Miss Homeless 

Every Girl Dreams of Becoming a Beauty Queen

One morning in 2009 on the headlines of the Parisian newspaper Libération I read in disbelief about a controversial beauty contest launched by a Belgian social welfare nurse for the homeless women in her town, Brussels. Miss SB, in short for Miss SDF* Belgique, was creating an outrageous scandal among the politicians and humanitarian associations in Belgium. I quickly looked up the nurse, Mathilde Pelsers, nicknamed Madame Mathilde and contacted her. I needed to see to believe what she was doing. What madness, what balls, what a risk to the reputation and philosophy behind social work. And if it worked in a positive manner what mad genius!

So in April 2009 I headed towards a Brussels suburb from Paris with my old view camera to photograph the dozen women finalists which I may or may not meet, as according to Madame Mathilde, they come to her home regularly where she receives the homeless but not always. *SDF - sans domicile fixe (homeless in French)

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                Mathilde and her daughter Aline, founders of Miss SDF Belgique, 2010

“Miss Homeless - every girl dreams of becoming a beauty queen” is a series of portraits of homeless women whose lives were being affected by a controversial beauty contest of which they were a part of. To be selected, each woman had to show her determination to change her life accompanied by a social welfare organisation run by a social nurse and her daughter, Madame Mathilde and Aline. This beauty contest was a contest of will and resolve to change one’s condition, to come clean of drugs and alcohol, to finally have a job and a home. The winner would get a year’s free rent and employment. In fact, every finalist already had a home and job, thanks to the hard work by Madame Mathilde and her daughter’s association for aide to the homeless. The beauty contest was just a spectacular way to bring the world’s attention to a growing population of desperate souls we have turned a blind eye to.
This unlikely beauty contest had first come about from Madame Mathilde’s desperate act to save her own daughter Aline from the streets, a hard-core drug addict during her teenage years. Thanks to an “irrational act born of love”, Aline won a local beauty contest that her mother had secretly signed her up for in order to bring her home.
From that day on, a new kind of beauty contest in the city of Brussels was born, founded by mother and daughter. Though being a beauty queen did not change her life immediately, Aline said it was accompanying the women who were preparing themselves for the unique “beauty contest” which inspired her to stay clean and come home. Together with her mother, they persuaded the homeless to start over a possible new life and convinced them that their voices needed to be heard by the rest of world.

Because the media were constantly harassing the finalists with interviews and stalking them in their homes, I wished to avoid the penetrating voyeurism that can sometimes occur among some photojournalists’ and photographers’ work when documenting this particularly sensitive subject. The homeless population were the most complex group I had encountered as a photographer but also the most heartbreaking group of individuals. Each woman could be any of us coming from all four corners of the Earth with stories that could be ours but where fortune and luck had turned the other way. Each woman reminded me of my daughter, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousin and my best friend. When a woman loses her home, she loses herself and her identity. My life’s work on identity, roots and origins questions as well the loss of identity in the marginal and fragile of our communities. These portraits were treated in a sober and contemplative manner with a view camera, without any frills and performative gestures unless the model herself decided otherwise. Each finalist or “miss” had the choice to wear a crown or not, and drape the Belgium flag over her body. All the “misses”, Madame Mathilde and her daughter Aline including some other homeless women who were not finalists were photographed at the home base of the beauty contest, in Madame Mathilde’s home and garden where the desperate and wary from the neighbourhood came to visit frequently.

The portraits are accompanied by long captions, as the lives of each individual must be told. I have not included the names of each finalist other than the winner in order to respect each individual’s privacy. Some have died in the last years of heart failure, cancer and other diseases. Luckily there is a happy ending or promising beginning for some, like Marie-Thérèse Van Belle, who won the beauty contest at 58 years old and is today an active ambassador for the homeless in Belgium.  A year after Miss SDF Belgique’s beauty contest, I visited Madame Mathilde to photograph the men finalists for Mr SDF Belgique and was struck by the physical transformation as well as the dignity and pride in Miss SDF Belgique’s eyes. “I just want to be normal”, she smiled at me with a tinge of girlish giggle in her voice.

