Wow. When I started this post, it was going to be a short post highlighting comments which Anya Ayoung-Chee’s mother Michele Jodhan Ayoung-Chee made about the “hell” Anya endured with her sex tape scandal some years ago.
But in searching for a photo of Michele to go with the piece, I came across another article on the Trinidad Express - and now I am rewriting this – as a salute to Michele Jodhan Ayoung-Chee and a mother’s love and strength.
Horrifyingly, the sex scandal was the least of the trials the family has been through. It is well known that Anya’s younger brother Pilar was killed in a traffic accident in 2007 when a car hurtled over a highway median and killed him and four others. It is for him that Anya’s colourful Pilar line is named.
Less well known is that years before that, the family endured the crime that plagues Trinidad’s upper classes – a kidnapping of one of their (then) five sons.
Their son was saved – as it happened, by one of his kidnappers, nicknamed Tall Man, who though desperate for money to pay off a gambling debt, turned against his fellow captors when he realised they were plotting murder for the young man they had then held for 11 long days.
Amazingly, Michele doesn’t hold a grudge, instead focusing on the positives to be gleaned from the one kidnapper who turned rescuer.
“In that moment Tallman grew tall. You make mistakes but when the moment comes… when it is life and death, what do you decide? He chose to protect my son.”
She admitted there was the temptation to turn inward in fear or even look outward to escape, as so many Trinis have done.
“People said, ‘Of course they were going to pick you. Why do you live in St Clair? Why do you have a beautiful home? You are opening yourself up. There are people who have the wherewithal and they live on the low’. It was our fault for taking the children on trips. I was made to feel at fault. And I realised that our own vulnerability intersected with the vulnerability of the kidnappers and their families,” she told the Express.
Instead, out of that crisis, came the family’s TallMan Foundation, an arts programme for underprivileged young people.
Speaking after the 2011 graduation ceremony for Foundation, Michele spoke of the family’s third major crisis – the leaking of Anya’s private sex tapes with former boyfriend Wyatt Gallery in 2009. She related that Anya was even alienated by family and people she thought were close friends.
“What went on was enormously damaging. It damaged her, it damaged us as a family, … it was hell. That is the only way I could describe it. Anya went through absolute hell and she struggled and struggled and struggled,” Michele told the Newsday newspaper in an intense interview.
“No one gave her the benefit of the doubt, she lost innumerable jobs, she was alienated, people did not want to be associated with her. They moved away from her, including friends, including family members. It was absolutely dreadful, she was totally alienated, well not totally, significantly.”
said her mother, noting that what saved them was going into what she described as “warrior mode”.
“She said what saved her initially is she went into warrior mode and as a result, so did I, because there was one thing that wasn’t going to happen, nobody was coming between me and her. I was standing in solidarity with her.”
With Anya now flying high due to her Project Runway win, Michele is still wary. Though she says she doesn’t want to sound “embittered” she pointedly noted the hypocrisy in the treatment of her daughter now being the toast of TnT.
“Listen, something happens tomorrow they’ll ditch Anya, you know. People could go right back there. Right now she’s flying high, she’s everybody’s glory girl, but I really wonder, I challenge people to have that courage and to have that solidarity when things… people are human, we are all human, we are complex, layered and we all live in contradiction.”
As a commenter on the Express article said: “Ent!! Wow!”
As a new mother myself, it takes my breath away what Michele has endured as a parent – to come out on the other side with grace and good humor and still have a love for country when you have seen its darkest sides hurt your children, is simply amazing.
It certainly makes Anya’s perseverance and determination which we’ve noted before, much more understandable.
Michele Jodhan Ayoung-Chee, we salute you.