Last Friday, 200 spectators gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe to crown the winner of the nation's fourth annual-ish Mr. Ugly pageant. The victor, Maison Sere, an unemployed 42-year-old sporting a handful of crooked teeth and torn overalls, beat out 36 competitors over two rounds of competition, walking away from the nightclub where the finals were held with a $500 cash prize. But unlike in previous years where everyone had fun, the media scratched its head over potential exploitation issues, and then everyone went on their merry ways, when Sere was crowned this year the audience erupted into shoving and heckling. The rabble-rousers were supporters of the pageant's runner-up, vegetable porter William Masvinu, who claimed that Sere was too handsome for the title. By the start of this week, Masvinu, who has won the competition twice before, had publicly demanded a do-over, claiming that Sere's ugliness was due to his teeth and the grotesque faces he pulled—not true, inherent repugnance.
Zimbabwe's Mr. Ugly competition began in 2011 as a pet project of David "Apama" Machowa, a local comedic dancer and entrepreneur. At first the contest only attracted a handful of entrants, and could only give out a first prize of $50—that year to one Brian Mateyazondo. But within a year, the competition had grown large enough, with official sanction from the government and the support of local bars and entertainers, that the prize money doubled—Masvinu walked away with $100 and a hotel voucher in his first win. The competition lapsed in 2014, but its absence inspired a resurgence of support that made the 2015 pageant the largest and best funded yet.
The pageant's popularity may seem offensive at first blush, given how blatantly it seems to use the physical difference of a few for the amusement of the many. But according to Apama, the pageant was created not to mock, but to celebrate perceived ugliness, giving people typically rejected in society a venue to be appreciated and cheered for who they are for a night instead.
"Looks are God given," the AP recently quoted Apama as saying. "We should all be proud of who we are."
According to Tamsen de Beer, a South African writer who penned the book on regional pageants in 2009 ( Miss Beautiful: South Africa in Pageants), this kind of issue-based or theoretically personally-empowering contest is fairly common in (at least) southern Africa. She mentions a competition called Mr. Dare, in which a local community elevated the social status of anyone willing to do something outrageous onstage—and wound up lionizing a very ugly man who'd usually be low in the social pecking order because he was willing to streak while making weird faces. Then there's Miss Gay South Africa International, which de Beer sees as an avenue for a group facing rampant discrimination to be appreciated for who they are and get a rare public platform to promote issues unique to their lives. And that's only the tip of the iceberg—the region has pageants for everything from Miss Gay Disco Queen to Little Miss Squatter Camp.
"In Angola, there was even a Miss Landmine," says de Beer. "Something that could be otherwise perceived as grotesque, the content of looking at that is around the benefit of the issue that's raised. That's a compelling reason for pageants to gain any kind of local traction."
De Beer likens this particular pageant to Victorian-era freak shows and would probably agree with the theory argued by Robert Bogdan in his book Freak Show, that while someone was definitely making money off of the differences of people with radically unique bodies in these venues, they actually seem to be places where more often than not "freaks" were able to reclaim their dignity and elevate themselves higher than they could offstage.
"Look at how happy they look," says de Beer. "There's no shame. It's more about: Look at me, my confidence. I'm fantastic. I can go anywhere … There's something about inverting a norm that makes this kind of thing compelling for participants as well as for audience members."
But according to Masvinu, this embrace of "ugliness" ought to (and was intended to) address core looks. Sere competed against him in 2013 and came in fourth, he argues. So if the competition is really about inherent, inborn ugliness there's no way that Sere should have won this year. Masvinu is especially offended that the judges said that Sere's teeth and faces were a key factor in their decision, as he does not consider this true ugliness—just a performance.
"I am naturally ugly," the AP quoted Masvinu as saying. "He is not. He is ugly only when he opens his mouth."
On the surface, Masvinu seems to have a point. De Beer admits that many pageants she's observed usually do have some shady machinations going on, in which judgments are more about local social concerns and popularity than the actual criteria of the event. (And in Masvinu's case, Apama and company could be tired of Masvinu's public whining about how his titles have failed to deliver him the sort of fame and fortune he'd assumed they'd bring.)
But if you poke his argument with a stick, it doesn't hold up. For one thing, Masvinu is arguably not that ugly himself. For another, he knew that aside from physical modeling, the event would feature a question and answer segment, meaning that persona and performance play a role. And in the past Masvinu (who works with a manager) has admitted to trying to find the right clothes and develop the right modeling choreography to maximize his own ugliness.
It makes sense that the competition would be as much about personality and performance as raw physical ugliness, according to de Beer, because that's how all competitions do it. In part that's because beauty and ugliness are subjective—it's hard to definitively score based on them alone. In part it also probably reflects a reticence to let Masvinu monopolize the title and the prize money to keep the competition interesting and give others a chance to rise to prominence. But mostly it's because pageants are really attempts to find a spokesperson for a cause, idea, or concept, rather than just meat markets selecting a prime cut (or here the foulest offal). There's an assumption, de Beer argues, that everyone who enters the pageant is probably ugly. (And there's an acknowledgement that the true ugliest people are probably too marginalized and scared to take part in a competition like this.) So the real purpose of Mr. Ugly isn't to find the sickest mug around. It's to find someone ugly yet charismatic who people can rally behind and who can go on to advance the stated goal of challenging perceptions of beauty while elevating himself via a platform his personality and persona deserve but to which he never had access.
By that logic, if Masvinu has a two-year monopoly and the judges thought he was coasting on his laurels, then the charismatic Sere deserved his win. He may not be objectively the ugliest man around, but it's really impossible to judge that definitively. Instead, he's a seemingly charming ugly man who might be able to turn a few heads (in a good way) and grow the popularity of the event. His selection makes it more likely that the next contest, to be hosted in Zimbabwe in 2017, will be an interesting, well-attended, and productive pageant. So in this bizarre, ugly squabble, this reporter backs Sere as the ugliest man in Zimbabwe and hopes that his tenure of spokesman of the aesthetically challenged in the nation is fruitful.
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