Nationality : Belgian of Flemish origin from Limburg
Personal history : married with two children, a son and daughter, Aline, whom she saved from the streets and drug addiction
Occupation : studied photography, social welfare nurse, instructor for social welfare nursing, founder for a beauty contest
for the homeless Miss SDF Belgique and Mister SDF Belgique
Location : in front of her home in the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

That April morning in 2009, I found myself in Madame Mathilde’s home resembling a good witch’s hut straight out of a fairy tale filled with a huge colourful talking parrot, dogs and cats, a turtle, fake and real plants, a permanent Christmas decoration and colourful lights scattered about the dark place. Not a single sliver of daylight entered the guest living room. I was directed towards the garden in the back and there another word unfolded, the women were waiting to meet me, some shy and withdrawn, others impatient, others still who didn’t seem to care either way.
For the next few days, I came to vist Madame Mathilde and her friends, most were finalists for the beauty contest, others were there just to hang about and to observe me. I listened to their stories and lives, spent countless hours with them, talking about everything and nothing over cigarettes, tea and pastries which were provided by dear Madame Mathilde, an infinitely kind soul who was not afraid to risk everything, even her reputation as a mother and social worker to attract the world’s attention to the homeless population and their social condition.

Nationality : Belgian of Flemish origin, born in Sint-Niklaas on the border of Holland
Personal history : age 8 to 13 lived with maternal grandparents, returned to her mother’s home in Brussels
at age 13, drung addiction during her teenage years, lost her sense of self and took to the streets,
her mother tried to save her several times and finally entered her in a local beauty contest; after she was nominated
Queen of Miss Flande-Oriental, she helped her mother to found different kind of beauty contest for the homeless women
based not on beauty but on human values
Occupation : art student, writer
Location : in her mother’s garden in the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality : Belgian born in Brussels, a true « bruxelloise »
Personal history : never went to school, she has been on her own since age 12, her mother never taught anything,
she learned everything on her own, worked for 25 years as a cleaner in public schools, has acute athritis due to the damp
and cold in the toilets, had to stop working due to her health, has a handicapped son, became homeless when
she was not allowed to move into a place promised to her by a friend as the owner of the place refused to let her in,
spent winter outside with her handicapped son until she was taken in by a home, became the first Miss SDF Belgique
in 2010, her favorite worlds, « L’espoir fait vivre » (hope gives life), cannot live without her most faithful companion,
her dog
Occupation : cleaner (retired due to health issues), concièrge
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality :  Belgian born in Brussels
Personal history : was married to a Moroccan man whom she discovered later to have a wife and four kids back in Morocco,
when he hit her with a hammer she ran away from home, she won her divorce and did not have to pay for her ex-husband,
has been looking for her sister she hasn’t seen in 8 years
Occupation : ex-cashier at Delhaize supermarket in Uccle, hairdresser
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality : Belgian of Italian origin
Personal history : she was married with two kids, divorced after 5 years, getting married soon to a guy in prison
Occupation : working as a cashier in the red light district, worked as a brothel keeper, worked as a secretary of direction
for an international transport company
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

The portraits of these “beauty queens” with haunted, frightened, hardened, defiant and suspicious eyes are silent reminders to me that there is still a lot of work to be done in order to create a just world. Though there was a lot of media around this event, nothing has yet been published seriously to this date on this daring initiative which questions the efficiency of our social system. So what did the beauty queens think of the scandal and controversy over this beauty contest? “...an indecent competition?... but the competition is permanent on the streets, we have to fight everyday to survive...we are being used ? people are finally listening to us, we exist...those who criticise this initiative should try being homeless for a week, they will wake up quickly and understand that any way out IS a way out ...” 1

In these strange times of post-covid 19 with an unpredictable New Normal, it is a matter of urgency we give a voice and visibility to one of the most defenceless in our society, the homeless. It is unacceptable in this day and age that many among us still struggle to have a roof over their heads, enough to eat and basic medical care. The virus is a reminder as well that we are all connected, poor and rich, weak and strong, by an equilibrium maintained in this home that we all share, our planet.

- Diana Lui
1 excerpts from the article: Le Miss SDF Tour bouscule la Belgique par Edouard Launet - 23 mars 2009

Nationality :  Belgian of Flemish origin from Limburg (near Hasselt)
Personal history : eldest in a family of 3 brothers and 1 sister, left when she turned 18, had no choice to stay home, came to Brussels,
has mixed feelings about the beauty contest, dreams of becoming a hairstylist
Occupation : studying to become a caregiver in a professional school
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality : Belgian of Polish, Portuguese, French and German origins
Personal history : let home at 18, kicked out by her mother, now 22, has a place to live finally, this is the « last place » for her,
likes to write
Occupation : student
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality : Belgian of Greek origin
Personal history : wishes to remain anonymous from her family
Occupation : worked for the Ministry of ?
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Anne was the most elegant of the homeless women. She was always impeccably dressed and walked around with a sleek cane. There was a natural nobility about her which cannot be denied. It was incredibly difficult to imagine her on the streets. Madame Mathilde told me that it’s unfortunately a very common story among the homeless people, their lives can change suddenly from one day to the next, that it is even a choice on the part of some individuals to leave home and become unknown.

