Can an Empowering Pageant Exist? We Went Backstage at Miss Universe to Find Out

Updated 01/31/18

This past Sunday, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters of South Africa was crowned Miss Universe 2017. Did you see the show? Do you even care?

It’s an interesting time to be a woman. Unequal pay, sexual harassment, fighting for equal human rights—we’ve reached our boiling point in letting unfair treatment slide by. Being complacent means being complicit, and now more than ever are we more vocal and forceful in making society change. So where do beauty pageants—a contest the public thinks is all about woman's appearance—belong on the spectrum on feminism? Do they even belong? Why do we glamorize and televise a contest that seems to solely exist to define and reward a woman’s physical attributes and poise?

I went backstage at Miss Universe 2017 as a guest of  in Las Vegas, Nevada, to find out.

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Why These Women Compete

This year especially, it is clear that the Miss Universe Organization and the women competing are very aware of all the criticism. In fact, it’s almost like they’re too aware. Any time I asked a contestant or someone who worked for the organization if they considered pageants to be feminist, they answered without flinching and with strong conviction that it most definitely is. It was almost like they were prepared for the question.

“The more you look into it, you see the strong women who are representing their countries, and it's really about putting yourself out there,” says Miss Great Britain, Anna Burdzy. “I’m a human rights master’s degree student, and so I see myself having such a platform to raise so much awareness to various, not just charities, but causes. We’re all so privileged. There are 92 of us with incredible platforms. We can share throwing a pebble into the sea and watching the ripples, and because we have such platforms we’re kind of making waves.

Especially being a woman now, it’s kind of just empowering women. Paying it forward, you know, we’re empowered so we want to empower the next person, and she can empower the next person. And that’s how you make change.

“I secretly always wanted to compete, we just didn’t have the financial resources growing up,” says Miss USA, Kára McCullough. “There was a point where I didn’t want to be judged for liking beauty too much. But when I was at work, I wasn’t changing lives. I wanted to do something different. I decided to jump into the Miss DC pageant, and my life just changed from then on. I was able to have accolades—philanthropic, humanitarian, and educational. Now we know beauty and brains aren’t mutually exclusive.”

The Miss Universe Organization empowers women to develop the confidence they need to achieve their personal best. A confident woman has the power to make real change, starting in her local community with the potential to reach a global audience. We encourage every woman to get out of her comfort zone, be herself, and continue to define what it means to be Confidently Beautiful.

On paper, it’s hard to argue with the often-overlooked charitable aspect of the competition. The winner of Miss Universe wins an apartment in New York, a year’s salary (which is not disclosed), and a global platform to bring awareness to whatever humanitarian work she chooses. Last year’s Miss Universe, Iris Mittenare, is a dental student who spent her year raising funds and working for Smile Train, an organization that performs cleft repairs for children in third-world countries. She traveled the world helping and operating on these kids.

Some of the contestants were involved in charities in the past and see the competition as a way to further causes they feel passionate about.

“I do a lot of charity work at home, and I knew that by doing this [pagent], it would be helping my charities,” says Miss Malta, Tiffany Pisani. (She has a charity called Animal Guardian that brings awareness to the killing of stray animals and another charity for kids with cancer.) "So I thought, why not? I'll go give it a try and try my best, and in the meanwhile, it's helped my charities at home which I'm absolutely thrilled about.”

The official mission statement of the organization emphasizes the global reach but focuses more on “achieving confidence” rather than calling out any humanitarian possibilities:

“The Miss Universe Organization empowers women to develop the confidence they need to achieve their personal best. A confident woman has the power to make real change, starting in her local community with the potential to reach a global audience. We encourage every woman to get out of her comfort zone, be herself, and continue to define what it means to be Confidently Beautiful.”

However, at the taping, every video shown between the live shots was of various contestants talking about the charity work they did in their home countries or what ideal they were personally advocating. Current winner Nel-Peters spoke of a time where she fought off kidnappers and how that encouraged her to get involved with organizations that help girls defend themselves. Miss Colombia, Laura Gonzalez, spoke about being bullied as a child for being overweight and how she advocates against bullying and embracing one’s body. Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, was shown risking her own life when she helped the U.S. forces in the early 2000s during the Iraq war.

No longer are we just watching girls play with makeup and stand there to look pretty—when the organization means these girls want to change the world, they will show you exactly that—something we can thank the new management for. When President Donald Trump sold the to WME/IMG, the talent agency  Business Insider that it wanted to do a complete overhaul that focused on the contestant's personalities rather than just their looks. 

Even girls who initially join for just the exposure learned through the process that it’s really not enough. “I got into pageants because I just wasn’t getting the modeling and acting jobs that I wanted. It opened those doors after,” says former Miss USA, Olivia Jordan. “But I learned through it to use my voice more. I helped the Hope Act for Alzheimer’s get passed, which helped give care to families [struggling with the disease]. I realized that this is such power that it’s such a waste to not use it for something good.”

