Business, Politics

Miss World takes Johannesburg by light breeze

By Branko Brkic 19 November 2009

For the second year running, Johannesburg is putting on a very expensive cattle-show of women in bikinis who are absolutely aching for world peace. But here’s the odd thing: a quick cross-section of women’s public representatives suggests women really don’t give much of a hoot.

The old days of castigating women for flesh-flaunting are over, and there is some support among prominent South African women for glamorous pageants, if not for the Miss World competition itself. However, there are also some residual concerns about the Miss World competition taking place in Johannesburg next month: why is the city paying a whopping R45m at this time for this kind of thing?

Cathy Lund, deputy editor of Cosmopolitan, thinks Miss World competitions are a bit “old school” and tend to be scripted, and very sponsor-heavy.

Yet people tend to make the same sort of generalisations and stereotypes about beauty pageants as they do about Cosmopolitan magazine: both are definitely more than they seem, she says.

Cosmo should know too, since several Miss South Africa’s have adorned the magazine. But it is true that South Africa has had some exceptional beauty queens who have successfully beaten back the accusations that their charity work is sugar-coating what is essentially a pony-show display. 

Melinda Shaw, editor of Heat magazine, forgives the Miss World competition on the basis that you can’t really castigate an event that tries to bring a bit of glamour into the world.

“They are a bit old fashioned for me, but I can see the attraction. We love looking at pretty specimens, and these are pretty specimens.”

The girls who participate in the competition do so because they are seeking to build a public platform on which to build a career of some sort. You can’t really judge anybody for trying to build a vocation, she says.

But given the indulgent though slightly lukewarm response of at least some of Johannesburg’s leading women to holding the event, what about using public money to fund the spectacle? Is this money well spent?

This issue is a bit more controversial. Lori Cohen, deputy editor of Marie Claire, is much more resolute about this topic.

“Beauty pageants have never had any real relevance or value to add to society. The majority of South Africans experience the frustration of poor service delivery daily – the idea that council tax money, that is desperately needed to alleviate poverty, is being used to fund Miss World is questionable and worrying,” she says.

Shaw agrees. In Johannesburg, where there are so many people out of work and so many other problems, she says the decision to spend the money on a beauty pageant is “ill-advised”.

Yet the city has a bit of an argument too. Lindiwe Mahlangu, CEO of Joburg Tourism Company, says the staging of Miss World carries great opportunity and prestige for a host city and promotes the country globally, with measurable positive effects.

For example, before Miss World 2008, Joburg was ranked at number 152 by the International Congress and Convention Association, but jumped 33 places to 120 after the event. JTC claims it was able to create 2,290 jobs during this period. (The Daily Maverick could not independently verify that claim.)

The Miss World contest organisers claim that with global television audience of more than a billion viewers, the Miss World contest is the world’s biggest annual television event, which, quite frankly, is difficult to believe.

The event is now in its 59th year, so it has a hefty pedigree, and doubtless it has some traction around the world, particularly because it cleverly tries to play into the notion of national pride – the competition is based on national representatives who parade around with sashes proclaiming the country they represent.

Yet there are two trends just visible behind the glitz: the competition is moving from developed world to developing world, and it’s slipping down in class. Once contestants were primarily drawn from a solidly middle-class base, hence the focus on manners, etiquette, bearing, conversational skills – and an almost religious abhorrence of grit and up-front interactive intelligence.

Now the competitors are drawn largely from working-class girls who, like male soccer playing counterparts, are desperately looking for a quick route out of the ghetto. The result is that when the mask is stripped away, competitors can be pretty rough and real.

Miss World competes with Miss Universe, a creation of showman property developer Donald Trump. The competition has just become embroiled in another sex-tape scandal with Miss Trinidad and Tobago and someone who looks awfully like Miss Japan (it isn’t) involved in a threesome with Miss Trinidad and Tobago’s boyfriend. The tape can be viewed here. (just kidding.) The controversy about Carrie Prejean, a Miss USA runner-up who now, it’s been discovered, did a whole bunch of naked picture shoots, falls into a similar category.

What’s more, US celebrity website, Gawker, this week filed a piece on how the elaborate rules which theoretically judge the “character and personality” of the contestants – because it’s not just about beauty, you understand – intended to narrow down the pool to the top 16 are a sham. Actually, Trump himself chooses, Gawker quotes an insider saying. Surprise!

The shift from developed world to developing world is visible both in the selection of the venues and the winners. Nine of the last 10 winners came from developing countries, and seven of the last 10 tournaments have been held in developing countries (assuming you include China as “developing”.)

This is a major contrast to the early years of the tournament when it was difficult for a black woman to compete, never mind win. The first black winner was in 2001. The same more or less applies to Asians.

Recently however, the wheel has turned, and now it seems tough for first-world women to get onto the podium.

The final will be televised live from the Gallagher Convention Centre on 12 December 2009. Let’s hope the Gauteng tourism board has factored in the risks, as well as the potential upside, involved in holding the event.

By Tim Cohen


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