Nationality : Belgian of Breton, gypsy and African origins
Personal history : when her lover died suddenly of brain tumor, she went crazy and kept her dead boyfriend next to her for 3 days,
she washed him and took care of him, his body hardened to rock eventually, she then decided to sent her daughter away to be
taken care of, not at a foster home but instead a home for kids with parents in trouble, she sees her daughter every Wednesday,
she would like to have her daughter back once she has her life together
Occupation : works in a restaurant, artist, French gastronomy cook
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality : Belgian of Walloon and French origins from Perpignan
Personal history : thanks to the beauty contest, her life has changed for the better, she is drinking much less and
her life is more stable, she had 6 childrens from 3 differents men, her youngest child is a mixed boy and is living with
his Cameroonian dad; her street nickname is Calimero and she has way of rolling her « r », « rrrrrrr », her cracked voice is due
to asthma
Occupation : works in homes and hospitals as a health aide
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

Nationality : Belgian of Breton origin from Brussels
Personal history : lived in a foster home, went back to her mother’s at age 10, left home at 15 to live with boyfriend,
homeless for 3 months with her boyfriend, the only homeless among the group at Madame Mathilde’s to get herself off the streets
Occupation : accounting student, studied 3 years of architecture
Location : in Madame Mathilde’s garden, the suburbs of Brussels, Belgium

The oldest homeless woman in the neighborhood where Madame Mathilde lives, 92 years old. A very grumpy old lady
who has a strong punch if you ask her too many questions. Her children grandchildren have not come once to visit her
at Madame Mathilde’s to this day.

Marie- Thérèse Van Belle, ambassador for the homeless and winner of the Miss SDF Belgium beauty contest in 2010, a year later.

Miss SDF - chaque fille rêve de devenir une reine de beauté

Un matin de 2009 sur les gros titres du journal “Libération”, j'ai lu avec incrédulité un concours de beauté controversé lancé par une infirmière sociale belge pour les femmes sans-abri de sa ville, Bruxelles. Miss SB, en abrégé pour Miss SDF Belgique, était en train de créer un scandale parmi les politiciens et les associations humanitaires en Belgique. J'ai rapidement recherché l'infirmière, Mathilde Pelsers, surnommée Madame Mathilde et l'ai contactée. J'avais besoin de voir pour croire ce qu'elle faisait. Quelle folie, quelle audace, quel risque pour la réputation et la philosophie du travail social. Et si cela fonctionnait de manière positive quel génie fou!

Alors en avril 2009 je me suis dirigée vers une banlieue bruxelloise depuis Paris avec mon ancienne chambre photographique pour photographier la douzaine de finalistes que je rencontrerai ou non, car selon Mme Mathilde, elles viennent régulièrement chez elle où elle reçoit les sans-abri mais pas toujours.

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«Miss SDF - chaque fille rêve de devenir une reine de beauté» est une série de portraits de femmes sans-abri dont la vie a été transformée par un concours de beauté controversé dont elles faisaient partie. Pour être sélectionnée, chaque femme devait montrer sa détermination à changer sa vie accompagnée d’une association de protection sociale dirigée par une infirmière sociale et sa fille, Madame Mathilde et Aline. Ce concours de beauté était un concours de volonté et de résolution pour changer son état, se débarrasser de la drogue et de l’alcool, enfin avoir un travail et un foyer. Le gagnant obtiendrait un an de loyer gratuit et d’emploi. En fait, chaque finaliste avait déjà une maison et un travail, grâce au travail acharné de Madame Mathilde et de sa fille avec leur association pour aider les sans-abri. Le concours de beauté n’était qu’un moyen spectaculaire d’attirer l’attention du monde sur une population croissante d’âmes désespérées à qui nous avons fermé les yeux.

Ce concours de beauté improbable est né pour la première fois de l’action désespérée de Madame Mathilde pour sauver sa propre fille Aline de la rue, une toxicomane endurcie pendant son adolescence. Aline a remporté un concours de beauté local auquel sa mère l'avait secrètement inscrite et grâce à cet «acte irrationnel né de l'amour», Madame Mathilde a décidé de créer un nouveau type de concours de beauté pour les femmes sans domicile fixe dans sa ville de Bruxelles. Bien qu'être une reine de beauté n'ait pas changé sa vie immédiatement, Aline a déclaré qu'en aidant les femmes sans-abri à se préparer pour le "concours de beauté" que sa mère avait créé, cela l'a convaincue de rester propre et de rentrer à la maison. Avec sa mère, elles ont persuadé les femmes sans-abri de recommencer une nouvelle vie et les ont convaincues que leurs voix devaient être entendues par le reste du monde.

