This writer is surprised beauty pageants are still a thing so she pestered the newly crowned Miss Universe Singapore for some answers.
For a while, beauty pageants captivated the world. I remember the last time I sat in front of the telly with my family and cheered on our favourite pageant contestants while booing the rest – it was the 1980s, when big hair was beautiful and David Hasselhoff was at the peak of his red-speedo-clad career. You’d think we were watching a presidential election.
Well, just like The Hoff’s relatively short-lived singing appearances, beauty contests have lost much of their shine (although it’s difficult to forget the moment Miss California USA referred to euthanasia as a vaccine).
To truly understand beauty pageants, however, it’s worth deep diving into their storied past. The predecessor to the modern beauty pageant was first held in 1854, by circus magnate PT Barnum. Barnum promoted many different types of competitions – among dogs, flowers, babies. But there was only one that attracted plenty of attention – and with it, protest: a beauty competition, where women were invited to flaunt their figures in front of judges.
While Barnum’s competition didn’t take off, America’s first beauty contest held in Atlantic City in 1921 did. The “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest” would eventually evolve into the Miss America Pageant.
Today, there are beauty contests aplenty, from “Toddlers to Tiaras” to Miss Earth. Thailand has its very own Miss Jumbo Queen beauty pageant – contestants have to weigh at least 80 kilograms to qualify.
About a decade ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to pageant organiser Alice Lee, who started an organisation called Pageant Coach to groom wannabe contestants as young as 13.
Lee’s casual offhand remark – “I always believe in wearing a little makeup, even if you’re stepping out of the house for a short while” – would stay with me years after our interview.
But that’s not the disturbing part: Lee also said that Pageant Coach was modelled after the beauty factories of Venezuela. For the uninitiated, these factories are like “beauty boot camps”, where contestants are expected to undergo boob jobs and rhinoplasty, and have their tongues sewn with plastic mesh (to keep them from eating solid foods!) so they can fit into society’s unhealthy and idealistic notions of beauty. “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Lee quipped, as I furiously scribbled these now immortal words into my notebook, whilst simultaneously wondering if I should schedule an appointment for a Brazilian wax after all.
But that was about a decade ago, before the #metoo movement, which eventually opened our eyes and hearts to the unrealistic expectations that have been thrust upon women for generations. Lee herself was mired in the Eighties, with her electric blue eyeshadows and anti-feminist rhetoric.
Just when one thinks pageants are as outdated as MTV’s Jersey Shore, however, a new beauty contest was announced in Hong Kong earlier this year. It’s unclear what the requirements are for joining “Miss Mask” – yes, that’s its name – but something tells me you don’t need perfect teeth to smoke your rivals. Then, in September, the new Miss Universe Singapore was crowned, showing us that beauty pageants continue to occupy a weird, awkward space in modern society.
The current Miss Universe Singapore, 21-year old business undergraduate Nandita Banna, is reported to believe in causes such as climate change and – in a cruel twist of irony – female empowerment. Of course, yours truly was keen on picking her brains and so reached out to her for an email interview.
In the email, Ms Banna said beauty pageants can indeed be empowering, by serving as a launchpad for one’s dreams.
“I think such competitions nowadays have evolved to focus less on beauty and more on providing strong and talented women with a platform to make a real impact in society,” she wrote. “The audience that these competitions bring in can be leveraged to push for social causes, raise funds and promote a better future for us. This empowers women who participate in such competitions to stand up for what they believe in and to dream bigger.”
Banna says participating in a pageant has also given her a much-needed confidence boost. “There were instances where I felt like I wasn’t going to do well, or I was nervous because I had never done something like this before. But bringing in a ton of confidence (whether it’s real or ‘fake it till you make it’ confidence) really helped when it was my turn to perform.”
It’s too soon to tell if Banna will be making a real change in the causes she believes in. Winning has definitely opened doors for her, though only to modelling agencies at the time of writing.
As for yours truly, it took me decades before I could partially free myself of the social conditioning that women need to look a certain way before they are considered worthy of attention. And, whenever I’m feeling extra rebellious, I saunter out of my house without a trace of makeup or sidle into a pair of baggy (and oh-so-comfy) trousers that make me look like an ageing rapper. Because what joy is there in life otherwise?
This article first appeared in the November 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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