Beauty pageants — empowering or exploitative?

As another Miss Universe begins her reign, questions remain about the competitions and their place in modern society

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Surrounded by a haze of sparkles and sashes, a new Miss Universe began her reign on Saturday. The scene was a familiar one: a line-up of beautiful women in floor-length gowns, finalists nervously clutching hands, plenty of tears, bouquets of flowers and the passing of the crown.

On the face of it, it was the same Miss Universe. However, underneath its glitzy surface, times are changing. Or at least trying to.

Starting this year, the organisation behind the competition — which also owns Miss USA and Miss Teen USA — is implementing a new set of entry rules, perhaps the biggest shake-up in the event’s 72-year history.

Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel was crowned Miss Universe during the 71st Miss Universe pageant in New Orleans, Louisiana. Reuters

For the first time, married women, pregnant women and mothers will be allowed to enter.

"We all believe that women should have agency over their lives and that a human's personal decisions should not be a barrier to their success," an internal memo by the Miss Universe Organisation, seen by The National, read in August.

Historically, the pageant has only been open to single women, aged between 18 and 28, who have never been married or had children.

And that’s not the only change. In October, the organisation was sold to Thai media company JKN Global, owned by billionaire television personality and entrepreneur Anne Jakrajutatip, for $20 million.

Upon the deal being signed, Jakrajutatip became the first woman to own the franchise, and she’s already made her presence felt.

As well as now being female-owned, the 2022 competition’s judging panel was made up solely of women, as were its hosting team and commentators.

“If you are a man, you are not allowed to go on the stage my dear,” Jakrajutatip recently said on The Journal podcast. “That is the evolution of Miss Universe.”

For an organisation once owned by Donald Trump and plagued with claims of sexism, it feels like something of a turning point. But is it enough to turn Miss Universe’s fortunes around?

The buyout comes amid diminishing ratings and public opinion surrounding the world’s most prestigious pageant in recent years. In 2021, the 70th competition, held in Israel, was broadcast on Fox in the US and drew 2.7 million viewers. Five years earlier, it was regularly drawing more than double that.

But Jakrajutatip has a solution. She plans to turn the competition into a 13-episode reality show, which will fall somewhere between Project Runway and American Idol.

According to Time, the show will follow contestants in the run-up to the competition, through the pageant itself, and throughout the victor's reign.

A reality show may be enough to lure new audiences into the world of pageantry, and Miss Universe may be making steps in the right direction when it comes to diversifying its long-critiqued entry criteria, but will they be enough to silence the question that grows louder as each pageant season passes — should they still exist at all?

Beauty pageants, in one form or another, have been around since the late 1800s, when newspapers would judge reader-submitted pictures. In the early 1920s, the first Mrs North Carolina State pageant was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, marking the earliest form of pageantry as we know it today.

The competition evolved to become Miss America and, by the 1960s, pageants had spread across the US — and the world. But even all those decades ago, the same questions were being asked.

The women's liberation movement protested the Miss World Contest in December 1970. Getty Images

In fact, across the Atlantic, in the UK, the 1970 Miss World competition was at the centre of one of the most dramatic feminist events of the 20th century, when activists stormed the stage with flour bombs during the competition’s televised final. Watched by 100 million people around the world, they shouted: “We're not ugly! We're not beautiful! We're angry!"

The incident was the subject of the 2020 film, Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightly.

That year’s Miss World winner, Grenada's Jennifer Hosten, became the first black woman to claim the title. Recounting her experience to the Observer in 2020, she said: “I didn't realise it fully at the time but we were all using that contest as a way to get a message across. For me it was about race and inclusion — for them, it was about female exploitation."

There’s no doubt that strides have been made when it comes to race and inclusion. In 2019, the five major pageant titles — Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America — were simultaneously held by black women.

But the question of female exploitation remains. Participants and winners, as well as the organisations behind pageantry, work hard to raise awareness of issues and causes around the world, while raising billions of dollars for charities and non-profit organisations. This year, for example, Miss Universe shone a spotlight on mental health when April Simpkins, the mother of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, who had been diagnosed with depression and died by suicide in January last year, paid tribute to her daughter. Simpkins praised the pageant community for the support it showed Kryst and announced a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in her name.

