Single mums in Mrs S'pore World: 'Cut-off age is 50, so this is the last and only year I can do this'

Yamini Chinnuswamy
The Straits Times
Aug 18, 2023

Mrs World might have started in 1984 as the first beauty pageant for married women, but it is changing with the times, at least in Singapore.

Almost half of the 14 contestants in 2023’s Mrs Singapore World are single mothers who are either divorced or separated – a record number since the pageant began in 1999. The 2023 winner will be crowned at Orchid Country Club on Aug 26.

Ms Angela Tay, managing director of ERM Singapore, which organises the local pageant, tells The Straits Times that more divorced and separated women have taken part since the rules regarding marital status were relaxed seven years ago.

She says: “We realised we had to be more inclusive to remain relevant. After all, our aim is to champion female empowerment and self-reliance. And the truth is, society is changing its attitudes. Even the Miss Universe pageant is updating its rules now that it has a new owner.”

Previously owned by American politician-businessman Donald Trump since 1996 and American sports, events and talent management conglomerate IMG from 2015, the Miss Universe Organization was bought by transgender Thai businesswoman Anne Jakrajutatip in 2022.

Following the acquisition, American media outlet Insider reported that the contest would, for the first time, allow married women and mothers to compete when the final takes place in El Salvador in November 2023.

From left: Ms Joycelyn Shamala, Ms Jenny Lee and Ms Juleeana Idris. Photo: The Straits Times

Mrs Singapore World contestant Joycelyn Shamala says single motherhood was not a future she had anticipated when she gave birth to her daughter two years ago. But in 2022, she separated from her husband of three years due to a lack of emotional support from him, and is now the sole breadwinner.

Ms Shamala, 28, who works in sales and marketing, says: “The rule change reflects a more open-minded approach by the organisers and acknowledges the diverse experiences of women. It gives people a chance to see us as independent individuals beyond our marital status.”

She adds: “Balancing working life with single motherhood has been tough, but my daughter keeps me going. I joined the pageant because I want her to be able to look at me when she is older and think, ‘If mummy can survive and thrive despite all the hardship, so can I.’”

Likewise, Ms Juleeana Idris hopes to show her four daughters – aged 21, 17, 16 and 12 – that there is life beyond motherhood and divorce. “I want my children to see that I’m putting myself out there, living my life and pursuing my passions,” she says.

This was especially important given the fraught and abusive circumstances that led to the dissolution of her 15-year marriage seven years ago. Ms Juleeana and her eldest daughter have personal protection orders in place against her former husband.

“No one wants to get a divorce. I stayed in my marriage for so long because my children were still young. But one day I told myself, this has to stop, it is not healthy to stay in this environment – not for me and not for my girls,” says the 50-year-old assistant management executive, who declined to say more about the abuse.

In the early 2000s, she participated regularly in local Malay beauty pageants such as Permaisuri Tradisional – in which she won second runner-up – but stopped for a few years to raise her children.

She rejoined pageants after her divorce, and even flew to Jakarta, Indonesia, in March 2020 to compete in the Mrs Pesona Batik Nusantara International event, where she was named first runner-up.

“When I chanced upon Mrs Singapore World and heard that it was open to women who are separated or divorced, I jumped at the opportunity,” she says. “Everybody has been so supportive, from ERM to my fellow contestants, we’ve bonded like sisters,” she adds.

The unofficial big sister of this year’s cohort is Ms Jenny Lee, 50, who also appreciates the inclusivity of a beauty contest initially conceived as a celebration of only married women.

“The Singapore woman has changed over the years and the pageant is reflecting modern times. The title of ‘Mrs’ doesn’t bother me. The event is more about showcasing how our life experiences have shaped us.

“Also, I decided to give this a try because the cut-off age is 50, so this is the last and only year I can do this,” she says with a laugh.

Ms Lee says she would not have been in the right emotional or physical state to join the competition 10 or 15 years ago.

“Honestly, I looked more like a 50-year-old then. I have had a great deal of self-growth in the last five years since my divorce was finalised,” says the property agent with Huttons Asia.

Ms Lee, whose former husband runs a food and beverage business, says problems began to surface in their marriage eight years ago.

“There were no extramarital affairs or anything like that, but I think we had individual journeys to go on. We tried for a few years to resolve things, because nobody wants to end his or her marriage if given a choice. But eventually, we realised that the most loving and respectful thing to do was to let each other go.”

The former couple continue to maintain a strong friendship and actively co-parent their two teenage daughters, who are 18 and 14.

“We were together for 22 years, from our pre-university days. He is still someone I am comfortable confiding in. In fact, when I sent him my pageant headshot, he said, ‘Go for it, you’re in the best shape of your life,’” says Ms Lee.

Her daughters have also been supportive of her Mrs Singapore World journey. During the preliminary segments that took place in early August, her younger daughter partnered her for the cooking competition, while the elder one lent her a dress for the introductory part of the talent competition – for which Ms Lee performed a cheerleading routine.

She adds: “My daughters have stepped up at home. The laundry is always done, the bins are always emptied and dinner is always cooked. So, I would say to all the mothers out there, single or otherwise, ‘Get busy doing things that make you a better person. The transformation in you will also encourage a transformation in your children.’”

The Straits Times

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