Canadian-born Jamaican reflects on Miss World title and life with Bob Marley

Canadian-born Jamaican reflects on Miss World title and life with Bob Marley

May 4, 2019

Entering the Miss World 1976 pageant was a roll of the dice for Canadian-born Jamaican Cindy Breakspeare.

Fortunately, she didn’t crap out.

With South Africa sending a Black and a White delegate, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee organized a boycott that led to nine countries refusing to participate in the contest.

Jamaica was at the forefront of the international campaign against apartheid having being the second country in the world after India to declare an embargo against South Africa in 1957.

With Michael Manley – the Prime Minister at the time – following the footsteps of his father Norman Manley who banned trade and travel with South Africa in 1956 when Jamaica was still a British colony, a Jamaican taking part in any event that included a White South African would have irked Manley who was a leading spokesman against anti-apartheid.

Nonetheless, Breakspeare -- with the help of private sponsors -- entered the competition in England and won it.

“I guess I was very lucky I came out on top because I don’t know what returning to Jamaica would have been like,” she said while in Toronto recently for the University of the West Indies Toronto Benefit Gala where her son, Damian Marley, was honoured with a Luminary Award. “I flew into Montego Bay and then took a small plane to Kingston. There was no red carpet rolled out and crowds waiting to greet me.”

Born in Toronto and moving to Jamaica at age five, Breakspeare captured the Miss Jamaica Body Beautiful crown while working at the Spartan Health Club. The first prize was a trip to England to take part in the Miss Universe Bikini which she also won.

After the contest, the late Oscar Heidenstam -- who is considered the Father of British Bodybuilding -- suggested to Spartan owner Mickey Haughton-James that Breakspeare enter the Miss World pageant.

“Mickey agreed and contacted the Miss World organizers who said I could take part as long as Jamaica doesn’t object to me wearing the Miss Jamaica sash,” Breakspeare recounted. “I went and everything worked out exceedingly well.”

She said the experience was overwhelming.

“I was still young and representing a tiny country,” said Breakspeare. “I had done some travelling, but not extensively. My plan was to go along for the ride and give it the best shot I could. When I was announced the winner, I just couldn’t believe it. You didn’t have long to celebrate as you started working as the pageant winner the next day.”

Eric Morley founded Miss World and was the promoter of the Mecca dancehalls.

He also helped to popularize bingo that was played at Mecca venues

“In those days, we visited social clubs and Mecca bingo halls,” said Breakspeare. “I did a six-week tour of England, Scotland and Wales and in one night, you could visit up to five or six of these clubs. Many of them were old theatres converted to play bingo and there usually would be these old English ladies with their autograph books waiting to get signatures. I was put on a stage and told to tell the audience about Jamaica. That was my Dale Carnegie course.”

She also attended charity events and speaking engagements in several countries, including Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, Iceland, Venezuela, the Philippines and Nigeria.

“I was on a plane almost every other day and the red carpet was rolled out wherever I went,” noted Breakspeare. “It’s a cool job for a year and it’s up to you to maximize it. I had a great year and I remember telling the organizers to ‘work me’. I let them know I would go anywhere they wanted me to.”

Though born outside Jamaica and of fair complexion, Breakspeare never felt she was an outsider.

“When I went to Iceland, I realized I wasn’t White and when I went to Nigeria, I wasn’t Black,” she said. “They were expecting someone of darker complexion. What that did, I think, was really highlight for me the uniqueness of the Jamaican experience and what it means to be Jamaican. It’s not a colour thing. It’s a cultural thing and when you see the way Jamaica culture has taken over the world, to be Jamaican is the coolest thing. Everyone wants to have a Jamaican connection. Jamaica and Jamaican people have been wonderful to me. They have totally embraced me.

“My Miss World trophy is a silver globe of the world and there’s not a dot on it of where Jamaica is supposed to be. It shows how insignificant we are in the scheme of land mass, but look how we have impacted the world. It’s really phenomenal.”

Breakspeare is among three Jamaicans to wear the Miss World crown.

