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Miss Universe 1998 Wendy Fitzwilliam.

It’s easy to remember the night Wendy Fitzwilliam vied for the Miss Universe 1998 title in Honolulu, Hawaii. Poised, brilliant, resplendent eyes that radiated a girlish charm and humour, topped off with a sultry jazz voice that captured hearts…she was nothing short of gorgeous! Her hair in an elegant updo, adorned with two hibiscus flowers–a nod to the host state, Hawaii, the Caribbean and her homeland, Trinidad and Tobago–undoubtedly, she had outshone the others.

Like the endearing flowers that helped set her apart that night, Fitzwilliam has blossomed, among other things, as an international ambassador, human rights advocate, Caribbean Next Top Model host and executive producer, Carnival aficionado, and as a doting mother of a teen. Like many other women, she has been tested by the fires of womanhood, emerging victoriously as an example to, especially, other women and girls.

Strikingly tall, beautiful, with enviable enunciation and an unmistakable youthful, infectious laugh, she remains our Wendy, our gem.

On October 4, Fitzwilliam turned 49. One year before her 50th milestone birthday, Sunday Guardian celebrates her vibrance, passion for life and success as a Caribbean Queen. She weighs in on the topical issue of whether a larger number of women than men are enrolling in tertiary education and prefer university-educated mates, shares lessons from the pandemic and on letting go as a mother as her son, Ailan, embarks on a new journey at boarding school.

Q&A with Fitzwilliam

In a CNN interview on September 26, New York University Professor, Scott Galloway, stated that low numbers of males seeking a college education in the US were concerning, could lead to “broke and lone” males which is dangerous for society, and also a “mating crisis” as “educated” women generally prefer college-educated men. Women made up 59.5 per cent of college students at the end of the 2020-21 school year, compared to 40.5 per cent of men enrolled in college (US Department of Education). Others before Galloway have also expressed such concerns and in Trinidad and Tobago, we have seen similar trends. (According to the World Bank collection of development indicators as of October 2021, in Trinidad and Tobago, the percentage of students involved in tertiary education who are female was 55.43 per cent in 2004.)

Have you noticed such a trend, and do you feel that locally, “educated” women generally opt for college-educated men? If so, why?

This trend has been happening in T&T and the Caribbean for several years, since my time at UWI in the ’90s. In most faculties, women outnumbered men significantly. At that time, I felt that our women were working harder academically and were more determined to take advantage of the professional opportunities that a university education provided; that is, a guaranteed quality job within a certain income bracket.

With the advent of technology’s rapid growth and disruptive changes to all industries globally and the creation of lucrative careers as a result that do not necessarily require a traditional university education, but specialised or technical training, young men–by nature more open to taking risks than women–have started to transition to these new areas much faster than our women in many instances.

While a university education speaks to a certain determination and desire to develop and maintain a high quality of life, it is no guarantee of success anymore. Our young women recognise this and while my generation was the generation of abundant choices, the young professionals now are much more adept at cutting through the noise and finding the professions that earn them a decent living and provide fulfilment beyond financial reward.

As we start thinking about starting a family around the ages of 28-32, women do look for a certain level of “security” in a partner and a university education is a big part of that security. However, the ambition of the potential mate and the way he treats me trump that degree any time of the day or night.

We have had statistics from then education minister Anthony Garcia in 2019 of an alarming school drop-out rate, in particular, among males. What can T&T do to ensure that males capitalise on educational opportunities and remedy their attitudes towards higher education and education in general?

We must create quality jobs and support the growth of local entrepreneurs. Our educational system has outpaced the growth of new industries with huge global potential like oil, gas and manufacturing once had. The technical expertise provided through our energy and manufacturing sectors and our outsized creative talents as a people should be combined at the policy and funding level to create and support the growth of non-traditional sectors in T&T, such as animation, our fashion sector, our Carnival arts, the agri-processing sector, renewable energy etc.

We can’t do all of these well at the same time. We have done the studies ad nauseum to determine what direction our society should move in economically. Our educational system is catching up to the rest of the world, but we are not creating the environment for our locally grown companies to thrive and excel fast enough to continue to grow in the new economy. It requires calculated risk to do this and culturally, we do not have much appetite for risk.

