9 February 2012

Dear Pageant Girl,

I never thought I would ever hear myself say this to my fellow Miss Universe pageant lovers but…remember the good old days?

The good old days of the sound proof booth?

The good old days where finalists shared the same final question?

The good old days when all previous scores were wiped once you reached the top 3 and the finalists competed on an equal footing?

Younger pageant fans laugh at us oldies when we talk about the golden days of pageants – from 1990 to 2002.

Allow me to tell you what made this period so special.

These were the years where women were women.  The days where women fought for the crown – but not in the way we see on TV these days.

After competing with their superficial beauty, out came their ultimate weapons – their intelligence and personality presented beautifully in the final question round.

Prior to 2003, the finalists were judged on the content and delivery of their answer to the final question. Prior to 2003 there was an element of the cerebral. The most beautiful woman didn’t always win, but the smartest, most eloquent and in many ways, the most inspirational took the crown. 

For many years we saw front runners stumble and fall at this last hurdle, to have the underdog snatch the crown.

Those were the days when beauty queens were not just beauty queens – they were role models. 

The days where brains and maturity, not just looks, mattered.

Have we lost the integrity of pageants, dumbed them down to what we always feared – a meat parade?

Whatever happened to substance? Whatever happened to the days when you won because of your intelligence, your conviction and your personality?

Who could forget 1994 – possibly the best top 3 in Miss Universe history. A classic case of the two titans brought down by the underdog, and deservedly so! 

The glamazonic, glitzy beauties of Colombia and Venezuela outshone by the grace, wisdom and quiet inner beauty of Sushmita Swho brought the first ever Miss Universe crown to India. 



Based on beauty and glamour, India stood little chance against Colombia and Venezuela but as soon as she opened her mouth and delivered her answer to a question that would leave many ordinary mortals speechless, she turned the competition 360 degrees, transforming her from an underdog into a sentimental favourite – all in a matter of minutes.

I remember the shock of many in 1999, when Miriam Quiambao, the hot favourite for the crown was caught by a controversial final question only to be overtaken by a country that was not even in anyone’s top ten list. 



Personally, Dear Pageant Girl disagrees with all three answers in 1999 (Spain would have been our pick, and NO, Miss Universe should not be allowed to continue with her reign if she was to become pregnant) but this is a perfect example, that despite the content of your answer, if you have conviction, and the delivery is powerful enough to pack a punch, the crown is yours.

And the best answer in Miss Universe history, in my humble opinion, once again comes from India. 

In what was a throwback to 1994, Lara Dutta delivered the most powerful answer to an age old debate.



To this day Lara Dutta presents a perfect study in mentally preparing yourself for these competitions; that beyond the sequins, the make up, the hair spray and the spray tans, it is what’s inside that counts.

The moment she opened her mouth I thought “if she runs for presidency, she has my vote”.

Then of course, we have the slapstick queens. The women who had so much personality that you couldn’t help but hand them the crown. 

Our controversial Queen of 96, Alicia Machado delivered this sassy answer to the question “what do you think men can learn from women?”



Then there’s Miss Universe 1997 – Brook Mahealani Lee.

After competing several times for the Miss Hawaii USA crown and eventually winning the right to compete in Miss Universe, Lee had nothing to lose. 

Responding to what admittedly was a silly question “If there were no rules in your life for one day and you could be outrageous, what would you do?”

Brook responded with an equally silly answer showing the world that Miss Universe does not necessarily have to be uber intelligent, philosophical or for that matter, serious.  Miss Universe can also be fun!



Then, in 2003, Miss Universe got trendy.

The uniform final question was eliminated and the individual contestant questions were introduced.

Slowly but surely substance and charisma were diluted as froth and bubbles took over.

Was the balance of style versus substance now doomed?

Have we moved to the age where fortune favours some for their aesthetic strengths while others are left floundering?

The most beautiful woman, but not necessarily the most charismatic, intelligent or articulate was crowned.

Back in the day, it was easier for us of the old guard to argue the merits of beauty pageants. 

Because of the question and answer segment, it was easier to defend the relevance of such competitions – that beauties WITH brains do exist!

Remember, in those days, once you made the final three, all previous scores were eliminated and the top three competed with a clean slate – on equal footing. 

The crown went to the woman with the best answer, not the best boobs.

Back in the golden days, the women were expected to be empowering, inspirational, intelligent and articulate as well as beautiful. The kind of women that young girls wanted to be.

As glamourous as these women were, you knew and felt their “realness” the moment they opened their mouths for this crucial moment of the competition. 

Then, that level playing field, the great equalizer – was killed off for a sexier, glitzier and snazzier production.

In its bid to be current and “of the times” has the pageant industry lost whatever shred of credibility it had to begin with?

Is it once again the public’s fault that beauty pageants have had to dumb themselves down for our own entertainment purposes?

The reality is, the new, revamped Miss Universe production is a reflection of the times – a response to what viewers want to see – superior beauty with mediocre substance.

Not taking away from our beauty queens of late, but put most of our current queens up against our golden age divas and I can guarantee you that our young beauties would no doubt emerge from the battle battered, with egos bruised.

But as I reminisce on the golden days, I remind myself of a line from one of my favourite poems, Desiderata, “take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth”. 

Especially that second line – that at some point I need to accept the fact that we may never go back to those glory days and that it is time to make way for the new. 

So I move forward but with much fear and trepidation. 

Have I got it all wrong?  Is it all relative?  Will the next generation of pageant movers and shakers look at our queens of today as their golden girls?

Maybe. Maybe this golden era is a time where beauty queens were indeed at their most beautiful. An era where style ruled over substance.

And if this is the direction we are heading, then I am nervous. Very nervous.