~ Wants to contest finals, but only with govt. support ~
By Judy H. Fitzpatrick
MARIGOT–“I am very sad. I just want people to change their mind and to know that all I do is not to disrespect my island. I want them to be proud,” said 24-year-old Lara Mateo wiping away tears from her cheeks.
She took a deep breath to regain her composure, but Mateo could not contain her emotions as she recounted the severe backlash, which included threats, insults and hate messages, she received when she accepted the challenge to represent the country in the 70th Miss World Pageant in Puerto Rico in November and December 2021.
After news surfaced that the French Citizen was representing Dutch St. Maarten in the pageant, her Instagram and Facebook inboxes became flooded with hate messages. The messages became so overwhelming that she was forced to change her phone number and “disappear from social media.” She was called all sorts of derogatory names, was warned to stay away from the Dutch side and was threatened that she would be stabbed when she returned to the island. She was afraid to return, but said this is her home and she had to come back. Luckily, when she returned at Princess Juliana International Airport some friendly persons greeted her, requested to take photos with her and told her not to worry about the negativity and that they were proud of her.
Lara Mateo with Miss France.
Despite the backlash, Mateo does not want to succumb to quitting. She wants to finish what she started and compete in the finals, which was called off for December 16, 2021 due to COVID and is expected to be rescheduled for March, of this year, but she will only do so if she gets the support from Dutch St. Maarten authorities.
“I don’t [know –Ed.] if they can agree. If I do go in March because I am not sure if I am going to do it. I want to finish this. If everything is fixed and if the St. Maarten people agree I am going to finish it,” she said. “It was very stressful for me. Very hard… I felt like I started something. When I start something. I finish it. The problem is, I don’t want to be in trouble with the St. Maarten people. If they do not agree for me representing the island, I am not going to do it even if I feel like a St. [Martiner]… If they do not agree and the government too, I am not going to do it, but it’s hurting.”
Dressed in a long-sleeved black top, skinny blue jeans and gold sandals, Mateo sat across a table at her place of employment – a real estate agency – in the heart of Marigot to recount her experience with The Daily Herald. She said all this started when a friend of hers from Guadeloupe, whom she met when she went to that island to continue her education after Hurricane Irma destroyed her school in St. Martin, asked her whether she wanted to compete in the Miss World pageant. She initially thought it was a joke and laughed it off, but after some amount of encouragement, one thing led to another and she was put in contact with Georges Nandan, who has a long history of involvement in pageantry.
She was told that she had the “shoulders” (potential) to compete in Miss World. Thinking that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her and a good platform to promote her island, Mateo agreed. She said everything happened at the eleventh hour and she had just two weeks to prepare. She was initially concerned about certain things and said when she asked her laundry list of questions and raised concerns, she was always reassured that everything was legitimate, that everything would be ok and everything was in place for her participation. One week before she had to travel to Puerto Rico, she was told that she had to do a promotional video. It was only around this point, that it became clear to her that it was the Dutch side that she would have been representing because she was asked to use only the Dutch side flag in her video. She said she was a bit confused, but said Nandan assured her that he was the new franchise holder of the pageant for Dutch St. Maarten. “I thought it was the whole island. I thought that Miss St. Martin on the French side represented the entire island. I don’t know how all this Miss World [worked], but I asked a lot of questions and they always answer me that they get this,” she said in her deep French accent, acknowledging that she expresses herself better in French, but trying her utmost to give her side of the story in English. She was told that the necessary fees for her participation was paid by Nandan, which she roughly estimated was probably in excess of some US $10,000. She covered the cost of her own airline ticket to Puerto Rico and signed a contract of participation directly with the Miss World Organisation when she arrived there. No contract was signed with Nandan. When she asked whether she had to sign one, she said she was told that only the contract with Miss World was necessary. Nandan told The Daily Herald on Tuesday that he and another person are the new Franchise holders for St. Maarten and he plans to come to the country this month to meet with authorities to explain this (see related story).
Mateo does not think that Nandan had ill intentions. “He is not a bad person, but maybe he didn’t know all the rules and all the… things he had to do to represent the Dutch side and to ask the permission. Maybe he doesn’t know that.”
Asked whether the thought crossed her mind to contact the Dutch side authorities, prior to going to represent the country, she said, while she felt that this was the responsibility of the franchise holder who is supposed to be the professional, if she knew then what she knows now, she would have handled things differently. “I thought that everything was fixed. They are the professionals.”
Mateo faced many hiccups along the way. She arrived in Puerto Rico one week later than she had to on November 27, 2021. A suitcase that was being sent to her from Guadeloupe containing some important outfits that she had to wear in several segments of the show including the cultural wear did not arrive in time due to unrest in Guadeloupe at the time. She told the Miss World representatives that she would not compete in the Cultural Wear segment as her costume had not arrived and she was told that she could not fall out, she had to participate. She had to therefore improvise and use a white dress that she was provided and dress it up to make it work. There were other issues with outfits and fittings for other segments of the show that she had to navigate.
Mateo with one of the delegates.
Alluding to the interview in which she gave the incorrect date of Hurricane Irma and the size of the island, Mateo said this was due to her being extremely nervous at the time. Delegates were up from as early as 3:30am daily and ended their days close to midnight. She said she is aware of when the hurricane occurred because she experienced it right at her home, but her nerves got the best of her. She said also that she never intended to disrespect the country’s flag by sitting on it in the promotional video. The intention was for her to hold the flag around her. “I did not intend to be disrespectful,” she stressed.
Before the finals of the pageant, Mateo became aware that her participation came under question from St. Maarten. The matter was first raised by Independent Member of Parliament (MP) Christophe Emmanuel who posed a number of questions during the debate for the draft 2022 budget. This was followed by statements by Posh Productions (POSH) which said it had been baffled by the development and denounced the contestant. The Government of St. Maarten also indicated that it does not endorse or support Mateo’s participation in the pageant.
Mateo said the backlash had a heavy toll on her mentally and emotionally. She then started receiving a flood of correspondences on Instagram and Facebook from persons many of which were unkind. This led to her informing the Miss World Organisation the day before the finals that she will not be participating in the finals. She was, however, told that she was required to participate and that she could not fall out. “I refused to participate because of all they say on the news. It was just horrible for me. The government doesn’t want me to participate and I love my island and at the end of this I don’t want to put me in trouble with my island. I was like, just go to make some publicly to say we [the island] are here, we are existing and if I can promote the island [then that is what I wanted to do – Ed.]”
Before the finals were held however, the show was cancelled due to COVID-cases. Mateo said despite all that has occurred, the experience of the actual pageant in itself was one that she would never forget. She forged many friendships and used every opportunity to share information about and promote the island.
Who is Lara Mateo?
Mateo sees herself as a simple person who loves to inject humour in situations and make people laugh. She loves animals and has two cats, which brings her much joy. She was born in Spain and moved to St. Martin, when her parents relocated here when she was not yet a year old. She is the oldest of two sisters for her mother, whom she resides with in Concordia, St. Martin. She is a French citizen and carries a French passport. Since moving to St. Martin, she has lived here all her life with the exception of the period after Hurricane Irma when her school was destroyed and she and her schoolmates had to go to Guadeloupe to continue their education. She says the island is the only place she knows as home and a place that she loves dearly. She considers the two sides of the island one and loves both sides. She currently works as a real estate agent at an agency in Marigot and she enjoys what she does.
She wants the public to know that she had only the best intentions when she accepted the opportunity to represent the country on the world stage, and if given the endorsement by authorities, she would be grateful and privileged to continue her journey in the finals to finish what she so enthusiastically started.