Fancy a new car, a Caribbean cruise or a modelling contract? If you can impress a panel of judges any or all of these can be yours. Those grand dames of the beauty contest, Miss World and Miss Universe, may no longer be broadcast on mainstream television but the world of the beauty pageant is far from dead and if anything is stronger than ever.
In the States pageants and contests are big business. With great prizes and incentives, it is easy to see why their popularity continues unabated and why they are taken so seriously – especially when a large number of Hollywood stars have started out as beauty queens. For example, Oprah Winfrey in 1971 won a beauty contest – of all things – Miss Fire Prevention, and was given a reporting job on a local radio station while still at high school. It was her first step on the way to a career in television that started in earnest when she became the first black woman to anchor the news in Nashville. Now, of course, Winfrey is one of the world’s richest entertainers with an opulent lifestyle and her own Gulfstream G4 jet, thanks to her globally syndicated show. Actress Halle Berry, too, started out on the road to success after winning the Miss Ohio and Miss Teen America titles. The exposure led to a modelling contract and then regular roles in soaps such as Living Doll and made-for-TV movies, before she successfully made the transition to the big screen starring in films such as Boomerang, Losing Isaiah and more recently Things We Lost in the Fire.
Also an model-turned-actress, Vanessa Williams won the Miss USA contest but was later made to give up her crown after it was discovered she had posed nude for Playboy. The notoriety she gained cast her into the spotlight and has hardly been detrimental to her career. The singer and actress has a string of film and TV credits to her name, including Ugly Betty, Soul Food and Eraser with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and sung the title track for the Disney film Pocahontas.
There are a proliferation of events for every age group and at every level, from “bonny” baby contests run by local newspapers to the Miss Wet T-shirt contests run at night-clubs and holiday resorts. And it’s not only women who are keen on entering such events – men are also muscling in on the act. Contests such as Mr Supercool, backed by the US hair product company S Curl, are hugely popular with tickets selling out weeks in advance.
June Daly is the driving force behind the Miss Jamaica pageant. “It’s part of our culture. We are a beautiful people,” she says and believes the contest is a way of promoting the island and its heritage. The winner’s prize was a trip to Jamaica and $2000 worth of goodies. Previous winners, such as 24-year-old Donna Griffiths, who won the contest back in 1996, have gone on to launch successful modelling careers. One winner, says Daly, is doing promotional work. Another had begun a career as an actress and had even been invited to California to audition for a James Bond movie.
So, it’s not just an opportunity to parade around in a swimsuit. It’s a chance to celebrate and be celebrated. This is particularly true of events such as Miss Big and Beautiful. Entrants see the contest as an occasion where they can make a stand for the more generously proportioned as previous winner Stephanie Jones says: “This is one of the few chances for big women to get up on stage and show off their beautiful curvaceous bodies.”
However, it may still seem strange that beauty contests and pageants continue to be so popular when Miss World and Miss Universe are confined to a politically incorrect age. Feminism has left its mark. Such contests as now usually seen as demeaning, only serving to reinforce stereotypes of women as sex objects.
There was a time when the contests were big news, they were given acres of publicity and occupied primetime television slots. Bookies eagerly took bets on the likely winners and the contest itself was essential viewing. Now of course, that’s not the case in some countries, though the contests continue to be popular especially in places such as South America. Still, worldwide audiences are dwindling and the event only makes the news if something controversial happens such as the first black Miss South Africa in 1993, the furore over the first black Miss Italy, or when women demonstrators in India set light to themselves in protest against the Miss Universe contest being held there. In Britain, the Miss UK contest made the headlines when the winner was made to return her crown when she was found to have a child.
The contestants of Miss Ghana and Miss Jamaica may not see the event as an opportunity to start a modelling career or to assume a public role, but there’s no doubt that winning or even just being shortlisted in such a contest is a great confidence booster, especially when black women encounter so few images of black beauty in their everyday lives. Psychologists have said that our whole happiness depends crucially on our ability to maintain a positive self-image. When that self-image is centred so inevitably on our appearance, what could be more uplifting than being a beauty queen for a day?