Miss Universe Bahrain Evlin Khalifa on changing perceptions of Arab women through pageants

Beauty queen talks about showcasing Arab culture, preparing for Miss Universe and her supportive fellow contestants

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Evlin Khalifa is a busy woman. Since being crowned Miss Bahrain in September, she has been on a whirlwind round of interviews, photo shoots and preparations for the coming Miss Universe beauty pageant in January.

She was in Dubai briefly this week, putting the finishing touches to the looks she will wear for the event and admits the past few months have been amazing, but tiring. “Everything is getting crazy, but thanks to my team, they are making preparations a bit easier, so I can focus on my questions and answers, my catwalk, and just representing my country. Now I am in Dubai, finalising my clothes and my evening gown. We have a lot of things to do still, but most of it is prepared."

For a Miss Universe competition clothes are not just a matter of popping into a store and grabbing a dress off the rails, rather, Khalifa is expected to arrive with custom-made dresses and outfits. Each one will have required a lengthy design process and several fittings to ensure every detail is perfect.

“The competition is going on for 10 days, so for each day I need different looks, so we need at least 10, plus extras,” she says.

For this, the team around her is invaluable. "They help me to decide what suits me. We always discuss what is best for me — for clothes in daywear and evening gowns. Even for make-up. I am Arab, so I like heavy evening make-up, but they advise me to do it in a pageantry way, so I am learning from zero.”

To help ensure Khalifa always looks immaculate, she has enlisted Vimi Joshi as her head of make-up. “She helped me today with a make-up tutorial, so I am studying what works best for me when I am on stage,” says Khalifa.

While there are several rounds to the coming pageant, the most anticipated is the evening wear segments, when the contestants step out in sumptuous gowns. One such round is dedicated to national dress, for which Khalifa has revealed she will be wearing an all-gold ensemble by Dubai label Amato.

Taking the theme of gold as inspiration, the result is a fitted metallic gown, covered with a trailing cape in gold lamé, and matched with a headdress spun from gold-plated coins and safety pins.

"The dress is made exactly from my ideas," she says. "I wanted to show a little bit of our culture through the gown, and I think we did that. I chose the colour and the style, and the designer did it in the best possible way. It's been a crazy amount of work, but I just hope to impress you all.”

Of the final result, she is clearly delighted. "I am so honoured to be able to be dressed in a real gold-plated dress by Amato. I believe that Bahrain is like gold, it shines at any given time but more importantly, like gold, it’s a story of hope, hard work and transformation."

Another element of the pageant is the swimwear round, and Khalifa’s predecessor, Miss Bahrain Manar Nadeem Deyani made history when she took to the stage during the 2021 Miss Universe pageant wearing a modest activewear look instead of a bikini. For her own showing, Khalifa will also be modestly dressed and, crucially, her decision is fully supported by the pageant.

“Fortunately, the Miss Universe organisation respects our tradition and our culture, so of course, they allow us to be covered or not covered, which is what I really respect about this organisation. So, I will be in a burkini. I respect all the girls who wear the bikini, but I want to show the world that a woman who is covered can also be beautiful.”

Although the final design for her burkini has not been completed, Khalifa explains she wants “something special and beautiful”.

Speaking with Khalifa, it becomes clear how much work is involved in preparing for a competition of this scale, with little let-up for her or her team for the past three months. Despite being in pageants before, she admits she wasn’t prepared for how different getting ready for Miss Universe would be.

“I did not realise how much goes on behind the scenes,” she explains. “My team told me of course, be ready, be prepared, but the work we have done I can hardly believe. Since September, I have been travelling, training every day, studying and I have learnt a lot of new things about the beauty pageant, but also about social issues.

“I think that I have changed as well. I used to be an introvert, but now I am becoming a bit of an extrovert. I like to communicate with people more and more. Interviews were challenging for me when I started, but now, with practice, I am getting used to it.”

With all of the long days and demands to be constantly on for the cameras, Khalifa has had to learn to manage her stress. “At one point, I was really nervous,” she says. “I was excited and stressed all at the same time, but I didn’t want to let that stop my regime, my schedule. Every one of us needs 'me time', so I spend it with my family. This is my number one way to relax, refresh and recharge.

“My family gives me power, energy and confidence, as well as my hobbies such as playing the piano, where I can express my feelings. I like to draw and also I like to write, I like to do this to bring my thoughts out on to paper. That’s my therapy, and I would advise others to try it as that’s how I relax and keep myself calm.”

Another aspect of her preparation is ensuring she gets sufficient rest. “I need sleep, which for me is 12 hours in a perfect world. I have gotten used to getting less, but I always go to bed at the same time. I need a routine. I drink a lot of water to hydrate my skin and my food is always healthy. And I clean my face every day — if I am wearing make-up or not, I make sure I clean my face properly before I sleep.”

If there is a lingering stereotype about beauty pageants, it is of the contestants trying to undermine one another and constant in-fighting. The reality, Khalifa explains, is the total opposite. “We all have a group chat on WhatsApp where we can talk. All the girls are supportive, kind and careful with each other. We talk about life, about mental health issues, and everyone is polite, gentle and gives time for everyone to talk. No one interrupts, no one is fighting or competing."

With such a strong support network among the women, Khalifa is looking forward to the event. "I think it's going to be a very friendly and family atmosphere," she explains.

Despite being only the second Bahraini woman to take part in Miss Universe, Khalifa hopes to use it as a platform to shift perceptions on how Arab women are viewed. “This is my main purpose for competing in this competition," she explains. " I think it's time to bring the crown a Gulf country, to show the world how beautiful, smart and intelligent Middle Eastern women are.

"Bringing our culture to this competition is something new of course, but I am sure we will be supported by pageant fans. As Bahrainis, we honour our traditions and culture, and that is amazing in the modern world. That we can mix and combine modern values with old traditions, I think that’s the Arab modern woman, and that’s what I want to show.”

Updated: December 22, 2022, 11:03 AM