First Published November 2020
OFFALY’S QUEEN ABBII
If this was any other year, then the new MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND would already be well into her reign. Last year’s title holder, NASA data scientist Fionnghuala O’ Reilly, would have passed on the tiara and sash at a spectacular, sold-out ceremony in the famous and historic Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House back in August sometime. But hey, 2020 y’all! This is the year that will more than likely go down in Irish history as being the very definition of a year like no other! But, there will still be a Miss Universe Ireland 2020, and Offaly’s ABBII BADMUS YUSUFF has her sights set on making history by bringing that crown back to the midlands.
Miss Universe Ireland director Brittany Mason and her team have already pulled off a minor miracle this year by even making it to the point where the selection of a Top Twelve was possible. While the exact timeline of what happens and when between now and the moment this year’s winner is finally crowned remains in flux for obvious reasons, this year’s event does – for the first time – include a public voting element which will help determine who becomes the last lady standing and Ireland’s next representative on the Miss Universe stage globally. To give Abbii your votes, all you need to do is go to the official Miss Universe Ireland website – www.missuniverseireland.eu – click on Abbii’s image [Abi Yusuff on the website), and cast your votes as you decide.
The Miss Universe pageant is without a doubt the most famous of its kind in the world, with the Miss Universe Ireland set-up being one of the very best there is anywhere on the planet. So for Edenderry woman Abbii to be crowned Miss Universe Offaly is already an honour in itself. When we had the pleasure of spending some time in her company recently, the delightful Abbii – who has also played Gaelic football for Offaly at county level – explained how it all came to be…
“I’ve known about the Miss Universe pageant for a couple of years now, but it was never something I really focused on. But over those last couple of years, I’ve been seeing different bits and bobs of different people, different contestants like Fionnghuala last year, and Grainne Gallanagh as well. I’m the kind of person who likes getting myself into different things. So when it came to this year, to 2020, which has been a tough year for me, I decided to apply. Different females in the past have been role models for me, and Fionnghuala [the first woman of colour to win the Miss Universe Ireland crown] from last year is a role model for me too, she just inspires me so much. She proved that at the end of the day being Irish and being part of Miss Universe is not just about your colour, it’s about what’s in you. And that’s something that I wanted to show too.” The most recent Miss Universe Ireland winners, Grainne Gallanagh in 2018 and Fionnaghuala O’ Reilly last year, have both been very visible and active in the public eye, especially on social media. Grainne, a nurse by profession, has taken every opportunity to promote womens’ health, while Fionnghuala, a data scientist with NASA, has been to the fore in highlighting the roles that women can reach for in STEM related subjects and disciplines. And even when Grainne and Fionnghuala have been on the receiving end of various kinds of online abuse, they’ve always remained focused and positive in their outlooks and their ambitions. Was that something that surprised Abbi?
“I think that people are brave behind the computer screen on social media, or with text messages. I feel like as women, these individuals, like Fionnghuala and Grainne, they pick themselves up regardless of what people have to say. And that’s what I focus on too. Being black myself, I face racism on a daily basis. Some of it might be just minor, but some of it can be something that’s very, very hard to take in. So you have to learn to live with it, because some people are always going to criticise you, regardless of if you’re doing good or bad.“
It was a terrible question to even have to ask, but I wondered if, since becoming Miss Universe Offaly, Abbii had to face any racism over that?
“I have had a few comments thrown at me. But with myself, I’d rather just leave it to the side and not let it get to me, because that’s what those people are trying to do. I’m Irish at the end of the day. We’re all one. There’s no difference to me. Everyone’s the same.”
So when Abbii decided to actually get involved in the Miss Universe Ireland competition this year, what was the big reason that made her decide to go for it?
“Well, the pandemic that’s going on now worldwide now has been such a huge, huge problem. And with all of that happening, we haven’t been able to showcase ourselves. And I think with me, I have a lot of personality. The first couple of months of 2020 were very rough for me, we were very, very busy. I’m a full-time worker in a medical device company, we’re providing ventilators. I was working six days a week sometimes, on long ten, eleven hour shifts. I had some health issues at the time as well, including some anxiety, so I was just feeling broken. And that’s not me!I’m always the go-getter, always the one with the winner’s attitude. So after feeling down, I thought it was time to pick myself back up. And I just thought right, Miss Universe Ireland is something that would suit me. It’s something that I am willing to put myself out there for, to teach young women of today that they can build themselves up, and they should live every day as if it’s their last.”
