Gabriella Bernard Opens up About That Incident with Wendy Fitzwilliam

If you’ve scrolled through social media in the last month, then the name Gabriella Bernard is not new to you. Infamous for standing up (and then not standing up after all) to former beauty queen Wendy Fitzwilliam on Caribbean’s Next Top Model, the name took over Trini Facebook. You were either Team Wendy, arguing that Gabby was quite “naughty” indeed, or you were Team Gabriella. And it seemed pretty evenly split, right down the middle. Who would win this hypothetical battle? If you ask me, Gabriella did – but this battle had nothing to do with the modelling competition.

From the little we’ve seen of Gabby circulating social media, she appeared emotional, irrational and inconsolable. Judging solely on reality TV edits, I was somewhat dreading my meeting with the 24-year-old model. So imagine my surprise when the young woman who slid into the seat opposite mine, pastry in hand, was polite, well-spoken and professional. (Wendy, you called her unprofessional? How?) In fact, this was just the beginning of surprises spending the afternoon with Gabriella, and I found myself continuing our conversation long after our interview ended.

But perhaps the thing that surprised me most about Gabriella is how multi-faceted she is. Yes, she’s beautiful and commands a presence, especially in front of a camera, but the model is much more than just a pretty face. Besides being a model and beauty queen, Gabby is a marketer, a filmmaker and above all, a social activist for change.

“I stand up for people all the time when I see injustices; whether it’s against black people, or women, or gay people, or anyone who just doesn’t have that voice,” she explained, noting that she checks two out of three of the boxes she named. “I want people to stand up for me, so that’s how I treat people – how I would want to be treated.”

And stand up for her they did. In the wake of hair-gate, it was comforting to see all of the support that Gabby received after being put in such a compromising situation. Understandably women, and black women in particular, stood on Gabby’s side, understanding firsthand how damaging it can be to a young, black woman to permanently alter their natural hair, the direct product of their black heritage.

“Being reprimanded for my unprofessional behaviour, which was standing up for myself, that was mentally scarring,” Gabby said.

“I thought that I wasn’t good enough. I had my hair straight [for years], and when I finally had it natural, they wanted to put it back straight, so I really second guessed myself.”

But it taught her something bigger: standing up for what you believe in and putting yourself first. “You can jump through hoops for these people, and they would still not pick you,” she says.

The experience on Caribbean’s Next Top Model wasn’t all bad, though. In fact, Gabby enjoyed several aspects of it; namely, making lifelong friends from other islands, and of course, the professional development that she got as a result. Whether it was learning to live alongside other models, which is something that happens very often when trying to break into the industry abroad, or receiving valuable criticism on her photos from the judges: models and photographers alike, it helped her to grow as a model.

But that begged the question: why model? Sure, with a beautiful face and a body that’s meant to showcase clothing, it’s easy to see how natural the transition was for Gabby, but the industry is tough, and no one gets into it just for so.

“I’ve always wanted to be a model. From a young age, my aunt told me I was very beautiful and had long legs, and that I should be a model, but I had no clue what that even was,” she recounted. “We watched Miss Universe together, the same year that Wendy Fitzwilliam won the title, so she was a huge inspiration for me; being a black woman, being a black Trinidadian woman, seeing that I too could make it big like that. That’s what kept me going all these years.”

So, landing a role on CaribeNTM, under the mentorship of Wendy herself, was a dream come true for the young model, but quickly turned into a nightmare.

“To actually meet her in the flesh, yes, she’s a pleasant person, but I personally don’t look up to her anymore,” she said. Why, I ask.  “Because of the damaging messages that she sent to me through the process of relaxing my hair.

It’s easy to see how Gabby’s mindset about Wendy can change. The clip shows the former Miss Universe beauty queen politely, but forcibly, berating the model for refusing to chemically relax her natural hair, despite Gabby’s tears and pleas to avoid the chemicals. With the words “unbelievably naughty” and “unprofessional” being thrown in the mix, Wendy’s monologue was reminiscent of Tyra Banks’ on America’s Next Top Model, screaming ‘We were all rooting for you’, no doubt to be parodied and joked about for years to come.

So when the episode finally aired in February, Gabby was nervous to see what her reaction would be watching it play out onscreen. But shockingly, it wasn’t the salon scene that caused her any pain months later – despite the fact that she says she cried every night while she was in the competition about her hair. It was watching the panel scene that was really uncomfortable for Gabby.

“I remember in that moment in real life, I wanted to say to Wendy ‘I’m so disappointed, this is a Caribbean show, and you’re telling us that our Caribbean features aren’t acceptable, not even on a Caribbean show, and you as a black woman should have really had my back’,” she explained. “But if I had said that, it would have gone differently, I would have gotten eliminated or reprimanded even more.”

So with all of that in mind, Gabby felt sick re-watching the scene, and especially seeing herself apologise in the moment, for something that she had no right to apologise for.

“Watching it, I broke down, because I saw that I had to swallow all of these emotions and put on a bright and chipper face,” she said, explaining how she cried into her mother’s arms watching the edit as the show aired. “I’ve come to accept what happened as a learning lesson, but I was really distraught.”

But months later, the clip was re-released, posted on YouTube by a friend of Gabby’s, but it wasn’t in vain. In the months following the filming of the reality show, and Gabby’s eventual elimination, she returned home feeling distraught about her hair, still in disbelief that she allowed it to happen, when a stylist friend told her to share her story.

“You need to get your story out there, she told me,” Gabby added.

Her friend introduced her to Miquel Galofré, a director, and after sending only a voice note explaining what she had been through, Miquel was hooked and ready to share her story with the world. Miquel, who had done documentaries about hard-hitting topics all over the world, told Gabby he had never been so moved by just a voice note before, and the journey to Black Hair began.

Two months after returning home from the show, in September 2017, Gabby was in California and arranged for her relaxed hair to be cut and filmed. It was a new chapter for her: she was back to growing her natural hair, to being her most authentic self, and once again she was baring it all for the camera, except this time in her own way.

Gabby and Miquel co-directed the short documentary called Black Hair, a 20-minute film about her story, and the struggle of having black hair in itself, and submitted it to the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, where it was accepted and shown in September 2018, a whole year after her natural transformation began again.

So, with only weeks to go before the airing of the documentary at ttff, a friend of Gabby’s released the clips of her at the salon and during the panel on the modelling reality show, which had gone widely unnoticed when they aired back in February, and this time around, things went differently.

“It was intentionally put out before the premiere of the film to put into context why I made the documentary,” she explained.

“I didn’t want people to think that I was just another angry black woman, because that’s the response you get when you’re passionate about anything.”

But now, with the support of Trinidad, the Caribbean and the wider community behind her, Gabby no longer feels like an ‘angry black woman’. She’s sharing her story in hopes of sending a message and showing that discrimination is still all too real – even from your own peers.

Black Hair appeared in film festivals all over the world – not just in Trinidad, but in Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD and Cameroon, Africa.

“I’m really glad that my story is being able to reach people, not just place people,” she said. “That’s the most important part, to get people to support the message.”

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