Miss World 1976 Cindy Breakspeare

Miss World 1976 Cindy Breakspeare

Carole Crawford-Merkens, who resides in Ottawa, and Jamaican politician Lisa Hanna won the title in 1963 and 1983 respectively.

Other Caribbean winners are Grenadian Jennifer Hosten in 1970, Bermudan Gina Swainson in 1979 and Trinidad & Tobago’s Giselle Laronde-West in 1986.

About a year before entering Miss World, Breakspeare started a relationship with legendary reggae musician Bob Marley.

“When I met him and began to know him, he was on the brink of stardom,” she said. “He supported me going to Miss World which has a big profile. Bob was not a household name then in England, but that changed after I won Miss World and the press got wind of our relationship.”

They met while she lived at 56 Hope Rd. where the Bob Marley Museum is now located.

“At the time, there were flats in the compound and me and my older brother resided in one of them,” Breakspeare pointed out. “The Wailers rehearsed at the back of the building and Bob started to spend more time there. In the comings and goings, we started chatting here and there, the conversations became longer, sparks started to fly and we became romantically involved. It was a bit scary because ‘uptown’ girls of light complexion didn’t have relationships with Rastas. I knew I was crossing that invisible line in the sand. I don’t think I need to explain to anyone what the magnetism was all about. Bob was a man on a mission who knew what he was about. He was very purpose-driven, inspirational and influential all rolled into one. I knew that if I became involved with Bob, it would change my life forever.”

Cindy Breakspeare and the late Bob Marley

Cindy Breakspeare and the late Bob Marley

The relationship lasted six years until Marley’s death in 1981.

Breakspeare said the 2001 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner was committed to his work with a single-minded purpose.

“He became more intent in that purpose the closer he got to the end of his life,” she said. “He seemed somehow to intrinsically understand the importance of the message he felt he had to deliver to the world which is even more relevant today than it was when he was alive. I find that a lot of the music out there doesn’t lift you to a higher place. I am glad to know that Bob’s music is still selling and I am pleading with reggae artists to remember where the music came from and don’t take it further into the gutter. There is no need to degrade women and infuse expletives and violence into the music. Bob would be turning in his mausoleum now. Let the music be inspirational. That was what made the world fall in love with reggae music in the first place and that was what kept Bob at the top of the charts as he was delivering the right message.”

Damian Marley, whose Grammy-Award winning album, ‘Welcome to Jamrock’, sold 86,000 copies during the first week of its release in the United States, was just 34 months old when his father passed away.

He has performed with his brothers Ziggy, Stephen, Julian and Ky-Mani who are in the music business.

“When you see the five of them on stage together, it’s pure magic,” said Breakspeare. “They are all like Bob in some way.”

Filling in the blanks about Marley’s legendary life for his son growing up is something that his mother was accustomed to doing.

“Damian asked a lot of questions and watched many videos,” said Breakspeare who has been an interior decor designer for the past two decades. “Personality wise, he’s very much like his father he never really got to know. It’s amazing really for me to have this journey in my life to have known Bob, have Damian and to see him grow to become the man he is today. It has been a tremendous gift for me to have been the one to guide him through that process.”

Cindy Breakspeare and her son Damian Marley

Cindy Breakspeare and her son Damian Marley

Breakspeare has two other children with her first husband, Tom Tavares-Finson, who is the President of the Jamaican Senate.

Christian and Leah Tavares-Finson both graduated from McMaster University. He’s an attorney and the Netherlands honourary consul in Jamaica while his sister is a show promoter in the Niagara region.

Re-married since 1999 to musician Rupert Bent II, Breakspeare’s siblings live in Canada.

John Spence is a Professor and Vice-dean of Kinesiology, Sport & Recreation at the University of Alberta, Stephen Breakspeare resides in Mississauga and Mark Breakspeare is the President of Spear Electrical Services in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Breakspeare’s father, Louie Breakspeare who died in St. Catharines, Ontario a decade ago, came to Canada to pursue textile studies and met Marguerite Spence who was from Quebec. Both of her parents re-married.

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