When Tajiya Sahay was 19 years old, her Mitiaro-born mum would call her “Miss Cook Islands”. She said her daughter would win the crown one day – but what mother doesn’t believe in her child?
The trouble was, Tajiya didn’t believe in herself. She was 98kg, and miserable. When I ask her now about photos of herself as a 19-year-old, she has few – she hated the way she looked and would make people delete them from their phones.
“I looked at myself, and I felt I could never do that. I was too unhappy with myself.”
Tajiya gets teary, as she recalls how far she has come. “I used to be borderline obese,” she says. “I used to weight 38kg more than I do now.
“When I was 19, I got told by the doctor that five more kilos, and I was facing an NCD. I was on the verge of getting severe heart problems. My organs were unhealthy. The doctor said I had the metabolism of a 60-year-old.
“I was heavy and unhealthy and unhappy.”
For some young people, the example set by the Miss Cook Islands contestants may seem unattainable. They’re smart, they’re beautiful, they’re high-achieving professionals with a real drive to contribute to their communities.
But Tajiya, who was this weekend crowned Miss Cook Islands 2019, wants to show kids something else. She doesn’t want to be a model. She wants to be a role model – and more than that, a mentor.
“It’s not about being a stick. It’s not about what you look like on the outside. It’s about feeling good on the inside then that starts showing up on the outside.”
Even before winning Miss Cook Islands, Tajiya has been working hard to show young people they too can achieve what she has. Miss Cook Islands now gives her a bigger platform.
She coaches netball. She runs the JustPlay netball station. At the Tupapa-Maraerenga gym where she works, she and fellow trainer Maiti Samson run five-week series of PE classes for schoolkids.
Tajiya can speak from experience. When she was 19 and 98kg, she tried crash diets. They didn’t work. She tried throwing herself into full-on exercise. That didn’t work.
So she started slow: just walking one hour a day. She replaces the white bread in her diet with brown bread. She stopped having sugar in her coffee. She replaced her ice cream with yoghurt – and gradually, she developed new habits. “Brown bread and brown rice taste so much better – and I eat a lot!”
And Tajiya has already set in place a manageable training and nutrition regime to help people get healthy. Even those who, like she was, are completely “intimidated” by a gym and know little about good eating.
“That’s the message I want to get across to kids. Because a lot of people are in the dark about what to do.”
As well as the Johnsons fitness sessions run at the gym, she’s introduced “modified Johnsons” sessions three days a week, to help people build up from an easier level, and to gain muscle strength and muscle memory. “My group, their results have gone straight through the roof – from half push-ups to full push-ups, from half burpees to full burpees.”
It’s not just health and fitness: Tajiya has visited schools on three outer islands – Aitutaki, Mangaia and Mitiaro – to talk with kids about addressing climate change. She hopes the Miss Cook Islands sash will help her take that message to the rest of the islands.
Winning a platform from which she could work as a role model was the main reason she signed up for the Miss Cook Islands pageant, six weeks ago. It’s been a long trip, but a fun one. She laughs as she remembers the contestants’ first retreat at Pacific Resort; fellow contestant Brooke Tinomana fooling the other contestants with her lifelike bird calls.
Tajiya had barely ever worn high heels. She lists the three previous occasions: there was her school formal, her school graduation, and her sister’s wedding.
On her first attempts, she kept catching the strap of her shoe on the hem of her address – so she twisted her leg as she walked the catwalk to avoid it happening. “No one noticed my dress was catching – they just thought that was the way I walked, and they liked it!”
Miss Cook Islands Association secretary Rohan Ellis says Tajiya has focused on changing her life. “Tajiya has focused on changing her life,” he says. “Tajiya has transformed herself into an outstanding influencer for healthy lifestyle, fitness, eating, and attitude. Tajiya manages fitness programs at the Tupapa Fitness Centre and has a passion for healthy Cook Islands kids.”
Tajiya wants to send her thanks to her mother and her stepfather, whom she describes as her backbone and her inspiration; to her chaperones Lesley and Tupa, and to all her supporters who believed in her, “and pushed me to believe in myself”.