Parce que les médias harcelaient constamment les finalistes avec des interviews et les traquaient chez eux, je souhaitais éviter le voyeurisme qui peut parfois se produire chez certains photojournalistes et photographes lorsqu'ils documentent ce sujet particulièrement sensible. Les femmes sans-abri étaient le groupe le plus complexe que j'avais rencontré en tant que photographe, mais aussi le groupe d'individus le plus déchirant. Chaque femme pourrait être n'importe laquelle d'entre nous venant des quatre coins de la Terre avec des histoires qui pourraient être les nôtres mais où la fortune et la chance les avaient oublié. Chaque femme m'a rappelé ma fille, ma mère, ma grand-mère, ma tante, ma cousine et ma meilleure amie. Lorsqu'une femme perd son foyer, elle se perd et perd son identité. Mon travail artistique depuis trente ans sur l’identité, nos racines et nos origines pose aussi la question de la perte d’identité chez les marginaux et les fragiles de nos communautés. Ce groupe de portraits a été traité de manière sobre et contemplative avec une chambre photographique, sans fioritures ni gestes performatifs à moins que le modèle lui- même n'en décide autrement. Chaque finaliste ou «miss» avait le choix de porter une couronne ou non, et de draper le drapeau belge sur son corps. Toutes les «miss», Madame Mathilde ainsi que sa fille Aline, y compris d'autres femmes sans-abri qui n'étaient pas finalistes, ont été photographiées au domicile du concours de beauté, dans la maison et le jardin de Madame Mathilde où les sans-abri du quartier venaient visiter fréquemment. Ces portraits sont accompagnés de longues légendes, car la vie de chaque individu doit être racontée. Je n'ai pas inclus les noms de chaque finaliste autre que le gagnant afin de respecter la vie privée de chaque individu. Certains sont morts au cours des dernières années d'insuffisance cardiaque, de cancer et d'autres maladies. Heureusement, il y a une fin heureuse ou un début prometteur pour d'autres, comme Marie-Thérèse Van Belle, qui a remporté le concours de beauté à 58 ans et est aujourd'hui une ambassadrice active des sans-abri en Belgique. J'ai rendu visite à Madame Mathilde un an après le concours de beauté de Miss SDF Belgique pour photographier les hommes finalistes de Mr SDF Belgique et j'ai été frappée par la transformation physique ainsi que la dignité et la fierté dans les yeux de Miss SDF Belgique. «Je veux juste être normale», m'a-t-elle souri avec une nuance de rire de jeune fille dans la voix.

Les portraits de ces «reines de beauté» aux yeux hantés, effrayés, endurcis, provocants et méfiants me rappellent silencieusement qu'il y a encore beaucoup de travail à faire pour créer un monde juste. Bien qu'il y ait eu beaucoup de médias autour de cet événement, rien n'a encore été publié sérieusement à ce jour concernant cette initiative qui dérange et questionne notre système social. Alors, que pensaient les reines de beauté du scandale et de la controverse autour de ce concours de beauté? «... Une compétition indécente?... Mais la compétition est permanente dans la rue, nous devons nous battre pour survivre... En quoi nous utilise-t-on? On nous aide et, surtout, on nous donne la parole... ceux qui critiquent l’initiative de Mathilde et Aline n’ont qu’à essayer de passer ne serait-ce qu’une semaine dans la rue. Ils verront que tous les moyens sont bons pour en sortir..” 2

En ces temps étranges de post-covid 19 avec une nouvelle normale incertaine, il est urgent de donner une voix et une visibilité à l'un des plus démunis de notre société, les sans-abri. Il est inacceptable de nos jours que beaucoup d'entre nous aient encore du mal à avoir un toit au-dessus de leur tête, suffisamment à manger et des soins
médicaux de base. Le virus nous rappelle aussi que nous sommes tous connectés, pauvres et riches, faibles et forts, par un équilibre maintenu dans ce foyer que nous partageons tous, notre planète. — Diana Lui

2 extraits de l’article: “Le Miss SDF Tour bouscule la Belgique” par Edouard Launet - 23 mars 2009

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