She’s a Haiti 2010 earthquake survivor, an optometrist, and now Raquel Pelissier has one more title to add to her name: runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant.
“I got so much more than I was expecting,” said Pelissier, who stopped in Miami’s Little Haiti on Thursday before heading back to Haiti. Pelissier was named runner-up on Sunday behind Miss France Iris Mittenaere. “For my country, I wanted to make it at least to the top 13 and I made it to final two, so I feel so blessed to have made it.”
She was welcomed into the Caribbean Marketplace at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex shortly after 8 p.m. with the traditional Carnival sound played by Rara LaKay. Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon, a fan, escorted her.
“She represented us very well,” Garcon said. “I was very happy she made it to the final two.”
Pelissier, who is from Port-au-Prince and wore an off-the-shoulder ensemble, entered the competition because she wanted to convey a different image of Haiti.
“In the news, there was always something they were saying about Haiti and it wasn’t positive. I wanted to change that,” she said. “I wanted Haiti to make the news and for the news to be great and for everybody in the world to see that Haiti is great and Haiti matters. I’m glad I achieved that.”
It has been 42 years — 1975 — since the country has had a runner-up in the pageant, Gerthie David.
Pelissier was well aware of the hopes that rested on her. “I wanted to do this for my country,” she said. “They’ve been waiting a long time.”
Still, some believe that Pelissier, 25, was short-changed when she wasn’t crowned, speculating that Haiti’s tumultuous political landscape had kept the crown out of her reach. Pelissier doesn’t believe that, recalling that in 2011, Miss Angola — Leila Lopes — was crowned Miss Universe despite her nation’s problems.
On Thursday, scores of Haitians, including celebrity DJ Michael Brun, turned up at the invitation-only event to honor Pelissier, who is pursuing a master’s degree in optometry at a university in Madrid. She hopes to one day find a cure for blindness.
“Her position represents a lot for young women who look up to her and see her as a role model,” said Mia Lopez, a Miami publicist who organized the event with two other Haitian-American friends. “She was determined to somehow bring Haiti to the forefront.”
While many contestants prepare their entire lives for a pageant like Miss Universe, Pelissier only began her bid in August when she won her first beauty competition. She credits her success to “determination and knowing who you are and what you have.”
Lacking sponsorship and government support other contestants enjoyed, Pelissier launched an aggressive social media campaign. She raised money on GoFundMe and kept supporters informed by posting on Instagram and Snap Chat. On Twitter, fans boosted her profile by tweeting that they had voted for her. Between Jan. 24-28, fans were allowed to pre-vote for their favorite contestant, pushing them into the Top 12.
Meanwhile, fans followed Pelissier’s every move on social media. “We knew what Haitian designers she was wearing, where she was going, who she was meeting with,” Lopez said.
Lopez and friends Angie Bell, who promotes Haitian artisans, and Wanda Tima-Gilles, president of L’Union Suite, the popular Haitian-American social platform, initially had planned a simpler welcome. They were going to hoist welcome signs at Miami International Airport, congratulating Pelissier, who is fluent in five languages, including English and German.
But then they decided to go bigger.
“The response has been incredible,” said Lopez, who had to stop taking RSVPs after receiving more than 200 in less than 24 hours. “There are like 12 to 15 former pageant winners who responded, mothers who wanted to bring their daughters.”
Pelissier was awed by the reception.
“I didn’t win the crown, but I’ve conquered so many hearts,” she said.