Janelle Commissiong Miss Universe 1977: From being the first black Miss Universe to a successful businesswoman

06 Apr 2020 | Angelique Reyes

The coronation night of Miss Universe 1977 which was held on 16th July 1977 at the National Theater in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic has been marked as a historic day in the Miss Universe history. The reason is that Miss Universe Trinidad and Tobago 1977 Janelle Commissiong was crowned as the new queen. She is the first black woman to win the title of Miss Universe.

Janelle was born in June 1953 to a Trinidadian father and a Venezuelan mother, Janelle Penny Commissiong migrated to the United States when she was 13-years-old, and returned to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1976. She studied Applied Associated Degree in Science at Fashion Institute of Technology at New York, USA. Janelle was always passionate about fashion and modeling and on her returning back to her country, she participated and was crowned in Miss Trinidad and Tobago 1977 and later went onto represent Trinidad and Tobago at Miss Universe 1977 and was crowned as the winner by the end of the event finale.  


Janelle Commissiong Miss Universe 1977: From being the first black Miss Universe to a successful businesswoman


During the Miss Universe pageant, Commissiong was a very popular contestant who won the photogenic competition of the pageant. Nonetheless, she was not considered the favorite to win the pageant. Most observers claimed Miss Austria, Eva Maria Duringer, was the odds-on favorite to take the crown. Duringer finished as 1st runner up.

Janelle Commissiong was a public advocate for black rights in nations where people of African ancestry were minorities, and she campaigned for world peace. In 1977, Commissiong was awarded the Trinity Cross, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest honor. Three postage stamps were also issued in her honor by her country.  In 1978, Commissiong’s successor was Margaret Gardnier, Miss South Africa. For many it was tragically ironic to see the first Miss Universe of African ancestry crowning a woman from a nation that was internationally known for its racial injustice toward black people.


Miss Universe Trinidad and Tobago 1977 Janelle Commissiong


As the first black Miss Universe, Commissiong attracted more than normal and international attention. For the U.S. to Asian media especially she was a particularly an interesting topic.  She was also in demand around the globe as a speaker.  Much of the interest continued after her reign.  Soon after she relinquished the crown in 1978, Joaquin Balaguer, President of the Dominican Republic, invited her to interview him in the National Palace.  As she did during her tenure as Miss Universe, she continued to visit many African, Asian, and European nations as well as the United States.

After winning the crown Janelle stated, "I don't think I'll be getting the eight hours' sleep I'm used to. But I don't see how I'll change just because I was selected Miss Universe”. She called her victory "a step in the right direction" toward changing racial attitudes, but she added, "It would take more than a pageant to change the status of black women in the industry”.


Miss Universe 1977 winner Janelle Commissiong


After her reign ended Commissiong married Brian Bowen, the founder of Bowen Marine, a Trinidadian pleasure boat manufacturing company.  When her husband died in an accident in 1989, she headed the company for a brief period.  She remarried for a second time to Alwin Chow, another Trinidad businessmen and they adopted a daughter, Sasha.

What she has realized 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."


Janelle Commissiong Miss Universe 1977: From being the first black Miss Universe to a successful businesswoman


Janelle or Queen Penny as she is called, has worked for the rights of Black People even after her reign as Miss Universe ended. She remembered her crowning moment as well as her journey in the beauty pageant and mentioned that it is one of the fondest memories she has. She is a strong, confident woman who has always worked very hard for a future she is proud of and has made every black woman proud.

Like many famous people of Caribbean heritage, Janelle Commissiong is considered an icon in her native Trinidad and Tobago where she continues to manage successful businesses. And although she was awarded the Miss Universe sash over four decades ago, the Port of Spain City Corporation renamed a street in her honor in 2017. The significance of her victory carries as much weight as it did then, because the world, as she observes, is still obsessed with beauty. It is now a commodity that is bought and sold, and the issue of what is beautiful is hotly debated, much as it was when she became the first black person to win the premiere beauty competition in the world. Janelle Commissiong was appointed as the new Chairman of Tourism Trinidad Limited last year. She is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the company.