Ugochi Ihueze, the newly crowned Miss Universe Nigeria, shares her thoughts and journey in an exclusive interview with BusinessDay. From her initial tomboyish tendencies to breaking barriers on the global stage, Ugochi’s story is one of determination and empowerment. In this interview, she discusses her path to success, the challenges she faced, and her vision for promoting women’s empowerment as Miss Universe Nigeria.
Take me back to what was going on in your mind during the coronation.
I feel blessed that all the efforts that I’ve put together have finally yielded the desired result. After 2017 I’ve been looking for a way to give my platform for advocacy more publicity and when I heard slots were open for Miss Universe Nigeria 2023, it felt like a perfect opportunity for me.
Tell us about yourself and a background story you’d like to share.
If someone had told my mom when I was a child that I’d become Miss Universe she’d call it a bluff. I was the only girl among four brothers and naturally, I had those ‘Tomboyish’ mannerisms. I remember my mom trying to force me to take part in pageantry in Primary and Secondary school to make me more girly. It was in Uniben during my university days I started picking an interest in pageantry as I helped some of my friends model their outfits. The first pageant show I won was ‘Miss Hot Legs Uniben’ and that was the first one I was invested in. Then I went fully into modelling with Beth Models Africa and then won MBGN in 2017. All these experiences made me who I am today.
How did you feel when winning MBGN 2017?
It was an unbelievable experience for me. If you can roll the clips back to the event of that evening, I froze on stage while being announced as the winner of the contest. I’m grateful for that experience and opportunity because it exposed me to a lot of things. I learned a lot during that time because I wasn’t fully ready for the responsibilities that come with the crown.
The answers you delivered at the final stages of the competition showed experience and class and the use of keywords when answering the question. Would you credit that to your experience in the industry?
Yes, the experience helped but I’ll attribute it more to the self-development I acquired from 2017. I went back to school and acquired a master’s degree from Lagos Business School, School of Management in Paris, and I’m currently the Business Development Manager at Godrej Nigeria and I manage their operations at Abuja and Niger state. So all of those experiences put together helped me become more articulate in the words I speak and given that people work under me, I have to be careful with what I say.
How do you feel representing the country twice on the international stage and what will you do differently?
It’s unbelievable for me. However, under the organization of Silverbird, this is the first time it’s happening and I can’t wait to see how far I can get in this year’s competition. Back in 2017, when representing Nigeria at the Miss World beauty pageant, I broke a period of drought for Nigeria on the global stage by placing among the top 15 delegates at Miss World 2017 and I got the Miss World Top Model which had not happened in a long time and hoping to replicate that and better this time around.
There is a stigma with pageantry and it can be difficult for people trying to break into the industry. How did you navigate it to finding yourself at the top and what advice should upcoming beauty queens learn from your experience?
Every industry has its stigma, some kind of dark cloud that hovers around them but in the pageant industry, if you don’t have the full understanding of it, it’s easier to look at it as being difficult. It was the same idea for me initially, coming from Onitsha in Anambra state to Lagos, I didn’t know anybody but what I realized is that all it takes is to put yourself out there. The first step for me was to block all the noise and naysayers out there and then focus on what you want, which is your goal, what you want to achieve, and the best path for you to achieve it and that’s what I did to help me break into the industry.
After taking that first step, I advise people to put in the work and work on themselves. Hard Work still pays as much as people these days prefer smart work. People are watching as you put in the effort and those efforts will be rewarded at some point in time.
In your take what are the 5 basic steps to becoming a beauty queen?
I wouldn’t say there is a set formula, different things work for different people. For me, the first step is to put God first in everything you do. The second step is to know what you want, know what you want to get out of this experience. Even if it’s just going for it for the sake of it, that is a ‘Why’ and no one can take that away from you. The third thing is to be yourself, be authentic, don’t try to copy mannerisms from people. There can’t be two Ugochis or Anthonys. The next is to invest in yourself, self-development, education, and self-reflection. The fifth thing is having a support system, you can’t do it alone. It’s important to have the right people by you and that’s why I mentioned earlier that you need God to give you a spirit of discernment to know those people.
