared her journey of being abandoned by her mother when she was just a few months old to winning the first ever Miss Trans Africa beauty pageant in 2022. In the second, we told the story of how Chedino's own pageant, Miss Calendar Girl, became a platform for change in South Africa.
Now, a year later, Chedino was heading into the unknown. All she knew was that Miss Trans Global would be a pageant of many "firsts'": She'd never left South Africa before; she'd never competed in an international pageant; and she'd never traveled without her "team": her make-up and hair stylist, a dress designer and, crucially, her husband, Keagan.
Miss Trans Global 2023
A nonprofit registered in the U.K., Miss Trans Global was created by Miss saHHara, a Nigerian beauty queen and transgender rights advocate.
Unlike more traditional pageants, which are primarily focused on physical appearance and talents, Miss Trans Global blended beauty with activism. Contestants were encouraged to share personal stories of discrimination, violence, societal exclusion and their journeys of self-acceptance.
Miss Trans Global has no age restrictions; and, to make sure there was enough time for the judges to really get to know each contestant, only 10 women competed in the final. Perhaps most unorthodox was Miss saHHara's wish that each finalist would win something, and to experience being crowned queen.
Miss Trans Global's focus on activism and lived experience resonated with Chedino. "You can be yourself on stage based on your own experiences," she explains. "It's not your typical beauty pageant."
But other than the activist focus and the packed pageant schedule she'd received from the organizers, Chedino had no real sense of what Miss Trans Global would be like. All she knew was that she, along with nine other transgender women, had made the cut.
A grueling week in Woking
One by one, Miss Trans Global 2023's finalists arrived at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre in Woking, southwest of London, from all over the world: Argentina, Canada, England, France, Italy, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, Thailand and Wales.
The pageant's length — a full week — worried Chedino. Each day would be filled with interviews, stage walking practice, fittings, photoshoots and rounds of judging. "My body had never gone through that before," she explains.
Miss Canada, Diana Dee Barrera, was also anxious about how the pageant would unfold. Not only was Miss Trans Global her first ever event, she'd never worn a bathing suit in public before and was nervous about having to do so in the swimsuit category. "I've never had other trans friends or anything of that sort, so I was very reserved at first."
For Miss Wales, Eva de Jesus, the pageant was an important milestone on her personal journey. Like Miss Canada, she was new to pageantry. "I'm living my lost years. I never had the courage to be who I am," de Jesus said. Originally from Portugal and working as an office cleaner, she says she's learned to "give myself the respect I did not get from my family."
Others, like Miss Nigeria, Alex Etim, who works as an outreach coordinator and HIV counselor, were keen to use Miss Trans Global as an opportunity to highlight the lack of transgender rights in their countries. "I am here because I need to be — I need to use my voice and speak up for the trans community in Nigeria," she explains.
Chedino prepared for the pageant as best she could — following her fellow contestants on Instagram and Facebook, and watching their competition videos on YouTube. She quickly realized, "these girls came to slay, and I thought to myself, 'Girl, you have to represent South Africa very well'," Chedino says with a laugh.
One thing she was sure of, however: She'd put a lot of thought into her outfits. Every dress and gown had a carefully crafted backstory meant to maximize its impact on her judges' score sheets.
Her pink quinceañera dress "fulfilled my dream of being a princess;" her closed-door interview outfit "brought to life my African heritage;" and for her final gown, she chose white "to represent the purity of my intentions and spirit, with the rhinestones showcasing the constellations in the sky."
Her national costume — a golden body suit with sun crown and cape — paid homage to illegal mine workers in South Africa. "I love shiny things, but I know how much it costs to get them," she explains. "A lot of people lose their lives in those mines looking for gold and precious stones. I wanted to make people in the U.K. aware of that fact."
Keen to have women from low-income countries compete, Miss Trans Global covered some of the costs of several contestants. But Chedino still had to find the money to pay for her flights and, of course, all her outfits, wigs and makeup.
Together with photographer Julia Gunther, she set up a GoFundMe page to raise the funds she would need to compete (full disclosure, the author donated to Chedino's campaign).
