The competition was a life-defining moment

Wednesday March 15 2017

Mary Esther Were, Miss Universe Kenya 2016

Mary Esther Were, Miss Universe Kenya 2016 competes as a top 9 finalist during The 65th Miss Universe pageant. PHOTO| COURTESY  

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My name is Mary Esther Were, 28. I am the Miss Universe Kenya 2016. I represented the country in the recently concluded Miss Universe competition in the Philippines.

This (interview) is really abrupt. Not that I am complaining. It is. And my head is still all over the place. As best as I can, I will tell you about my journey to, and experience at the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in the Philippines early this year. Don’t press me for dates… I will have to refer to those later. So, where do I begin…

Miss Universe Tanzania, Jihan Dimachk, and I were among the first to arrive there. We had travelled together since we were being managed by the same East African Director. The flight was the longest one I have ever taken: 12 hours.

When we landed at the airport, there were TV crews with their cameras rolling and photographers clicking away. There was an escort complete with security. We then did a few interviews. This kind of reception was the last thing we expected. It was glamorous and ritzy from the beginning, and as we were driven to Conrad Manila Hotel where we were to put up, things only got better.

At the hotel, there was a crowd waiting for us. They were ordinary people who had come to welcome us to the Philippines. They already knew our names and our stories and where we came from.

Mary Esther Were, Miss Universe Kenya 2016

Mary Esther Were, Miss Universe Kenya 2016 competes in an evening gown of her choice as a top 9 finalist during The 65th Miss Universe pageant. PHOTO| COURTESY

Perhaps I should tell you something, before you dismiss the story I am about to tell: In the Philippines, beauty pageantry is one of the most, if not the most adored, national activity. They take it seriously, the same way we take politics here in Kenya. 

It could be due to the fact that the last Miss Universe (2015) Pia Wurtzbach was from the Philippines or because they have produced a Miss World (Megan Young, 2013) in the past, or maybe it’s because of something else I don’t know about…

Before I forget, people here are humble, humble to a fault, and pleasantly kind, and they have a fascinating obsession with whether you are a person with a good heart or not…

Anyway, the first three days involved registration, photo shoots, fittings, and video shoots.

Everything leading to the January 30, 2017 final show begun immediately. The team behind Miss Universe is massive, I mean massive, and they all move in a synchronised manner.

Once the registration was done, we were divided into groups of four. We were 86 in total. Each group had a chaperone. My groupmates, who were also my new roommates, were Miss South Africa, Miss New Zealand and Miss Korea. Our chaperone was  Penny Paytte, an American who has been in the modelling industry for more than 26 years. 

We had one activity after the other from day one: Photo shoots for the sponsoring organisations, media appearances, video interviews, attending  fashion shows, other contestants went on yatch rides and shark swims (this was later criticised), some went to runway shows while others went sight-seeing.

It was a wonderful adventure. There are several days that stuck out, but a few stand out more than the rest.  Like the day we were hosted to lunch by  the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, or the visit to Bagoui City. Wait; now I am being modest… the Bagoui City visit was an experience in its own class.

Miss Universe contestants pose on the red

Miss Universe contestants pose on the red carpet on the eve of their coronation Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, at the Mall of Asia in suburban Pasay city south of Manila, Philippines. Eighty-six conestants are vying for the title to succeed Pia Wurtzbach from the Philippines. From left, Yam Kaspers Amshel of Israel, Lizell Esterhuizen of Namibia, Raquel Pelissier of Haiti, Johanna Acs of Germany, Mary Were of Kenya, Isabel Dalley of Jamaica and Kushboo Namrawa of Mauritius. PHOTO| COURTESY

Bagoui is in the Northern mountainous side of the Philippines. We flew there on a private jet. When we landed, it was as though the entire city had come out to meet us. A red carpet treatment. They took us by hand and gave us rose flowers. There was a parade of soldiers, there were performances by various groups as we sat on the podium, wondering whether this was all for us.


We thought that it was over until we took a bus ride to Bagoui Country Club. There was a wall-to-wall, street-to-street of excited and eager crowds. Business  came to a standstill because the streets were flooded by people of all ages jostling to catch a glimpse of us and hand us gifts. Think of the pomp and colour and energy and spirit at Brazilian carnivals. The bus we rode on was not a really a bus, true, it looked like a bus, but it also looked like a cart and was covered in flowers. It was also open-roofed and just magnificent. I should also mention that TV stations covered the event for the entire duration (one month) that we were there. Most of it was live coverage, and they also had a countdown going, like we count down days to the general elections.

Anyway, as I was saying, the entire city came out to welcome us, some, I was told, as early as 3am.

We had several activities planned for the day that included tree planting, picking strawberries, meeting local artists, local designers and participating in a golfing session with Pia Wurtzbach, the 2015 Miss Universe title holder and to sum up the day, we had a governor’s ball in the evening.

The biggest event, held in the evening, happened in the second week after our arrival. Monday night of January 16, the Governor’s Ball in Manila. 

This was the night when all the 86 contestants were officially welcomed to the country and the competition at the SMX Convention Centre in Passy. It was also the night when it dawned on me that the 65th pageant was happening and I was right there, in a sea of very beautiful and graceful ladies who all had dreams of wearing the Miss Universe crown. It was a beautiful night, a lovely night of beautiful speeches and warm company.

Towards the end of the month, a week to the finals, the contestants probably realised that to become the Miss Universe was just like any other job.  The last week was all about catwalk training, fittings, interviews, but mostly about choreography.

