Pamela Uba, Miss Ireland 2021, applied for the Miss Galway competition on the same day she received a letter telling her she had been granted Irish citizenship. “It was something that I always wanted to do,” she says of entering a pageant. “I just felt like the women were so inspiring. Particularly in 2019, I saw a lot of Black women, women of colour, holding major world titles, from Miss Universe, to Miss World, to Miss USA. That really inspired me. Luckily for me, in 2020 I became an Irish citizen. So that was the year I was like, ‘I have to do it now’,” she laughs. “It’s like a sign. The moment I got my citizenship letter, that same day I applied.”
ome years previously, she was working in a bar in Galway during college and a judge from the competition had told her she should apply. “I’ve always kind of wanted to, but knew that I couldn’t until I was an Irish citizen. So, everything works out the way it’s meant to work out. It clearly worked out very well for me in the end!”
A beauty queen may not seem like a natural fit for a contender in Ultimate Hell Week — The Professionals, the RTÉ show which sees celebrity recruits take part in a gruelling special-forces selection course. However, hers is a story filled with resilience, grit, and determination. Now 27, Uba spent years living in direct provision, having moved with her mother and three younger siblings to Ireland from South Africa.
“You had it, we just saw something in ya,” she recalls the judges telling her when she won Miss Galway. “It was kind of like validation, that yes, you can do it. Knowing that I came from such a difficult background, and knowing what kids go through in direct provision, I wanted the world to know their plight, and to understand them. And to understand me as a person,” she says of how she then realised she could use her newfound platform.
“And to know why everything I worked for was such a huge milestone to actually achieve — because it’s not easy for someone like me, who came from my background, to actually say these things. That they are this kind of person; a medical scientist, who has now gone onto receive one of the most prestigious titles, holding her country on her heart, being her country’s ambassador. For me, especially — fighting to be Irish pretty much since I was very, very young — that was such a huge achievement.”
She was seven when she came to Ireland. “Back in South Africa, everything started off great. I was in private school, I was quite a well-educated girl, but then things went sideways, and I found myself being dropped out of school at a very young age, because we couldn’t afford it. We lost the business.”
She had really liked school. “I don’t know if a lot of kids say that, but I really did. I did all the extracurriculars; I was just that kid who enjoyed being in that environment. So, for me to have to drop out of school was kind of a blow. I knew something bad was going on, but when you’re that young, you don’t understand it.”
When they arrived in Ireland, she and her mother and three younger siblings were “bounced around a few times in our first initial weeks, and then we landed in Athlone, in a caravan centre, and that’s where we lived for a year-and-a-half. Straight away I knew that this was…weird?” she laughs gently. “We had to adjust, you know? We’re a big family and were kind of squished in this very, very small space.”
She finds it hard to verbalise how things were for her family during this turbulent time. They were moved next to Mayo, where they stayed for the rest of Uba’s childhood. “I went to primary school and secondary school there. School life, brilliant — I loved it. Got on well, played GAA, did the musicals, did everything.
“I was organising the parish festivals, I got really involved. But, there were certain things I started noticing I couldn’t do, that others were doing. Couldn’t go to some school tours if they were outside the country. Certain club things that I couldn’t go to because you had to pay a fee, and my family only received €19 a week for the adult, and then €9 for each child. I could tell I was different.
They were living in a gated community in a house on a site called the Old Convent. “At this stage, my dad actually did join us. And there are two more kids that were born here. But my mum and dad aren’t together any more, so he left again. She was left with six children on her hands — very young kids — having to deal with everything. And having to put on a brave face for us.”
Uba recalls how it impacted her as she got older, became a teenager. “Inviting my friends over, knowing that they’ll come to a house where they’ll see suitcases everywhere… We were sleeping in bunk beds. At least because of the size of us, six kids, they couldn’t make us share with another family, thank god.”
That is not the case typically for people living in direct provision. “Most people are sharing with other families, the same space, sometimes the same room. And these could be strangers; you might have different backgrounds to them, depending on your religious background, your ethnicity. You could be worlds apart from each other. And you don’t get to vet the person. If you don’t get on with the person, then it’s tough luck, kind of.”
She wouldn’t let her friends come to where she was living. “Security has to let you in. They’d be like, ‘who are you, and what are you doing here?’ on the intercom,” – she says, adopting a gruff tone – “before you can even step foot into the place.” Instead, she would get them to drop her on a back street, near a different entrance to the site. “And I’d be like, ‘yeah, I’m only up the road’. Just so they thought I lived in a normal house.”
Teenage years are tricky enough, she adds, without this additional difficulty. “As a kid, you still have all that other stuff that you’re dealing with, that every other kid is dealing with as well. This was an added pressure.
“It was then that I started copping on to things that were happening: if you wanted something, mum couldn’t get it; it broke her heart that she couldn’t get it for you.
“I used to be so excited for Christmas, to get the little shoeboxes that people made for us. Because that’s when I’d get my nice present. I did the same Christmas shoebox appeal for somebody else during my reign as Miss Galway, just because I know what that feels like.”
Things have changed somewhat now, Uba reflects. “Still not perfect, but it has changed a bit. My time was, I’d say, one of the worst periods of direct provision. Because you weren’t allowed do anything: you couldn’t work, you couldn’t go to third-level education.