So once Abbii had decided to apply, what was the process like from there? And how did she feel when she eventually heard that SHE was, in fact, Miss Universe Offaly?
“So I first applied in July, and it was like a job application [laughs]. They wanted to know every detail about us, which was fine [laughs]. And then there was a period of a while, weeks, where we didn’t hear anything back. Then we got an email where they said they’d keep us updated. And that three weeks was…I don’t know…like the longest three weeks of my life! [laughs]. And I hadn’t said anything to anyone at that stage that I had applied, because the thing with me is I like surprising people [laughs]. They’re not surprised when I do stuff, like when I come out and say, ‘Oh look, I’ve done this’ [laughs]. So we got to August, around my birthday, and we were told we’d made the next round of applications, and we were asked to submit a video of us cat-walking or modelling for the bikini shoot, and just a short interview video, just so the directors of Miss Universe Ireland could get to know us more. So I did that, and gave it to them. And doing that video was amazing, because looking back on it now, I was so, so nervous, I was a wreck at the time! But then when I got the feedback, they said they really loved my energy, and they liked this, and liked that about me! So that became my passion from that moment, that I wanted to do this. From then on I was like, ok, head-down, let’s go! I was still working at my full-time job, but looking after myself, treating myself better. Then one day, randomly, about two weeks or maybe three weeks after that, we got an email. And it said, ‘Congratulations, you’re in the Top Twelve of Miss Universe Ireland.’ I nearly dropped! [laughs]. I woke at six-am to that email! And I had to keep it to myself that day as well, because they weren’t announcing it until Wednesday. It was a shock, but such amazing news to wake up to, and something I’ll never forget.”
What was the reaction like when Abbii was finally able to tell everyone?
“I was at work the day that I was allowed to tell people. So as soon as Miss Universe Ireland announced it publicly, I went and told one of my work colleagues. And the hug that she gave me was amazing! It was something that she didn’t expect because she only started working with us a couple of months ago. And then after that I was like, I need to walk out of here and send this to my sister, and I sent her the screenshot [laughs]. The reaction, and the support of my family has been so, so great. I have a huge family. My mum couldn’t be prouder. She works at Dunnes Stores at home in Edenderry, so she knows a lot of people and she talks to a lot of people on a daily basis. And they’re all coming to her and saying, oh, your daughter is this and that, you know. Everyone is proud of me. So I’m ready to go the full way! [laughs].”
Obviously everything about 2020, even in the most general sense, is different than normal. But under normal circumstances, all of this year’s Miss Universe Ireland contestants would have met Brittany and the rest of the Miss Universe Ireland team – not to mention each other – in person by now. Not so in 2020, however…
“No, unfortunately not, I haven’t met anyone yet. We’ve all met virtually, that’s the only thing we’ve done. But honestly, I can’t wait! I wish the pandemic was just over. Or even that the restrictions were just lifted, because there is a Miss Universe Galway here [where Abbii is living at the moment]. Even if we were in counties close by, maybe we could meet up as individuals, one or two other people at a time or something. Just to get to know each other a bit more. But even with the directors, Brittany herself, she’s been with us every step of the way. So it’s like she’s actually been with us, she’s been doing her best in the circumstances, and we really, really appreciate it. She’s lovely, I can’t get over her. I love her energy! She inspires me, too. She pushes you. She’s good at her job and knows what she’s doing.”
As mentioned earlier, back in 2018 when Grainne Gallanagh held the Miss Universe Ireland title, she focused a lot on womens’ health because, as a nurse by profession, that was an area of particular importance to her. Last year, Fionnghuala O’ Reilly, as a data scientist with NASA, turned her attention to women in the S.T.E.M. arenas. If Abbii finds herself wearing the crown of Miss Universe Ireland for 2020, what would she like to use her platform to highlight?
