Jessica Tyson: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Former Miss World New Zealand, Jessica Tyson is the founder of Brave, a charitable trust created in 2018 to help support survivors of sexual violence. Jessica also works full-time as a journalist at Māori Television and is passionate about te reo Māori. Jess can also be seen onscreen competing in Celebrity Treasure Island, with the new season premiering September 6 on TVNZ 2.

Mum was a competitive sportsperson and a triathlete and when she was pregnant with me, when I was in her puku, she was training all the time. Because she was swimming lots, until she was almost due, I was a bit of a water baby. When I was 4, I could swim the length of a swimming pool, and was swimming competitively from a young age. I also played basketball, volleyball and netball. I loved sports, but I was also a very quiet, quite introverted, child.

Mum and dad split up when I was baby and, although we saw dad heaps, we mostly lived with mum. Then when I was about 8, I was sexually abused. It took me a while to tell mum, but as soon as I did, she went straight to the police. The abuse happened over a few months, but because there was quite a gap between it happening and us going to court – about 18 months – when his lawyer was questioning me in the courtroom, I didn’t know how to answer, so I just cried. The lawyer treated me like I was lying. It was horrible, because in these sorts of cases, it’s really just one person’s word against another. The man who abused me was also well known in our community, and lots of people wrote letters to say what a good person he was, what a good father, so it was stacked against me. Mum also suffered. People said she was doing it just to make people hate him. She’d be yelled at in the street, people saying she was a liar and asking why she would put her daughter through it. Mum put up with a lot.

It was really tough at the time, when he didn’t get convicted, but I got a lot of counselling and a lot of support from my family so I was able to recover and move on. For a long time, I felt I’d dealt with it, that it’d been addressed by going through the court process, so I didn’t talk about it much. Also, when I was younger, whenever I did try to bring it up, no one knew how to react. When I told my friends, they didn’t know what to say, so for the next 15 years I bottled it up. It wasn’t until 2016, when I entered Miss New Zealand for the first time, that it crept back into my thoughts. I was also studying journalism at university, and we covered the justice system, which made me think how wrong it was for people to get away with that sort of thing. Rape and sexual assault is so hard to prove, especially for past assaults, and that’s a real problem.

When I entered Miss World New Zealand in 2016 and 2018, I started doing a lot of charity work. It’s called Beauty With A Purpose and it is one of the sections judged at Miss World. The winner of Miss World New Zealand has to create their own charity or project to present to judges at the international final. So when I won in 2018, that’s when I started Brave, and we visit schools and community groups and I share my story, to help educate young people about sexual harm. To teach them about consent and healthy relationships, about safety online and where to find help.

It is hard to talk about these things, but by sharing my story, I can help others realise they’re not alone, and that’s given some people the confidence to tell their parents. It’s shocking when you find out how common it is. I’ve heard from people who’ve gone through their own court process, and I’ve also spoken to lots of girls whose parents haven’t believed them and the outcome for them is terrible. I’m so grateful my mum was strong enough to speak up and support me, because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’m proud of what we did and of course I’d rather not have gone through it, but one positive thing, at least I can tell my story to help others.

I did my first pageant in 2008 when I was at school. I was always quite driven, and growing up in Whanganui, because there wasn’t a lot to do, whenever an opportunity opened up, I’d take it. I was 15 when I entered Miss Teen Whanganui, and it really helped my confidence by taking me out of my comfort zone. Once I started competing nationally and internationally, all the girls I met had been chosen to represent their country because they’d worked really hard, and were committed to helping others. Most New Zealanders don’t understand what pageants are about, but when you go overseas – I travelled to Japan for Miss International and China for Miss World – you see the work the contestants do to develop themselves as young women and to help others. It’s not just about being the best looking, it’s about wanting to achieve things. And yes, some girls have all the plastic surgery, but you’ve also got to have a good brain and be able to speak well.

When I presented Brave at Miss World in 2018, my Beauty With A Purpose project, I wasn’t sure how it would be received. But it came second out of 120 projects from around the world. I’ll never forget the moment when they called out my name because, not only did it show me that my work was good, it affirmed to me that telling my story to the world was worth it. Sexual violence is such a taboo topic and it’s not spoken about easily, so being runner up was very reassuring because it meant that the world was willing to listen.

Celebrity Treasure Island turned out to be one the most challenging experience of my life. I’m quite introverted and I enjoy being alone. I’m also very positive and kind and I like to get along with everyone, so being in the game went against everything in my nature, and there were moments in the game when it got way too intense. People were creating alliances and lying to each other, or saying one thing and doing another. I was really unsettled by that, so I tried to keep to myself and be true to myself, but I was blindsided by some of it, because it really got to me. There was one day, when I was mentally exhausted, I was being open and vulnerable and working so hard, then something small happened, and I had a big cry. But I also did my best because of course I wanted my charity to do well.

Brave was the reason I said yes to Celebrity Treasure Island. Because I wanted to share my message, and if any schools or community groups learn about Brave this way, and want us to visit, to educate them around sexual violence and harm, we will come to them. And if people watching have been through what I’ve been through, or something similar, I hope they can realise they’re not alone, and that there is help for them.

• www.bravenz.com

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