August 23, 2009
It's time for the Miss Universe pageant to reinvent itself or bugger off.
SHINY locks hair-sprayed into perfect bouffants bounce in slow motion. Oiled, sun-kissed limbs emerge confidently from the slits of Swarovski-encrusted gowns. Botoxed, freckle-free cheeks frame lipsticked pouts that part to reveal pearls of prosthodontic perfection. There's not a lazy eye, hooked nose or knocked-knee in sight. Greetings from the sunny Bahamas, where tonight one lucky girl will be crowned Miss Universe 2009 in a glittering celebration of narrowly defined beauty ideals, as antiquated as marshmallow sofas and gherkin canapes.
Cambodia couldn't be further away from the gaggle of plastic dolls and horny billionaires moulding their coiffures on Paradise Island. But until earlier this month it was at the forefront of challenging the concept of pageant perfection. Miss Landmine, a beauty pageant for women maimed by landmine explosions, was set to take place in Phnom Penh in December. That is, until the Cambodian Government called it off in an effort to ''protect the honour and dignity of people with disabilities''.
It seems girls on crutches revealing their stumps is most undignified, a veritable catwalk cancer. It has been dubbed a ''freak show'' by critics. I mean, who does pageant organiser Morten Traavik think he is portraying these impoverished amputees as role models? A beauty pageant is certainly not the platform to boost the self-esteem of ''imperfect'' women while alerting the world to their plight.
And why consult the contestants before cancelling the much-anticipated event? They might say they found the process empowering, that it made them feel pretty and accepted, and that sure would throw a steel tiara in the works. Besides, they're disabled, so they're obviously being exploited. It takes two legs to make a self-empowering decision, doesn't it?
While these ignorant misconceptions infuriated me, I'll admit initially I didn't know what to make of the Miss Landmine competition. I found the title slightly crass, and a photo of a contestant holding a plastic gun on the pageant website misguided. One associates pageant prizes with diamonds, facials and haute couture, not custom-made prosthetic limbs.
But then I read about activist and pageant finalist Song Kosal, who lives in pain due to an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. Kosal said of the event cancellation: ''It meant that I, a disabled person, lost my right of expression.''
Inspired by such ''brave, beautiful friends and most respected collaborators'', Traavik wants to continue the competition online. I say, good on that kooky Norwegian - it's about time we got a generous dollop of purpose and side of compassion with our pageant pie.
Another welcome venture challenging aesthetic homogenisation comes from our own backyard. In an industry recently tarnished by tasteless stunts and broken promises, a Melbourne radio show is running a competition that will see three Australians with impairments or disabilities take part in a fashion event to promote the idea that beauty is more than tits, teeth, hair and hunger. Entrants include Carly, who suffers from erythroderma, which leaves her body covered in scaly red skin; Dhea who lost all her hair at the age of seven due to alopecia; and wheelchair bound Fatma who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. All strong, inspirational, beautiful women.
Initiatives such as these force us to reassess our shallow concept of beauty. At the opposite end of the emery board, traditional beauty pageants promote the idea that beauty only comes in a perfectly proportioned package wrapped in a sequinned flag. It's no wonder they've become irrelevant and antiquated. Just look at the bigoted and insensitive views expressed by recent pageant princesses, most notably Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean, who announced that she only supports ''opposite marriage'' because that's what her parents believe in, and the reigning Miss Universe 2008, Dayana Mendoza (left), who blogged about Guantanamo Bay being ''a loooot of fun!'' She no doubt thinks the water boarding that occurred there involved speedboats, polka-dot two-pieces and strawberry daiquiris.
As for Miss Universe Australia, Rachael Finch, I do hope she finds herself adorned in a satin sash and 30 carats of bling tonight. It would be a fitting tribute to the ranga ostrich who sacrificed his life for her national costume headdress.
But my obligatory patriotism aside, I think it's time for Miss Universe to reinvent itself or bugger off. Please, Donald Trump, no more flogging a formulaic vestige of a bygone era. Stick to buying real estate and marrying gold-diggers. I'll take inspiration on crutches over rouge and rhinestones any day.
Jacqui Bunting is a Melbourne writer.