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How Miss NAIDOC Is Redefining What A Pageant Can Be

“We're developing these young women, but we're also giving back to their families and their communities"

Picture a pageant, and visions of white women fumbling their way through explanations of “world peace” will most likely come to mind. In 2021, the relevance of beauty pageants is non-existent at worst and questionable at best. 

But one Australian program is doing the work to completely redefine what can be possible from such institutions: Miss NAIDOC. A 6-week leadership and empowerment program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, it’s subverting the traditional trope of pageants by carving out space for Indigenous women to connect, be nurtured and grow into future leaders in their communities. However, the program – now in its eleventh year – hasn’t always been this way. 

In the 80s and 90s, Miss NAIDOC was simply a competition that was held on the night of the NAIDOC ball in Perth. “They actually weren’t even really pageants,” remembers Whadjuk and Ballardong Nyungah woman, NAIDOC chair and Miss NAIDOC co-founder, Glenda Kickett. “Girls would come on the day, wear their gowns, walk and they’d choose the winner. There was no real sort program or anything attached.” 

That small competition eventually fell away and it wasn’t until 2009 that Kickett decided that she wanted to reimagine what Miss NAIDOC could be. “I had the idea that it’d be good to restart Miss NAIDOC to become an ambassador for NAIDOC Perth and NAIDOC Week,” Kickett explains to marie claire. “But I didn’t want to just have it as a beauty pageant. Instead, the idea was to have it be a program where the girls could take something away from it. When I connected with Shannon McGuire, we had the same idea that it should be a leadership program.” 

McGuire – an activist, Whadjuk Ballardong woman and second runner-up on the first season of Australia’s Next Top Model – had taken part in the Miss Universe competition and felt like there was an opportunity to create positive change in the space. “We just agreed that the program needed to be so much more than just some pretty girls walking onstage,” McGuire tells marie claire. “It needed to be somewhere where we could bring our girls together, and really work on growing their confidence and being more of a voice.” 

(Credit: Photography by Cybele Malinowski, Styling by Rhys Ripper)

The desire to restart the program was also born from a desire to establish something that was specifically for, and facilitated by, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Perth. “We really wanted to have something that would build the confidence and self-esteem of our young women, as well as their capacity to seek their own future professional and personal development,” Kickett says, adding that establishing the program wasn’t without hurdles. “It was hard because nobody really was interested in a program for young women. Especially Indigenous young women.  

“Corporates and organisations were throwing money at young boys, with football programs and basketball programs, but they just weren’t interested in our women and our programs. So we’ve found it really, really difficult. And it’s only now, after we’ve been going for 11 years, that there is actually interest from corporates and government departments and community organisations.”

In spite of the racism and sexism inherent in any disinterest, Kickett and Mcguire have built one of the most impressive leadership programs in the country. This year alone they received over 500 applications. Out of those, 9 finalists – all from different walks of life – were chosen and over the course of the 6 weeks, they participate in workshops where they discuss issues such as closing the gap and events like their cultural day, where participants get to talk with a female elder. “[The workshops] have just evolved over time, depending on what we feel our cohort needs,” says McGuire, who runs the working group with Kickett, Jarni McGuire, Mikayla King, Lisa, Kristy and Franzi. “We still have the topics that we talk about every year, and I facilitate that space and get the conversation started, but depending on who the participants are, whatever’s going on for them and whatever they feel they want to talk about in that space, it’s really left up to them. They drive it.” 

“You always keep in mind this is a leadership and empowerment program for young Indigenous women,” Kickett adds. “We want them to get out of the program what’s important for them, because each girl has a different journey. They come from different cultures, they have different lived experiences. So it’s really about them personally and what they want to get out of it.” 

The 2021 finalists represent how multifaceted Australia’s First Nations people are. “They’re quite diverse,” explains Kickett. “They’re from different cultural groups, different language groups, they come from different areas and it’s been great to see them connect and build that sisterhood. That was evidenced last night when we did our final workshop and they just came together and were speaking as one voice. That was amazing for a group of young women.”

(Credit: Photography by Cybele Malinowski, Styling by Rhys Ripper)

A key lesson, McGuire shares, has been reframing how they understand the program to begin with. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned over the last 11 years is not to treat this like a competition,” she explains. “Anyone coming into this program, they need to treat themselves as participants, not contestants. Because yes, there’s prizes at the end, but we don’t talk about that in the six weeks leading up to crowning. We talk about the space that we’re in, and keeping that space safe, and creating a sisterhood, and encouraging each other, and feeding off each other’s energies and learning from each other in that space. We really work really, really hard to keep the space organic and energized and feeling really secure.” 

While the authenticity of the program is key, a long-term goal for McGuire and Kickett is taking Miss NAIDOC national. “I just feel like this has been such a positive program in our community, it would be wrong for us not to share it,” McGuire says. “There are so many women all around the country that would benefit from the program. So I would love to start building it in other cities some time soon in the future. And then obviously we have a national NAIDOC committee. I would love for us to have a national Miss NAIDOC. That would be amazing. Go to every state and territory, run our programs, and bring states together, if we can.” 

Ultimately, the impact Miss NAIDOC makes in the lives of the participants, and the profound influence their renewed confidence can have, is what makes the program so special, Kickett says. “We’re developing these young women, but we’re also giving back to their families and their communities. For me, that’s the pinnacle. It’s just seeing the young women come from being very shy, insecure, low self-esteem, no voice, to seeing them at the end, all of a sudden ‘I have a voice’.

“Even just families seeing their daughters up there, growing in their confidence and self-esteem, that builds their confidence and their self-esteem as well. For us as a whole – as a collective culture and community who have been dispossessed and colonised and our cultures have been taken away from us and our languages – when you see a program like Miss NAIDOC, it gives you strength, hope and pride that actually, our culture is still strong. We have survived, we’re resilient, our young people are thriving, there is hope for the future. There’s really nothing stopping us.” 

Miss NAIDOC 2021 will be crowned at a gala event held at Crown Perth, Saturday 17th of July. For tickets to the event and to learn more about Miss NAIDOC, head here.

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