Before her trip to Woking, Chedino believed being transgender meant fully transitioning through surgery. Once there, however, she learned that transgender experiences vary widely, and that no two journeys are the same.
Miss saHHara, aiming to foster a sisterhood among contestants, had them share rooms and pick roommates in advance. Chedino chose to room with Miss France, Kevhoney Scarlett, feeling an instant connection.
Once the pageant started, Chedino and the other contestants had little time to think of anything other than the competition.
A sightseeing visit to London; an empowerment workshop; four costume fittings; emotionally draining interviews; sashing ceremony rehearsals; talent rehearsals; and, of course, showcasing the countless costumes during the preliminary and grand final evenings. A bewildering amount of activity at the best of times, but for the contestants — who got little sleep and were constantly anxious — a serious challenge.
"When I was in my 20s, I lived in heels. At my age now, to be on heels all day ... it felt like I had no more blood in my feet," Chedino laughs. "That was tough."
The contestants were constantly watched by two judges — Madame Brazil and Danielly Drugge — who were scoring the finalists' behavior and attitudes during every activity and segment.
Chedino relied on her experience to get through the long days. "Because I am a pageant veteran, I knew I had to pace myself, and choose the right moments to shine," she explains.
As difficult as competing was, Chedino says she, at least, benefited from speaking the same language as the contest's organizers and most of its contestants. The competition was uniquely challenging for Miss Argentina, Lucila Thompson, who did not speak English. "Sometimes, a girl would be crying and I would not know why," Thompson says, "but I would still give her a hug."
In the week's most difficult moments, Chedino says she realized just how much she missed Keagan. "In South Africa, I could just go home, see my husband, and he'd hold me and all would be well with my soul." Keagan did his best to "encourage her and remind her of the person that she is," he says with a smile.
Chedino was surprised, though, to be named Activist Queen of the Year — she didn't even think she was in the running, as she'd always considered her financial hardship back home to be a major obstacle to driving positive change.
"Many of the girls were much better off than myself, so I assumed they could have a far bigger impact on their communities," she explains. "When my country was called out, I was shocked."
Wiped out and full of conflicting emotions, Chedino traveled back to Cape Town via Nottingham and London, where she spent time with her cousin and her family, whom she hadn't seen since her wedding in 2018.
Keagan still gets emotional when recounting the moment he was reunited with Chedino at Cape Town International Airport. "That was a huge thing for me, to see her after all that time. She smelled like England. I'll never forget that smell," he says, his voice breaking.
Back in Hanover Park, their neighborhood in Cape Town, life slowly returned to normal — Chedino could cuddle up next to her husband whenever she became tired or anxious.
But there was still the public vote to contend with, and the pageant's final results to learn of.
On Oct. 29, Chedino gathered with her family at her mother's home in Heideveld, a suburb of Cape Town, to await the results. The night before, South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks, beat New Zealand's All Blacks to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Keagan quietly hoped that Chedino's victory at Miss Trans Global would make it a double.
But the evening came and went with no winners announced — a technical glitch delayed the results another full week. Finally, though, Miss Trans Global had its Queen Global: Miss Thailand Piano Sarocha Akaros.
Miss France won Miss Trans Global Diamond (second place), Miss England won Miss Trans Global Sapphire (third place), Miss Canada took First Princess Global (fourth place) and Chedino rounded out the Top 5, earning the title of Second Princess Global.
Chedino says she's proud to have made it into the Top 5 without any prior international pageant experience. She's also sure she'd do it all again.
"I will treasure this pageant, and I hope that more women from my community will have the opportunity to showcase themselves on an international platform," she says.
Miss Argentina adds that she's hopeful for the future, thanks to the pageant: "Miss Trans Global has shown me that language is not essential when it comes to human connection," she explains. "We may have different stories, but they always intersect at some point because we know how we got to where we are."
Catie Dull photo edited and Zach Thompson copy edited this story.
Nick Schonfeld divides his time between writing children's books and working on stories about affordable health care, gender equality, education and distributive justice.
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