Ten minutes after turning up to the local qualifier for the Miss World competition in South Australia, I'm bored.
The event marks the first time South Australia has held a Miss World beauty pageant: a competition that bills itself as one of the classier pageants in that its contestants compete based on intelligence and personality, as well as their looks. Its tagline is "beauty with a purpose."
So, for that reason, there was a chance the whole thing could be vaguely interesting. Sure it wouldn't be on the same scale as the international final that was once upon a time capable of sparking riots in Nigeria. That was protested by feminists rightfully angry at the idea of women being paraded like cattle. But, at the very least, South Australia's attempt may have been a way to learn more about gender relations.
Gathered inside on a Friday afternoon are the local beautiful people. The vibe is the same light and fluffy hometown feel you get from any regional charity event, only a bit more up market. Outside, the guys serving the wine who sponsored the event make small talk about how gorgeous the venue is. And it is, especially compared to rival pageants like Miss Universe, which run its qualifiers out in suburban shopping centers.
The show begins as the host takes the stage. Sixteen women dressed in evening wear appear on the catwalk one by one, introducing a fact about themselves. "Big smile," the MC says as another woman steps onto the catwalk. "Everyone's happy to be here."
Ever since Miss World founder, Eric Morley, died in 2000 and his wife, Julia, took charge, she's done her best to strip the overt sexism out of the competition and adapt it to the new millennium. Today, the pageant is supposed to be all about "beauty with a purpose." It sends its hopefuls down a catwalk wearing evening dresses, not bikinis.
It doesn't matter whether it's the international final, or the lowest regional qualifier, the idea is the audience is supposed to get to know these women. But it can be a little hard in such a highly scripted, hour-long event. Each woman takes ten steps down a catwalk to share no more than her 50 word bio. Later she'll answer a single question to find out what she thinks of the world.
And it doesn't take long before the famed Q&A section of the competition, where the questions are drawn at random. Some are soft, and others are hard. One woman is asked where she would like to travel in the world. She answers Brazil. That's it. Another woman is asked if it should be compulsory to vaccinate children. She hedges her bets with a definite maybe or maybe not. Some people have allergies, she says.
The most interesting answer comes from a woman who is asked what challenges modern women are faced with. "Having to live up to the visions men have of us," she says. She goes on to say that those ideas need to be thrown off. It's the closest the audience of well-dressed, thoroughly attractive people get to hearing the word "feminism" that afternoon.
There was a time when Miss World was controversial. Two decades before the first wet T-shirt contest was held, Eric Morley organized a swimsuit competition back in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, and a Swedish woman named Kirsten Håkansson won. She was crowned Miss World in a bikini, and the whole scene was enough to freak out religious people the world over, up to and including the pope.
The idea of judging a woman based on her beauty naturally pissed off a lot of other women. Their protests of the international final peaked in 1970, the same year a black woman won for the first time. Feminists disrupted the show, and its host, Bob Hope, as he asked women to spin around during the bikini round, so the judges could get a full, 360-degree view.
Although the occasional protest still gets held, like at the international final in 2011 that marked the competition's 60th anniversary, anyone who talks about objectification or sexism these days gets to hear how the whole thing is done for charity. Miss World raised an impressive $600 million internationally for children's charities since it started, according to the press release. South Australia's show was raising money for children's charity Variety.
But no matter how much Miss World says it is adapting and stripping out the overt sexism, it cannot escape the fact that a beauty pageant is, in essence, an elaborate public fuckability contest. It's a point hard that's hard to ignore when the day's two finalists do nothing to challenge the traditional sense of what is good looking.
As I leave, I'm left wondering how Miss World and other beauty pageants like it continue to exist at all. Why bother? In a world where instant access to Tinder, YouPorn, and even Google Images at least feels honest, turning up for a Miss World contest is like being in the live audience of The Bachelor: inherently creepy and mild to the point of banality.
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