But the appearance of the women competing remains the main appeal of these pageants, which still champion unrealistic beauty standards, and — in the case of Miss Universe — require contestants to take part in a controversial swimsuit round. Although contestants are not required to bare skin, as showcased by the previous two Miss Bahrain entrants who have worn activewear and a burkini during this segment, many women still do.

Miss Universe 2021 Harnaaz Sandhu won the 70th Miss Universe beauty pageant in Israel. AFP

And it's clear a certain standard of body shape is still expected. Take Harnaaz Sandhu, Miss Universe 2021 winner. She became the third Indian contestant to triumph, bringing the crown home to the country for the first time in 21 years. During her reign, she worked hard to raise awareness of menstrual equity, visiting 25 cities in nine countries and giving dozens of speeches on the subject. In December, Sandhu launched a coalition for menstrual equity comprising of 11 non-profit organisations, which aims to reach five million women in 200 locations by 2025.

And yet, some of the biggest headlines she made during her reign came when she spoke out against online trolls who had called her “fat” following an appearance at a fashion show, months after winning the crown.

Sandhu told the world she had coeliac disease, which affects the sufferer's diet, meaning they must avoid foods containing gluten, such as bread.

"I'm one of those individuals who was first bullied that 'she's too skinny' and now they bully me saying 'she's fat'," she said. "I am one of the courageous and confident girls who believes even if I'm fat, even if I'm thin, it's my body, I love myself."

The online bullying also prompted former Miss Universe Catriona Gray to speak up in support of Sandhu.

"Imagine being a 21-year-old girl who reached her dream of being a Miss Universe, and experiencing that,” Gray, who is from the Philippines and who won the crown in 2018, said. “If I were 21 years old and in that position, I can just imagine how it would affect me.

"We should continue to talk against body shaming. Weight is not even a fraction of who we are," she said. "I really want to send the message that that sort of negativity does not deserve a space."

While the pair were addressing issues that arose following their time in the competition, the bullying highlights the pressures and expectations placed on these women.

Several contestants involved with major pageants over the years have spoken out against them directly. In November, when, for the first time in seven decades, Israel decided not to send a delegate to the Miss Universe pageant, it was reported to be the result of opinion in the country being divided on whether or not beauty pageants remain relevant. The decision was particularly monumental as the country had hosted the 2021 competition. It was held in the southern resort city of Eilat.

Following the decision, Miss Israel 2003 Sivan Klein, described pageants as “shallow” in an online video.

“Queen Elizabeth has died, and now the beauty queen contest is buried,” she said. “It asks smart questions of smart women, in a bikini. It places a crown on the head and, at the same time, a ceiling.”

Lawyer and actress Linor Abargil, who was crowned Miss Israel in 1998, also spoke out against pageantry. "A woman is not a body or a face and no one in the world has the right to criticise us, or to assess our weight to see if it matches what is going on in the market!” she wrote on Instagram. “People change, the world changes, it is permissible to say we were wrong and move on to a world where women will continue to run the world but only because of who they are, and not because of anything else.”

Miss England finalist Melisa Raouf won the pageant's Bare Face Top Model award. Photo: Instagram / missenglandofficial

For many involved though, pageants remain a platform for good. Among a new wave of contestants trying to challenge the conventional pageant format is Melisa Raouf, who made headlines around the world last year when she became the first contestant in Miss England’s 94-year history to compete without make-up.

Raouf tells The National that her agenda was all about the idea of choice, and competing has only served to empower her, and the community around her.

“Competing in a pageant has definitely impacted my life in a positive way,” she says. “I’ve become so confident and I’ve learned to love myself. Beauty pageants aren’t about looking ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ anymore, they are about being yourself and taking pride in yourself.

“The feedback I’ve received is incredible,” she adds. “The fact so many young girls and women have felt empowered by what I’ve done means the world to me. It definitely was a life-changing experience that I’ll always cherish.”

Updated: January 17, 2023, 11:17 AM