How do we step up in the preparation for the upcoming Miss Universe show at El Salvador and other years to come?
For El Salvador, we are doing things completely different. I am backed by a strong support system. I have a wonderful team I’m working with now, we are not leaving any stones unturned. A lot of work is going on like training, and outreaches, and the most important part for me is my Advocacy for women which is ongoing. Though we are preparing for El Salvador, we are not setting aside the main purpose for this crown.
Every beauty queen has a platform they are trying to promote. What platform are you trying to promote as Miss Universe Nigeria?
My Advocacy has always been focused on women, seeing them thrice outside societal boxes and the restrictions that have been set by our society. Also to show them that their dreams are valid and to showcase to the world women are a force for good. We are partnering with different organizations to make sure that the goal is accomplished and everyone can see what we are doing. It won’t be business as usual when things are done under the radar but hopefully, it will be televised and everyone can be a part of the community that we are trying to do.
Have you faced challenges with trying to pass across your ideas and philosophy so far and how has that driven you to go further in pursuing your goals?
There will always be challenges and pushbacks in all the things we try to accomplish. Regardless of that, how I handle challenges is to take all the negativity as fuel to push for what I want. During times like this, I trust God to turn things around for me. Some people don’t share the same ideas and philosophy as I do, and some people don’t like the pageant industry and think all we do is put on our fine faces. It’s on us to tell them otherwise that it’s different by showing them what we do with our platforms as a force for good. We show them by the way we carry ourselves, blocking all naysayers and using the negative energy as fuel to drive the force for good. So what I’ll say for people out there will always be people who don’t believe in what you believe so use that negativity to push for your goals, put your trust in God that whatever situation it is, He will turn it around for your good.
The upcoming Miss Universe will be the most diverse and inclusive with plus-size women taking part. What are your takes on it and if you could pick the brains of the organizers, what do you think they want to achieve?
I’m super excited to be contesting this year because it’s been a long time coming. The main goal of the pageant industry is to showcase the beauty of women across all works of life in our diversity and finally, organizations are beginning to see that to push out that message, we ought to practice what we preach. I’m so happy to be contesting among such a diverse group of delegates and I’m looking forward to it because it just shows that as women our beauty is limitless and as such they are removing all the boundaries and restrictions that have been set in place by society. It shows we are breaking down these walls and our beauty is in our diversity. I can’t wait to meet my fellow contestants and delegates in El Salvador in November.
What is your go-to for a normal look? How do you present yourself on a regular day?
I’m someone who likes to look natural for my makeup, just to fill in my eyebrows, mascara, and eyeliner. As for clothes I go for comfort. In 2017 when I was crowned MBGN queen I was in my comfort zone so you see me go out with my joggers and sweatshirt or jeans and slippers. Now it will not look the same because I’ve grown, I’m more mature and I understand the industry I’m in and the image I need to portray. So while I am driving for comfort, go for fashionable comfort.
When passing the crown next year, what is the biggest thing you feel you could have achieved by then?
That I have impacted lives. That I have changed lives and people say “Ugochi changed my life”. That someone will say that she has met me and it changed her life, that would be one of the biggest accomplishments for me.
What qualities make a Miss Universe and how are you planning to embody those qualities if you get to win in November?
There are so many questions that come together to make a full package of a queen but I’ll give just three. First is ‘Empathy’ and ‘Passion for the course’ and finally ‘Authenticity’.
Words of encouragement for young girls who aspire to be like you
To young girls out there, your dreams are valid, continue to push, keep doing the necessary work to achieve that goal, and with God on your side, you’re limitless. To Nigerians, I understand the pressure and there is a lot of work to be done and with your continuous love and support, we’ll get to the desired goal.