Against all odds, she became the first woman of colour to win the ‘Miss Holland’ title back in 1984 (the appropriate designation ‘Netherlands’ was introduced in the early 90s by grand slam pageant organisers). A semifinalist in both the Miss Universe and the Miss World contests of that year, her breakthrough came when she was discovered by the late Oleg Cassini, once the primary designer of Jacqueline Kennedy and creator of the ‘Jackie Look’. However, what are the eventual consequences of repeated exposure to racial prejudice in one’s youth? Moreover, do professional accomplishments outweigh mental and spiritual peace? This is the story of Nancy Neede, the Netherlands’ first black representative in international pageantry and one of this nation’s first intercontinental models.
“Yes, sad but true”, Nancy sighs when shown an article displaying the discriminatory backlashes that the newly crowned Miss France has faced at the outset of her election.
Born in 1963 in the capital city of Amsterdam to a white Dutch mother and a black Surinamese father, Nancy was raised in the picturesque neighbourhood of ‘De Pijp’. “It’s not like things have worsened. 40 years ago racism was also the order of the day in certain circles”, she explains. “The only difference is that as in the 60s and 70s the Netherlands was invigorated with socialism and online communication channels had not made their entry yet, people were generally not that explicit”. Regardless of the concealed name-calling and belittling Nancy and her siblings went through in their early days, she reminisces about the feeling of safety provided to them by their -as put in her own words- ‘guardian angels’. That is her maternal grandparents. “My granddad would have given his right arm in order to stand up on our behalf”. Nancy particularly recalls an incident where a fellow male passenger in a tram depicted her senior brother by means of the N-word. “My grandfather quickly embraced my brother and exclaimed: back off, he is my grandson!”.
She is thankful to her mother for instilling her sense of humour into her children and above all, for teaching them that being a good person is non-replaceable. “My mom knew how it felt to be an ‘outcast’ – having met my father by the age of 17, she went from being a respectable girl to white trash”.
At the same time, she is grateful to her South American father’s lessons never to succumb to victimhood. “The life-philosophies of my parents have made me resilient and helped me to understand from a young age that beauty is only skin deep”.
From a tender age, Nancy was fascinated by dance. At 9 she started pursuing classic and jazz ballet and three years later she enrolled at the legendary ‘Nel Roos Academy’, the latter being the bedrock of the actual Dutch National Ballet Academy. “I got to dance in several TV shows in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany”.
At 17 years of age and standing five feet eleven inches tall, Nancy cautiously started exploring the field of modelling. While she managed to model for some of the major Dutch fashion houses of the 80s, she was barely commissioned for photo shoots. “Black models were not considered commercially viable in those days either. But once again life had rewarded me with a small angel on my shoulder”. In this way Nancy refers to the late Ulla Rossbach, founder of Ulla Models, the longest running fashion agency in Amsterdam. “She always believed in me and taught me the tricks of trade”. Through this agency Nancy got herself her first international modelling chores in Paris and Milan.
Three years later, during the spring of 1984, Nancy was invited to take part in the Miss Holland pageant. She agreed, as given her background she was eager to be part of the contest’s dance numbers. “It never crossed my mind that I would win – as a matter of fact, my then boyfriend did not even attend”, she giggles.
In spite of the visible dismay of some audience members, the panel of judges was unanimously impressed by the exotic beauty’s elegance, poise and international dancing and modelling experience. With the coveted crown on her head, a new challenge laid on Nancy’s horizon: representing her country of birth in grand slam beauty contests.
“In retrospect, the preparations prior to me taking part in these international pageants were inferior”, Nancy reveals. “While the representatives of, for instance, several Latin American countries received intense trainings and arrived at the host venues with an overload of suitcases, I had to rent my national costume from the Dutch organising committee...”.
Nevertheless, and thanks to her own efforts, Nancy caused a sensation at the Miss Universe pageant in Miami. Winning the preliminary swimsuit competition, some missologists are still of the opinion that she should have been the second black winner in this pageant’s history – she eventually placed 7th overall.
Two remarkable incidents have always stuck to her in the light of this contest: her eloquent interview (at 6.21 to 7.28 minute) where the emcee had a tête-à-tête with her father, who was in the audience. In addition to this, she still recalls the big scare she went through with her evening gown. “I didn’t have a proper pageant gown for the finals, so I tracked a seamstress in Miami to tailor one for me at very short term. To make a long story short, I found out only minutes before the top 10 evening gown competition that the dress’ zip at the rear was too short... In the end, my friends and fellow contestants from Curaçao, Aruba and Australia helped me to get into the dress”, she chuckles.
Yet, it was at that year’s Miss World pageant in London that Nancy achieved her major upturn. After having advanced to the top 15 (at 6.38 to 8.28 minute), Oleg Cassini the world-renowned designer, offered her the chance to become his muse. “He claimed that several judges, included himself, had voted for me to be the winner. He was so perplexed that I hadn’t won and asked me to become part of his modelling team – this marked the start of my international modelling career in New York, spanning over a decade...”.
Nancy points out that her years in New York have taught her three important life lessons. Firstly, that she was and is able to be independent. Next, that it’s always important to be true to yourself, else you will lose it. Moreover, she’s convinced that it’s vital not to allow any type of life experience, neither to go to your head nor to break you. “It’s no secret that your outer body will be the topic of admiration and criticism several times a day and on a daily basis. Furthermore, even though one might happen to be in close proximity to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Portier and Anthony Quinn, as was my case, this should serve as inspiration but should not to lead to woolliness”.
Nancy admits however, that modelling, when dealt with professionally, could be a rather alluring and lucrative profession. “International modelling was a very fascinating and cost-effective time in my life. I have always taken this job very seriously, but thanks to my sense of sobriety I have enjoyed the good side of it while staying grounded”.
At a given point, Nancy’s humanistic though pragmatic perspective on life brought her into contact with two disciplines that have shaped her life ever since: yoga and food supplements. While her international modelling career starting winding down and in the light of the birth of her daughter Nadege 19 years ago, she started looking for a different mode of inner peace. “Yoga has taught me to stand in my power”. On a more intimate note, Nancy indicates that yoga has also helped her to put life-changing events, like the breakup with the father of her child and dealing with breast lumps, into perspective. “By means of dietary supplements I offer pure nutrition – all in all, I help people to regain their strength and stand in their own power...”.
Currently running a successful yoga and healing practice for more than 10 years in Amsterdam, Nancy is sometimes puzzled by the hardened public debate in the Netherlands. “I love my country, but I sometimes truly miss the uplifting and positive ‘New Yorkian’ spirit – in the Netherlands we tend to easily get into a downward and negative spiral. It’s important for us never to surrender to the ‘us-versus-them’ mindset and instead become somewhat more inquisitive about people that might not be part of our direct circle of familiarity”.
Ultimately, she hopes that her most important footprints could be resonated with her daughter, to whom she has always strived to set an example of unconditional love. “No matter her age, I have always evoked a sense of trust in her decision-making, including allowing her the space to alter decisions. In my turn, I’m eternally indebted to her, as she has taught me to be a more authentic person...”.