In 1977, a woman was crowned as the most beautiful and intelligent female in the entire universe. This time, the chosen person did not have white skin, but instead belonged to a community that has long faced racial discrimination around the world. Janelle Penney Commissiong-Chow is a Trinidad and Tobago native who immigrated to the United States when she was 13 but returned to Trinidad in 1976.
Commissiong was born on June 15, 1953, with a dream of one day winning a big prize. She began by becoming Miss Trinidad and then had the opportunity of a lifetime when she was crowned Miss Universe in 1977 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She was the first woman of African descent and the first woman from the Caribbean to be crowned Miss Universe. Commissiong was born in Trinidad and Venezuela to a Trinidadian father and a Venezuelan mother. Prior to being crowned Miss Universe, she studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Throughout the Miss Universe pageant, Commissiong remained well-known. She was one of the pageant’s most popular contestants, winning the photogenic award. She was also regarded as one of the pageant’s favorites. Miss Austria was predicted to win the pageant at the time, but instead finished as the first runner-up.
During her reign, Janelle Penney was a public advocate for Black people’s rights. It was a time when people of African descent were considered a minority and faced racial discrimination. She also advocated for the global peace process, and in 1977 she was awarded the Trinity Cross, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest honor. Her country also issued three postage stamps in her honor. However, in 1978, Commissiong’s successor was from South Africa, and it was extremely ironic to see a Miss Universe crowning a winner from a country that was widely known for racial injustice against the Black community.
After completing her duties as Miss Universe, Commissiong married Brian Bowen, the founder of Bowen Marine, a luxury boat manufacturing company. However, after her husband died in a car accident, she took over the company for a time. She later remarried and adopted a child named Sasha. Commissiong, like many other famous people from the great Caribbean heritage, is a powerful icon in Trinidad and Tobago society who still manages to run successful businesses.