But even with all this, the live portion of competition itself plays into the stereotypical pageant scene that we’re accustomed to seeing: the dramatic final round questions, the evening gown competition, and the controversial swimsuit round, where the “are beauty pageants empowering or not?” debate really lies.

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The Swimsuit Issue

The swimsuit portion does seem to be the biggest criticism beauty pageants face. How can a competition be feminist and empowering when its most famous elimination round seems to purely objectify the contestants based on their bodies? 

started in 1952 as a "bathing beauty" competition, and it wasn't until 1960 that an interview portion was even introduced. (The interview portion was cut in 2000, making the competition all about swimsuits and evening-gown, and then brought back a couple of years later). But for those competing, it’s the public that’s got it all wrong.

We have the freedom of choice to take a picture in a swimsuit and put it on our social media. We have a freedom of choice if some girls want to be a model and pose in a magazine in a swimsuit. Why is it any different that we're on a stage in a swimsuit? That doesn't change anything, because that doesn't change who we are as an individual and our beliefs,” says Miss Canada, Lauren Howe.

Some girls backstage compared it to the Victoria’s Secret show (which, yes, has its own set of problems). But for them, it seems that Victoria’s Secret models themselves are celebrated for walking around in lingerie and seen as pop culture icons while pageant girls are criticized for wanting to show off their bodies in swimsuits.

“I think we need to let [the girls’] voices be heard, that they’re not doing this because they have to, they’re doing it because they want to,” says Miss Universe judge Megan Olivi.

Naysayers will say the difference between posting swimsuit photos on one’s Instagram and even the Victoria’s Secret show comes down to the fact Miss Universe contestants, unlike Victoria's Secret models, are ultimately given a score or rating based on how “good” their body looks. However, Olivi says the judging has nothing to do with judging the physical body and how it looks; the official criteria is all about how a girl’s confidence shines through. “You’ve got women who are naturally super, super skinny, and then you’ve got women who are muscular and athletic, and you’ve got women who yes, have those perfect proportions, and you’ve got everyone in between on the scale, and I think that was really neat,” she says.

“For me, I was just looking to see not if they are going to, you know, walk a runway for Donatella Versace one day; I was looking to see are they confident in themselves. It’s [like] they’re saying this is how I look, and if you look like this too that's great, and they do it with a real smile on their face.”

But does confidence really need to be shown by wearing a bikini? “This is something about showing your confidence and your self-esteem within yourself, and not [because you want] attention from a man.It’s not ‘I’m in a bikini for some guys to check me out on TV.’ It’s ‘Hey, I want you to know that this is what I look like, and I’m happy with it, you be happy with yourself too,’” she says. 

I don't think I would participate in beauty pageants if I knew the scoring was about the way I looked in a bikini and nothing about my intelligence and who I am as a person.

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The 60%

After attending the show, I realized that many of the misconceptions about pageants, especially this one in particular, can really be attributed to the fact that the biggest portion of the score isn’t even televised. When speaking to Olivi, who is a UFC host and reporter and first-time judge at Miss Universe, she tells me that the preliminary rounds where they interview each and every single girl make up for 60% of the total score.

“We got the opportunity to interview every single one of those 92 contestants. So that was really eye-opening because most of these women are going to go out there and change the world,” she says. “I think it’s really cool because someone who didn't grow up around pageants might not know that, you know? You might have this kind of preconceived notion about it, but it was really neat to find out, wow, these women are not only beautiful, but they’re intelligent and they’re doing things to help the community around them.”

She continues to explain that the questions they ask during these preliminary interviews help the judges get to know the girls as people and see what they can bring to their communities and communities across the world. They want to see what these girls can do for themselves and other women. The contestants themselves seem to value the weight of these personal interviews as well.

“I think all people see is bikinis, or they don’t even see it because they don’t watch it, but they think bikinis and evening gowns,” says Miss Great Britain, Anna Burzdy. “Sixty percent of this is based on your interview, which shows, especially under this new ownership, they really focus on the girl and her message and how she can empower other people. It’s powerful. It’s really powerful.” 

“I don’t think I would participate in beauty pageants if I knew the scoring was about the way I looked in a bikini and nothing about my intelligence and who I am as a person,” says Miss Canada, Lauren Howe.

 

Sixty percent of this is based on your interview, which shows, especially under this new ownership, they really focus on the girl and her message and how she can empower other people. It’s powerful. It’s really powerful.

Miss Universe Means Something More to Other Countries Outside of the U.S

I have always been pretty neutral when it came to pageants. I felt that if girls wanted to celebrate getting dressed up, they had every right to, even if pageant life just wasn’t for me. But the sentiment of many people around me is that it’s outdated, one-dimensional, and unnecessary. The biggest shock to me after attending the taping and going backstage was that this was not a universal feeling.