We had interviews with the judges. I was a bit nervous before meeting them, but once I was in the room with them, I realised that they were accommodative people, except that they were a little high profile. After the interview, I knew I was heading to the finals.

There is a preliminary competition held before the main event. It is not a televised event. The event is for the judges to pick out the final 12 out of the 86.

In the presence of an audience, we go through the competition process to the tee; the introduction round, the swim suit round, the national costume round and the evening gown round. The preliminary night happened about three days to the final event. They did not read to us the 12 who had been picked.


By that time, voting had been going on all around the world.

Let me tell you something, when you are competing against the best of the best, it is hard to not get discouraged. I looked at the pictures of all the girls, you know, to know my competitors, and oh boy, weren’t they perfect?! I knew that I had to work even harder.

I went to the gym daily despite our tight schedule. I also had a personal beauty regime. I did a lot of reading and research on current affairs and on questions that I thought we would be asked.

 I had to come up with my strategy to win somehow, because I had gone there to win yet I was competing with people who had large home teams behind them, there were girls who had become camera favourites in the few weeks we were there. I had to find ways of working around my ambition.

I think three things worked for me: the judges loved my story- this orphaned girl from Africa who overcame her circumstances to get to where I was. They loved my presentation skills. I think I struck a cord with most people every time I spoke on TV or just to individuals. And lastly, they saw my potential, I am trying to not say the obvious,that they saw I am beautiful).

The big day finally came. January 30. We woke up at 3am since we had to be ready by 7am. 

We made our way to the Mall of Asia Arena where all eyes were on us. Steve Harvey, the American comedian, was hosting the event. First, he was to announce the names of the final 12 plus one who had been voted for.


The first name he read was Kenya. I held my breath. I couldn’t believe that I was among the top 12.

Mary Esther Were poses with the show's host,

Mary Esther Were poses with the show's host, comedian Steve Harvey. PHOTO| COURTESY

He then called the other 11 and added the one who had been voted for. The 13 of us went back stage to change so that we could start our routines. There was the swim wear round to winnow us down from 13 to nine. I went through. Then the evening gown round to bring us to six. I went through yet again. I was among the final six out of 86! It was unbelievable.

 Then came the final round, the Q&A session with Harvey from where the winner would be chosen.

 I was called in second for the Q&A. Unfortunately, this is the round that knocked me off the competition. He asked me about US President Donald Trump. I never saw that coming. I answered as best as I could, but you can’t generalise with Trump and time couldn’t allow me to refine my answer. My answer did not go down well with most people.

However, many people, including myself, still think that it was an unfair question.

So now I am back. Back to my job at CNBC, Africa, where I work as a marketing administrator for East Africa, but with plans for the future.  All I can say is that I would like to become an advocate against drug and substance abuse among young people in the country. This will be my cause. I would like to encourage rehabilitation and abstinence from drugs.

Now here’s my brief history about how I ventured into modelling.

I have loved modelling for a long time. In 2009, I bumped into someone who I later learnt was a modeling agent in Nairobi. He asked me whether I had ever considered modelling at a professional level. Before this, people would ask me if I modelled or whether I was interested in it. I would tell them that I wasn’t considering it. I was young, I had just completed secondary school - I went to Ngara Girls High School.


The agent and the opportunities he promised me turned out to be a hoax, however, the fire to model was lit in me. Within the same year, I took part in the FORD International Model Search. The experience also taught me to have something going on alongside modelling so I could make some money, thus my full time job and part-time modelling approach.

My journey to the Philippines started in January 2016. One evening while at work, I asked myself what I wanted to do with my modelling.

From 2009, I had done nearly all of it: Fashion shows, runway shows, pageantry and product placements. I had been in several competitions, graced several magazine pages and even newspaper pages. I promised myself at the start of 2016 that I would push my modelling career to the next level.

So from January of that year, I scouted for opportunities; applying to various modelling agencies abroad hoping for a response. Towards the end of the year, I saw on Miss Universe Instagram page in which they had announced the next competition, asking interested models to apply. I did. I was one of the over 200 models who showed up at St Nicholas Senior School for the auditions. The idea was for the organisers to pick 25 models out of the large group, and then have the 25 battle it out for the last 16 who would then square it out for Miss Universe Kenya title. It was a long Saturday.

I was part of the final 16. The preparations for the finals were thorough.   Come December 11, I won, and was informed that I had only three weeks to prepare for the big event in the Philippines.




Who is Mary Esther Were?

I am a God fearing and humble personality who is very passionate about family and loves life.


What was your motivation to get into the competition?

For a long time I have been passionate about modelling. I thought this competition was the perfect opportunity for me to pursue my modelling career and represent my country on an international platform. Most importantly however, it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to make a difference to the society and leave some sort of positive impact. I wanted to be a voice of hope among youth. To just encourage them to always dream big, use their talents and never give up.


What did you study?

Electronic Media


Apart from modelling what else do you do?

I am the Marketing Administrator for CNBC Africa & Forbes Africa.


What is your greatest contribution to society?

I carry the crown with the responsibility to make a difference. When I get a chance to speak to people, I take the opportunity to speak about life and life in abundance. I endeavour to be the voice of hope among our youth. To let the world know that addiction is but an illness that can be countered not only through the much needed medication and rehabilitation, but through love, kindness and extending that helping hand.


How do you describe yourself?

Strong, confident, humble and self-driven.


Describe a beauty queen?

A beauty queen to me is a real person. True beauty is more than the outward attractiveness of a person. A true beauty queen has a humble soul; a humble personality that most young girls and young women can relate to and can look up to.

—Angela Oketch