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Cameras flash wildly, the click of Louboutins rings through the air and clouds of hairspray waft through the tightly packed Bagatelle restaurant at Fairmont Dubai.
From the hotel’s lobby, the buzz is palpable as hundreds of excited young women line the stairways, each hoping for their chance to become the first Miss Universe UAE in history. This is the first time the Miss Universe pageant will welcome a UAE representative when it returns for its 70th year in December.
The first live casting for the global pageant took place in Dubai on Friday and there’s been joy, tears and more glitter on the floor than the aftermath of a Boy George concert.
Hours after the pageant was announced on October 7, aspiring beauty queens crashed the Miss Universe UAE website with more than 15,000 applications. The staggering response was unprecedented, leaving organisers with the mammoth task of whittling down thousands of hopefuls to just 300 for the casting.
And, just like the Spartans in 300, they came, resplendent in warpaint and prepared for an equally ruthless battle for victory, albeit with impeccable manicures and better manners than Gerard Butler and co.
Part of history
The casting was a sunglasses indoors, selfies-all-round sort of event, though the nerves were clear as the glamorous contestants lined up to strut before a panel of 10 experts, including Josh Yugen, president and national director of Miss Universe UAE, designer Furne Amato, who serves as the head of creatives, fashion and design, and show director Kevin Oliver.
The casting was split into two rounds, the first being a runway show where judges looked for the “X factor”. Contestants who impressed were then asked back for a second round and asked to answer a single question: “Why do you deserve to be a part of the history of the UAE?”
For Emirati trainee doctor Aya Albalooshi, 18, it was an easy answer. “I want to represent Emirati women and show people we are capable of anything,” said the Gulf Medical University student from Dubai, with a dazzling smile.
“Even if you’re training to be a doctor, you can be Miss Universe. To make history as the first Miss Universe UAE would be amazing. I want to make my country proud and represent the UAE in a positive way.”
Standing next to Albalooshi, in the seemingly endless line, was Aamna Alidi, 22. The Emirati woman from Abu Dhabi is training to be a pilot with Emirates. “I want to show that my country has the most beautiful women, but also that beauty comes from within and we are so much more than the way we look,” she said.
“To represent the UAE would be an incredible honour. I want to support other women, and to do so on such a huge platform would be amazing. Emirati women truly can do anything and I want to show that to the world.”
Model of multiculturalism
Entry for the pageant was open to all female residents between the ages of 18 and 28 who have lived in the country for more than three years.
All the contestants The National met were equally elegant and ambitious, yet the crowd was refreshingly diverse. Among the aspiring doctors and pilots were also models, students, cabin crew and martial artists from around the world.
Sophya Kalam, 19, is a Bangladeshi model, student and karate enthusiast from Sharjah. “I want to show that tough girls are beautiful,” she said. “To me, strength is beauty and I love that Miss Universe UAE is celebrating the individuality of women in the region.
“To be crowned Miss Universe UAE would mean everything to me. I want to inspire girls around the world and let them know that they can be anything they want to be, whether that’s a karate grandmaster or a beauty queen.”
Asmaa Youssef, 25, is head of logistics at boxing and MMA events company MTK Global. She describes herself as a feminist and is taking part in the pageant to inspire individuality and strength in her fellow women.
She said: “What drew me to the pageant was the inclusivity and the chance to embrace our differences. It’s not about showing up in your best outfit and looking pretty, it’s about celebrating our unique identities and what makes us who we are.”
For Anushri Iyer, 18, the pageant is all about finding a platform to talk about sustainability. The Indian student, who was born and raised in Dubai, said: “It’s a terrible fact, but our planet is dying and it’s all because of us. There’s not much time left to make a change, and I hope that by putting myself on a global platform, I can play my part in protecting the planet.”
Kesley Johnson, a content specialist from London, Canada, knows first-hand how incredible the crown feels. The reigning Miss Charm Canada began competing in pageants when she was 16 to boost her confidence and said being crowned Miss Universe UAE would be the ultimate honour.
“I came to Dubai six years ago as Emirates cabin crew and I love everything the UAE represents. Even just to be here at the first casting is such a privilege.”
Yugen, whose company Yugen Events has been chosen to select the first UAE representative for the global beauty contest, has been overwhelmed by the response so far.
“Mothers have been calling me crying because their daughters weren’t able to apply,” he said. “One lady told me her daughter had flown all the way over from India just to audition, but wasn’t able to – it’s heartbreaking, but we’ve had such an amazing response.
“We’re changing the norms of pageantry in the UAE. It’s not just about physical beauty; it’s about inclusion and individuality, too.”
Of the 300 who auditioned, only 30 will be chosen for the preliminary rounds. “We’re looking for someone who is the epitome of kindness," said Yugen. “She needs to be beautiful inside and out because Miss Universe UAE is not just a measure of beauty or intelligence, it’s more about her heart and her purpose.”
For head of marketing and beauty Vimi Joshi, the contestants’ presence is what makes them stand out. “We are looking for a magical spark,” she said. “The pageant is historic, it’s iconic, it’s the buzz of the city and everybody’s talking about it. We’re looking for somebody who can embody that.”
Show director Oliver, too, has high standards. “I’m looking for someone who has confidence, poise, can answer a question with charm and walk almost like a runway model,” he said. “We’re looking for everything.”
Head of runway Chanel Ayan, meanwhile, said she is looking for “sass”.
“I’m looking for somebody who’s very confident, very kind and who people can relate to. We want someone who is just going to be themselves and can represent the fabulousness of the UAE.”
The 30 shortlisted candidates will be revealed on Wednesday, October 20, with preliminary rounds held from the next day. Two shows will be held before the main coronation night, a charity dinner on Thursday, November 4, and a preliminary show on Friday, November 5.
The final show, to be held at La Perle on Sunday, November 7, will be “a very Dubai show”, says Yugen.
Well, if the crown fits.