Our youth are not motivated to seek higher education because they may train in a speciality and, if lucky, end up in a job–as opposed to a profession–that has little to do with their training. Unfortunately, they can also acquire more material wealth through criminal activity with minimal consequences–or rates of detection and conviction are shameful–when compared to the hard work that goes into higher education to scrape by financially. The failure rate to qualify as a teacher or an accountant is higher than criminal success. So, we must make the professional opportunities more attractive post-degree to entice our youth, particularly our men, back to school. Honestly, this question should be a whole series in the newspaper! I’ve just gotten started.

Anything that you would like to share about Ailan going off to boarding school in preparation for college…perhaps why you decided to send him, how you’re coping? Additionally, why are you looking forward to giving him a university education, especially as it relates to our theme?

Ailan has travelled extensively with me for his entire life. His first trip was at two months old to Miss Universe 2006 in Los Angeles and by the time he wrote SEA, he had visited Africa with me twice (Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia). Thus, he has always seen T&T as an excellent base, but he truly believes the world is his home…all of it.

His love of football, the US and Yale University; and his wicked negotiation skills made the decision to send him to boarding school to complete his high school education a foregone conclusion for his father and me. Like I said, generally, boys are more open to risk and new adventures. We girls test with our toes before getting in. Boys go in head first once excited about an opportunity or an experience. He is happy living his new experience at his new school, therefore I am too. Yes, I miss him terribly, but I do not long to have him with me. There have been no tears, just lots of FaceTime video calls for both of us.

When he discovered the voice-memo app on my phone as a toddler he used it abundantly! He recorded himself singing, our conversations, his conversations with his nanny…everything. I kept them all. Those voice notes now litter all my playlists (a list of video or audio files that can be played back on a cell phone or computer etc). So, whether working at my computer or listening to music in my car or having dinner, his voice is with me. His joy and sense of humour are with me, his “I love you Mummy” is with me…in his voice. The voice notes always give me a pleasant pause. They bring a smile to my face and a little prayer in my thoughts for him, then I move on with my day.

Happy to hear that. We’ve heard some of it before, but still, I must ask, what were your dreams when you were younger? Do you think you have fulfilled/surpassed them?

I have had and continue to have too many dreams to mention here. I have achieved some of them, not exactly as I envisioned in my teens or 20s; some bigger and better than my dreams, others different to my vision, but fulfilling all the same and I’m still working on a host of others.

I never stop evolving, learning, dreaming…and working! However, I do not put pressure on myself either to do everything all at once. Perhaps I am spoiled because the women in my family live very long, fulfilling lives in good health. Both my grannies made it well past their 80th birthdays and Thin Granny (Mum’s mum) had a ball travelling the Caribbean well into her 90s with her ride or die, my grandaunt, Naomi. Aunty Naomi is now 103 and as sharp and fun as she was in her 50s–when I would have met her as a newborn. I’m still going for a while yet hopefully, fabulously and with the joy…necessary to overcome the hurdles that come with living life.

We are still in the throes of a pandemic that has caused many of us to examine and even reshape our lives. How has this world health crisis changed you and what drives you, especially now, to keep pushing forward?

Stuff…things matter so much less now. Pre-pandemic, I was about the quality of my experiences and friendships but now, I’m all in for my friendships and experiences and it doesn’t have to be a beach in the Maldives. Buying doubles and the exchange I have with Harry–my greengrocer–mean so much more now. I am also much more expressive of my gratitude for my family, friendships, and everyday experiences. Winning keeps me getting up and getting dressed up, working out and learning new things. This crazy time will not beat me, and I am determined to come out of it emotionally, physically and spiritually healthier.

Beautiful. You mentioned in a recent interview that you hope to write another book. Please talk a little about this and about whatever hopes you have for the future.

I am always writing, but Ailan kept me so busy that I did not have the time to structure my thoughts and get down to writing a book. I’m determined to do so now that I have lots more time on evenings and it is a great way to stay off social media and YouTube, and be productive.