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This is 60
As Trinidad and Tobago’s first Miss Universe headed towards her 60th birthday, one thought kept popping into her mind: “It doesn’t fit,” says Janelle Penny Commissiong Chow. And she doesn’t mean her clothes. On June 15, Penny, as she has always been fondly called in Trinidad and Tobago, turned 60, a terrifying age, it would seem for a woman who made history in 1977 as the first Miss Universe in the history of the pageant to be a woman of colour. But Penny doesn’t see age as an issue. “There are so many pre-conceived notions of what ‘60’ is – first and foremost ‘old’, says Penny. “Retirement has traditionally been tied to the 60s and that image hangs over it, but it just doesn’t fit.” Months before her birthday Penny pondered the meaning of 60 and then realised “what is there to analyse and be defensive about?”
Still stunning, Penny could easily be the envy of women decades younger. No one can believe her age. “Would it be any different if I looked a bit different? I don’t know. I can only talk from my experience,” says Penny. There’s always a big debate about what “work” she has done to maintain her looks. “One of the things I’m thankful for is that I have all my original body parts,” she laughs. “No fillers, no replacements, no substitutes.” This seems miraculous in a world she recognises as revolving around instant beauty at all costs. “Everything is Hollywood. Everything is instant. Everyone strives for perfection – the perfect look. I haven’t seen any encouraging examples of people who have had something done. I can watch TV and see someone in her 30s and think oh, she had work done. Maybe that’s the new normal for this generation.”
She describes the whole cosmetic surgery thing as a “slippery slope”. “In the quest for perfection the line keeps moving. The more surgery people have, the more they want. The idea of perfection keeps moving further and further away. The goal post keeps being moved. I don’t knock anyone who does whatever they feel what they want to do; maybe later on I’ll feel differently. For the time being I’m good with where I’m at and how I look.” (But, she still says she can’t see what this 60 thing is supposed to be.) “I think it will be interesting. I’m thinking now I’m taking no prisoners meaning I don’t have to be this ‘nice’ person. I have an excuse now: age,” she laughs.
What she has realised for some time is the older you get, the more you take control of your own life, and how you want to express yourself. Age brings many ‘what if’ questions, and Penny has travelled that route too. “You always look back at things you would have done differently, but you juxtapose that with things that happened in your life that had to happen. Then it starts to be a difficult choice as to what you would have done differently. For instance, if I had stayed abroad I would have pursued a whole different career, something in television, I think, but then I wouldn’t have had my daughter, Sasha, and she’s such an important part of my life.”
Looking back on the night she became Miss Universe (in 1977) Penny says there are many fond memories. “I remember the simple things: walking on stage past the guy who was singing and feeling the vibe was so good and positive; the host, Bob Barker (famous for The Price of Right game show, now deceased) saying when I walked passed him, ‘They sure love you, little one’; watching the tape after the pageant and seeing women of colour gathering around me and sobbing. I remember Miss Liberia sobbing. And then there was the memory of Miss Barbados and me jumping up on the bed and laughing after the pageant. We were like kids. I remember all of that more than the actual moment of being crowned. It wasn’t about me winning. It was about the victory, opening a door.”
She never felt that crown created any burdensome sense of responsibility in her life. “Responsibility dictates behaviour and winning never dictated how I lived my life. It is an event in my life. I guess because I didn’t come out of the beauty queen culture – I went into it from a business point of view because I had just returned to Trinidad to start a business – that I felt that way.”
Today, however, Penny looks forward to new adventures. “My daughter is going to university. For the last 19 years being a mother has defined my life. Now I’m looking forward to the phase after that part of parenting.” Also, for some time sky diving had been on the top of her “bucket list.” “The older I get I think, ‘Hmmm... I don’t know about doing that again.’ You get a little saner as you get older,” she laughs. No one knows what the future holds, but for the moment one thing is certain. When it comes to Penny, 60 sure looks good.
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