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Wendy's Banking on Tyra's Brand

Sunday, October 25, 2015
Wendy Fitzwilliam, executive producer of Caribbean’s Next Top Model, poses by artwork of Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier at the Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach.

Interview and photography by Sean Drakes

This week Wendy Fitzwilliam, one of the Caribbean’s most admired beauty pageant winners and businesswomen, invited some stylish comrades, faithful sponsors and media from across the region to the rooftop lounge of the Betsy Hotel on Miami Beach to toast her venture into reality TV.
For the sophomore season of Caribbean’s Next Top Model (CNTM), production was staged in Barbados. “We worked like animals, we turned this show out in less than 21 days,” shares Fitzwilliam, who was crowned Miss Universe in 1998.

Speculation that CNTM left Trinidad due to alleged disagreements and salty incidents with some production crew that stalled CNTM’s debut, is chatter that doesn’t matter to Fitzwilliam. “The beauty of this franchise is that it’s a regional franchise, every season we get to move the entire production.  I loved working in Barbados, the crew was amazing…totally professional.”   

Roughly 8,000 candidates applied to compete in the ten-episode series that Wendy and co-executive producer Dionyse Fitzwilliam are gambling will be a game-changer for TV production and consumption in the Caribbean.  Flow TV unveiled the first episode in ten countries last Monday, while Wendy posed for photos and fielded questions in Miami. She spoke on rationalising failure, facilitating dreams, and growing her audience without Tyra.  

Q:  What attracted you to this project? 
A:  I have always loved fashion, I’ve modelled since I was 11. I see it as an opportunity to create further opportunities for young women of the Caribbean. That’s very important to both my sister and I, that’s why we got involved.

Secondly, we don’t have any entertainment in the Caribbean that covers or transcends the language divide. Even in sport, as popular as cricket is, it’s an English-speaking Caribbean activity and most of the activities are male-dominated and around an event. Even though Carnival celebrates women of the Caribbean more than it does anything else, it’s still an event.  

There’s nothing that delves a little deeper continuously, and a television show gives you that. If you think about TV, there are two areas of the arts and culture that have the ability to leave a long-term, lasting impact on a mass scale relatively quickly, that’s music and television.

The reason why the minority enrollment at Princeton University skyrocketed in the 1980s is because of The Cosby Show. After 9/11, when New York was suffering, what really brought the city back was entertainment and Sex And The City. Sex And The City has been off the air since 2009, and we’re still drinking cosmopolitans and going to restaurants that Carrie Bradshaw and her band of buddies talked about. TV has an ability to connect emotionally because it is much longer than a moment. Continues on Page B2

If I knew, my friend, the hard work that it took to pull something like this off, we may not be sitting here now. I’m happy that I was a little naïve in that regard. 

Since you recognise the value and power of TV, did you consider creating your own show instead of licencing a franchise?
I didn’t know how to make it happen. In this space there is nothing that truly unifies the region. When I was competing in Miss T&T, I said very clearly that I know whatever I do, whether I’m lawyering [sic] or being Miss T&T or Miss Universe, I would like to spend my time uniting us and celebrating us beyond our shores. How? I didn’t know.

The franchise makes perfect sense. It is very recognisable and well respected globally, but most importantly, here in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean we’re not great risk takers, our culture is generally risk adverse, so it makes sense to go with something that is established, popular and well-liked, then create our own flavour. Make it into our own event.

We’ve done that. Just like we’ve made a particular fried chicken company from America our own throughout the region. I know we’re doing the same thing with this. When you compare CNTM to the 24 other franchises in the Top Model brand ours is uniquely us. 

October 14, Tyra Banks tweeted: “#ANTM22 should be our last cycle.  I truly believe it’s time.” This cycle concludes in December. Were you given heads-up that retirement was so near?  
We saw it coming, that’s all I can say. That can be interpreted as a tremendous opportunity and also it can be a little bit unnerving. America’s Next Top Model has been the anchor of the franchise. ANTM, for about seven years, has been declining in ratings significantly in terms of viewership in America.

But the others, Australia particularly, CNTM the first season, did very well in terms of viewership across the region. The disadvantage is while ANTM was on air, unlike CSI and Law & Order, the Top Model franchises were not given permission by CBS to air in North America, which is a huge market. 

Considering the trials, teachings and turmoil with production on season one, what is your takeaway from your maiden journey into TV production?
My biggest takeaway is patience with myself, patience with the process. TV is not as organised per se a business as banking, which is where my sister was before. It’s a lot more ad hoc and like everything else, not because you attain success in one area that means you are automatically going to have it in the next. I understood that very clearly. 

I have done many things well and many more things not so well, I have failed at a lot. But when you are very well known, like I am throughout the region, your failures are amplified.  When you have success no one remembers them. My biggest takeaway is patience with the growth process, not forgetting that. Taking the time to learn the aspects of the business and we’ve done that.

 In the first season, you had someone guiding you or jumped in feet first?    
We jumped into it to a large extent and we jumped in with a certain level of inexperience. Even though CBS provided a little support, in terms of production, the business of TV, understanding the Caribbean, we didn’t fully understand. We didn’t fully understand that the broadcasting rights of American stations in the Caribbean is illegal or has been for some time. That required some time to clean up and we are doing that now as a region.  

Might the cancellation of ANTM affect the success of CNTM?
It will affect CNTM positively, because there is tremendous interest in the world of fashion and modelling regionally. There is nothing else like it in this space here. The interest in the Caribbean and this show on the continent of Africa and elsewhere is unreal.  The interest amongst our diaspora continues to be amazing. The interest from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the Dutch…they are all in.
The end of ANTM is a distinct advantage for CNTM’s growth, I hope CBS International and Tyra you’re hearing that! 

Identify some benefits to CNTM contestants?
What CNTM is for the winner, it’s a long job interview because you’re preparing to work in this industry with our agency partner [Mint Management] in the United States. For the young ladies who don’t win the takeaway is the training. You learn from the interactions with our special guests who know what they’re doing in this space.  You learn how to work the things that work for you as a model. If you’re smart you can blossom after this even if you don’t win. The opportunities are endless if you see it as such, that’s life period. 

Drop a tease about your special guests this season. 
We have a steady rotation of guests: Dani Swan, who is an Australian actress who is the body that is used for motion capture in the Matrix. We also used Lene Hall, one of the only Caribbean models to land four beauty campaigns.  One of our guys, who you would not think of for a show of this nature, Brad Telma, he is a Barbadian surfer.

He was one of Virgin’s brand ambassadors. He did one of the most interesting challenges with our young ladies. We use Caribbean talent who have excelled outside of the region and Caribbean talent still living in the region and doing well internationally.  Expect quite a few out of the box things.  

What mantra drives your professional pursuits? 
This I learned at St Joseph’s Convent.  In very subtle ways Sister Paul, God bless her, told us this every single morning at assembly: Rule number one, never be number two. 


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