“Not because it wasn’t available, because you couldn’t afford it. You weren’t eligible for the student grant schemes that were out there to help people. You were the demographic to be helped, but just weren’t…”
As the eldest of six, she had to grow up fast. “There was a point where I took over from my mum going to lawyers and trying to sort out our family’s issues. I did a lot of that, especially as my English was better; I would have an Irish accent. My mum, she just couldn’t any more. So I nearly became a mum to my siblings as well. I did whatever I could. I’d babysit, I’d do anything to bring a bit of money into the house.”
She describes her little brother now deliberating over where he will go to college, considering England, and how happy she is that he has these choices. “That’s something special to see, my siblings have that free choice now, that everyone else has. To go chase their dreams, whatever they may be.
“Whereas I might have had to be a bit more practical in what I was doing. I couldn’t decide, ‘Oh, I’m going here there or wherever’. Because, how was I going to afford it?”
When it came to college, Uba wanted to go to Galway, where she now lives, but was faced with paying international student fees. “I saw the older girls in the centre; they finished secondary school and that was it. They started having babies as teenagers. I was like, ‘Mom, this can’t be life, this can’t be for me’. I’m a performer, I wanted to be on stage, singing. I wanted to be dancing, acting. ‘This can’t be my life, I can’t be here having children when I’m a child’.”
Her mother stepped in. “She saw that spark and she was like, ‘I won’t let this situation drain her of all the things that make her who she is’. She fundraised money for me to go to college. I paid those international fees — €9,000, for a year.”
At the end of Uba’s first year in college, she and her family were granted residency. She no longer had to pay international fees and she was able to get a student grant. She describes her experience as the same, but also different, as her fellow students.
“You’re going through it all the same, but I just had less money than them. So, I had to be smart in how I did things. Galway’s a food-festival city. Lots of free food going around, so I made sure I gathered up a lot of that.”
She lived with her boyfriend, whom she had been with since school, which helped financially. She studied medical science, a practical choice that guaranteed work after college. Performance arts didn’t feel like an option. “I couldn’t trust that I was going to get a job after it.”
The same year as starting college, she had applied for the Irish version of singing competition The Voice. She got through to the televised stage, but when she was handed the shooting schedule, she knew she would not be able to continue.
“I would miss a lot of college; I couldn’t do it any other way rather than to miss a lot of those classes. And after my mom working so hard to get me there, I had to put aside one of my biggest passions and think practically for the benefit of my family, and do the course. So, I just had to decline The Voice. It was probably one of the saddest things that happened to me. Because I really, really wanted to be a singer.”
She put her head down, studied hard, and got her degree, working throughout the pandemic at Galway University Hospital. “I was a frontline worker. I was really proud of that. But now, now I can chase my dreams the way I want to,” she says.
She was crowned Miss Ireland in September 2021, delayed by a few months due to Covid-19, which meant Uba spent a year-and-a-half as Miss Galway. During this time, she continued her studies, gaining a master’s in clinical chemistry from Trinity College. “I’m proud that I have it now. It’s something that I’ll always have and can always go back to, can always rely on.”
She is delighted that she took a year out from that work during her time as Miss Ireland, to fully embrace it. Now, she is working on her music, planning to begin songwriting, getting into acting.
She seems now an especially confident person, I say, to which she smiles and explains that this was not always the case. “I actually was one of the shyest kids ever. I think through the years I just had to grow out of it. A lot of the confidence you see right now, I gained through Miss Ireland. I wasn’t this person maybe two years ago. But I think once I won, I knew that the Beauty With A Purpose project [a fundraising initiative focused on educational equipment for children living in direct provision] I had was so important that I couldn’t sit back and be quiet.
“I had to speak about it, I had to explain the plight of these kids. Kids shouldn’t have to turn into adults before their time, d’you know? Those years where you are a child are such precious years, it goes by so fast, and we should be able to enjoy it.
“They should be able to feel not scared to have their friends over to their house. They should be able to go to school in pride of who they are and where they come from. They shouldn’t feel segregated.
“Direct provision, it is quite segregated. And I think that if it were more integrated into community settings, people wouldn’t feel so different, and so left out. It’s like as if your peers are passing by you and you’re standing still. That’s the perfect description of what it is.”
We are speaking on the Monday after the weekend during which Uba handed over her Miss Ireland crown to the 2022 winner, Ivanna McMahon. Uba was already primed for her next challenge, Ultimate Hell Week — The Professionals, which kicked off last week.
She is one of 20 famous faces tackling the physical and mental tests of the six-day course this year. “It is as terrifying as it sounds,” she laughs. “It was probably the scariest thing I’ve done in my whole life, because I really had to face one of my biggest fears — water. I am terrified of water. It was the most terrifying — and the most exhilarating — thing I’ve ever done at the same time.”
She’s proud of herself for entering the show, but also for all that she has achieved in the last few years. “For anyone who’s going through something and it’s never-ending, it does end. You just have to keep striving forth, and reach out to people if you need help.
“I wouldn’t have gotten through if I didn’t have a little support system. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t come out of what life has estimated for you, into what is going to be your excellence.”
‘Ultimate Hell Week — The Professionals’ airs on RTÉ One on Wednesdays at 9.35pm.
Photography: Alex Sheridan. Styling: Orla Dempsey. Hair: Ololade Oluwadele, @loxperience. Make-up: Pamela Uba