It is quite the opposite in other countries, where these girls are treated with the same respect as Olympic athletes. You can see it in the passion and dedication of the fans of many of the Asian and Latin American countries. To set the scene for you, the fans of Miss Philippines and Miss Mexico got into a physical altercation in the lobby outside the venue (no one was sure what exactly was said, but after a lot of chanting back and forth, all of a sudden there was shoving).

When Miss Mexico didn’t place in the top 16, there were many boos. When Miss Philippines, who arguably had the most support verbally and physically in that audience, didn’t place in the top five, you felt the mood shift in the theater; the excitement waned significantly.

By comparison, Miss USA had a decent crowd, but nothing compared to the people who came to support the Asian and Latin American countries. When I ask Olivi why this might be, she says her best guess is that we have too much going on in the U.S. “You’ve got tons of professional athletes, actors, musicians, and I think that everyone tries to exceed expectations here in terms of education or whatever it may be and work hard at what their goals are,” she says. “Some countries just have this tradition of the pageant as well. While, yes, we’ve had it here for a long time, I don’t think it’s as hailed here. Some countries just, you know, it is everything to them.”

We do have the privilege to look down on pageants because we have other outlets to achieve our dreams. There are more opportunities and education in the U.S. compared to smaller and underdeveloped countries out there. "It’s also massive exposure for my country because nobody really knows about it,” says Pisani. “I feel that Malta never stands a chance in these beauty pageants, and I thought it was quite an honorable title to hold.”

Interestingly enough, there is one country that has seemed to openly denounce Miss Universe more so than America. “It's actually not aired in the UK because feminists had it banned in the ’70s,” says Burdzy. “Whereas if they knew what we do now and that we're all feminists and the work that we're doing, then they would think twice.”

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What Now?

When asking the girls about how they defined beauty, they all wanted to make it clear that for them personally and when it comes to the competition, it has absolutely nothing to do with how they physically look.

“Everyone has their own standards of beauty. For me, it’s not about how somebody looks, because there are 92 women here and we look totally different, we’re all beautiful. I really don’t think that’s the most important thing. I think the judges are looking for someone who shines from within,” says Miss Philippines, Rachel Peters.

“I think beauty is about celebrating the things that make you unique—things you might have previously thought were flaws. And I don’t believe in flaws. To me, beauty is about being ambitious, being kind, being intelligent, being generous, and just what you’re doing for the people around you. Are you lifting them up? And we all had that moment where we look at someone who on the surface looks beautiful, but shortly after knowing them that goes away. Everybody knows how to do hair and makeup, and if you don’t know, you can learn.

You can’t learn how to be a good person,” says Howe.

“I think it absolutely comes from within. It’s what you do, it’s your kindness, and it’s whether you help other people and how you treat others. Everybody sees beauty differently, but you can’t really deny whether somebody is kind and good and has a good heart. It definitely comes from within. That’s another thing with all of these girls—it’s not just external. Obviously, it is a beauty pageant, but it needs to stop being branded as just a beauty pageant,” says Burdzy.

Every single contestant I spoke with was highly intelligent, kind, and—forgive the cliché—radiated an aura that goes beyond the highlighter they use or sparkling dress they wear. I was surprised to find that I genuinely wanted to be around them and listen to what they have to say. These are the girls I am now following on Instagram for inspiration instead of some fashion It girl of the moment.

But somehow, the show's contexts gets lost in the three-hour spectacle that gets televised. I left the competition feeling that Miss Universe could be an amazing platform used to spur real change in the world if we were shown more of who these women are and the causes they care about rather than just the glitz and glamour. While the swimsuit and evening gown portion are supposedly meant to show confidence and body acceptance (although we should note, the body types in this year’s competition didn’t show much, if any diversity), the physical aspect still overshadows it.

If the organizations and contestants want to keep these portions of the competition in the name of empowerment, they need to show the personalities of the contestants more in order to truly hit the mark. Why aren’t the preliminary rounds televised or incorporated somehow? The videos of the contestants talking about their causes is a great step forward, but we can push it further.

“I definitely had some preconceived notions and I love that all the women broke all of those immediately, as soon as I read their bios and interacted with them,” says Olivi. “The world I come from, a lot of people have preconceived notions about our athletes or what we do, and it’s great to be able to be able to see, wow, everybody has their strong point and the reason why they’re doing this, and it’s a positive thing.”

“I don’t know any girl who doesn’t want to be Miss Universe. Why wouldn’t you?” asks Pisani.  And after spending two days with these incredible women and learning more about the competition and its intentions than I ever could have thought, I see her point. After all, if you were given a year to make a true difference in the world for a cause you believed in, how could you say no?

Tell us what you think. Do you think beauty pageants can still exist in today's political climate? Sound off in the comments below!

*This trip was paid for by CHI haircare. Views and opinions expressed are solely that of the author. 

Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to  (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.

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