Agbani Darego Biography
Nigeria's Agbani Darego was crowned Miss World in 2001, making her the first black woman from an African country ever to win the pageant. Darego spent much of her Miss World year making public appearances around the globe and serving as an unofficial ambassador for her country, and even her continent. "People think that Africa is a backward, poverty-stricken place, that everyone who lives there is suffering," she told Lesley Garner of the Evening Standard, a London newspaper. "There are parts that are like that, but in Nigeria a lot of people are well-to-do."
Born in 1982, Darego hails from a town called Abonnema in the Rivers State area of southern Nigeria. Her full name is Ibiagbanidokibubo Asenite Darego, and she was the sixth of eight children in her family. Her father was a customs official, while her mother, Inaewo, had a rice-trading business which necessitated frequent travel; on her trips Inaewo bought clothing and sold it in a clothing boutique where Darego spent many hours as a little girl, paging through foreign fashion magazines. But Darego was sent off to a boarding school when she was ten years old. Two years later, her mother died of breast cancer, and Darego later realized she had been sent away to shield her from her mother's condition. "I wasn't too happy at first, but it prepared me for my life now," she reflected about being away from home in an interview with Julia Llewellyn Smith of the Mail on Sunday. "I learned to be on my own. It makes you independent."
During her teens, Darego dreamed of becoming a model, a career plan dismissed by her father. At six feet, she was unusually tall for a Nigerian—all in her family are of above-average height—and she was slimmer than the prevailing standard of beauty. "The way most women look in Nigeria is not the Western ideal," she explained to Garner in the Evening Standard interview. "In my country, short, curvy women are thought beautiful, not me." Such extra pounds are considered a sign of health and prosperity, and some brides-to-be in Nigeria even cloister themselves in what is known as a "fattening room" two weeks before the wedding in order to gain weight.
Darego had a back-up plan, to study computer science, and had won a place at a university. She deferred it, however, and began making the rounds of modeling agencies in Lagos, Nigeria's main city, and began entering pageants. In "The Face of Africa" modeling contest, she placed as a runner-up. In January of 2001 she won the "Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria" contest, which made her eligible for the Miss World pageant later that year. The global-beauty event was held in Sun City, South Africa, and that year was hosted by American television personality Jerry Springer. Initially, Darego was a long shot to win, but that year's contest had a new feature: television viewers could phone in a vote for their favorite contestant. On that November evening, Darego became Miss World 2001, and failed to erupt in tears—the first time in recent memory that the winner had maintained her composure.
Darego was the first Nigerian to win the Miss World crown, but more importantly was the first black woman from an African country to win it. Black women had won the title before, but they hailed from Caribbean lands. Three other women from African nations had taken the crown over the years, but two were white women from South Africa, and the other an Arabic contestant from Egypt in the 1950s. There were massive celebrations in Nigerian cities the same night that Darego was crowned, and when she returned to Nigeria for her first official visit she met with government ministers and took part in a four-day celebration. She was even made an honorary member of the Council of Chiefs in Lagos, an extraordinary honor for a woman as young as she was and one that made her the country's youngest chief.
Darego chose to become a patron of a breast-cancer awareness program and dedicated her crown to her mother. She also devoted time during her Miss World year to an anti-malaria campaign. "I had malaria as a child, but I was privileged to have hospital treatments," she explained in the Mail on Sunday interview with Smith. "So many others die because they can't get drugs." She spent much of the year traveling, but used London as her base, in a home she shared with her younger sister. All told, she walked the Great Wall of China, attended the Cannes Film Festival and England's Royal Ascot—where she wore a stunning fuchsia ensemble and requisite elaborate hat—and was photographed for American Vogue. She also invested some of her cash prize in a parcel of land back in Nigeria.
Darego's year as Miss World was a successful one, but blighted in its last weeks by a political and religious controversy that had little to do with her: she was set to relinquish her crown at the next Miss World pageant in Nigeria, which was slated to be held in her country as an honor to her, but at the time, another young woman from Nigeria, Amina Lawal, had been sentenced to death by stoning on charges of adultery. Women's-rights groups from around the world called attention to the spectacle of holding a beauty pageant in a country where a woman was about to be executed for such a transgression. Perhaps seeking to defuse some of the tension, a Nigerian newspaper journalist wrote that were the prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam, alive today he might have selected a wife from among the contestants. Parts of Nigeria are predominantly Muslim, and the comments incited even more of a controversy. Widespread riots left 200 dead, and Darego and the new Miss World contestants were confined to their hotel for their personal safety. In the end, the pageant locale was hurriedly switched to London, and Darego crowned Miss Turkey as the new Miss World.
Darego landed a three-year contract with L'Oreal, the cosmetics giant, during her Miss World year. A born-again Christian, she does not drink or smoke, and had rarely even worn makeup prior to her Miss World year. She had ambitious plans for the rest of her career. "I'm not going to be a model for the rest of my life," she told the Evening Standard's Garner. "I want to be a successful businesswoman. I want to be good at everything."
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, March 27, 2003.
Evening Standard (London, England), May 7, 2003, p. 23.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 16, 2002, p. 29.
Sun (London, England), June 11, 2002, p. 28.
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