“I think I would be on the Grainne side of things as well, looking at womens’ health. I think a lot of women nowadays, we need to be able to speak up if we have issues. There’s always people to turn to in terms of mental health, and even physical health. I’m someone that used to play football [for Offaly, by the way, folks], I’m a big athlete. I used to run the Harriers in Tullamore, too. So I know it’s important to keep your fitness going as well. But I’m not even going to lie to you, I’m not the fittest person out there at the moment [laughs]. But I want to get back into it. I’m joining a G.A.A. football team in Galway here. It’s about building yourself up to the best of your ability. Everyone is unique, and different in their own ways. And sometimes women need to shine, and say look, this is the power we have and what we’re capable of.”
So what’s the next big step or big date on the Miss Universe Ireland calendar?
“Well the Top Six finalists for 2020 will be announced soon, so there’s a crazy time ahead! [laughs]. Myself and the rest of the girls are all trying to showcase ourselves, put ourselves out there on our social media platforms, just trying to get everyone to know us better. We have loads of assignments, little bits and bobs, for the judges as well, just for them to get to know us better too. The Top Six will be influenced by the public vote, so if everyone can vote for me, I would really, really, really appreciate that! Thank you! We just had our first official Miss Universe Ireland interviews as well, with four American judges. And actually, it was fun! [laughs]. By the end of it! [laughs].”
While Abbii is from Edenderry, she’s living down in Galway at the moment. I asked her about the journey that took her there…
“Yeah, I’m from Edenderry, but I moved to Galway in 2014, I moved to study Accounting in G.M.I.T. I went in to study Business actually, and I did two years of that, then I went to Accounting which was a three year course. So that’s why I first moved to Galway. But I don’t regret doing so because I was able to get my education here. And furthermore, when I finished college, I went on to work in the finance sector, as a trainee financial advisor which was a great achievement for me. And I’ve got my job now in a medical devices company, so I’m pushing myself, always, always, always.”
How would Abbii describe herself to people who, because of the current Covid health restrictions, might not get a chance to meet her during her time as Miss Universe Offaly? And does she think her friends would describe her in the same way as she describes herself?
“I don’t know [laughs], I think they’d all have different words to describe me [laughs]. They all think I’m mad anyway, I know that! Me, myself? I think I have a lot of love, I’m a loving person. I have a lot of love in me to give. I’m caring. I’m easygoing. And I’m humble, too. And I try to always stay positive and true to myself as well. To relax, I like to go for a walk in the woods, maybe do some online shopping, or just go for a drive sometimes. And try to talk to the family and catch up with them, because none of the family live in Galway, they’re all in different places. So trying to catch up with them is a job of its own [laughs]. I have two brothers and two sisters. An older brother and an older sister, and then I’m the middle child. Then a younger brother and younger sister as well. But when I say older and younger, the oldest is twenty-eight and the youngest is eighteen. And separately to that, I have half-siblings on my dad’s side, and there’s ten of them. So there’s fifteen of us altogether. Some live in America, some live in England, some are in Nigeria.”
One thing that’s clear about Abbii, and comes across time and time again in our chat, is her positivity, and good humour, as laughter freely and liberally permeated our conversation. But what, I wondered, makes Abbii happiest of all in life?
“Hmm? What makes me happy in life? What makes me happy in life is to be calm. I don’t like to stress! [laughs]. Once I get stressed, it’s kind of impossible to control anything. I think I’ve actually managed to grow up and still be myself. And a lot of people are kind of looking up to me at the moment. So, for someone who’s still not, you know, anyone really yet, that makes me happy too. And I want to keep doing better and keep putting myself out there for people to see that they can do things as well. I try to always have a smile on my face, and to stay positive!”
~ You can stay up to date with Abbii’s Miss Universe Offaly journey – and hopefully beyond that too – by following Abbii and Miss Universe Ireland on Facebook and Instagram. To vote for Abbii, simply visit the official Miss Universe Ireland website – www.missuniverseireland.eu – click on Abbii’s image, and cast your votes as you decide. And REMEMBER, if any businesses out there want to become part of Abbii’s Miss Universe team as a sponsor, and possibly help Abbii follow in the footsteps of Cailín Toíbín (2017), Grainne Gallanagh (2018, and of Dancing With The Stars Ireland fame in 2019), and Fionnghuala O’ Reilly (2019), just drop her a DM!