What we learned at Miss Universe Australia 2013
This thought occupied my mind for roughly 90% of the time I spent at the Australian finals of the 2013 Miss Universe competition. (The other 10% was made up of an even mixture of “What am I doing here?” and “This is way too overstimulating. Please, feed me more wine.”)
But I was underdressed, there was no arguing with that. The 300-odd of us loitering in the lobby of the Sofitel Melbourne, ready to witness the crowning of Miss Australia 2013, were made up of men who looked geared for a state dinner and ladies who looked like they were about to audition for Miss Universe themselves. Tuxedoes were in, as were full length ball gowns, shimmering as they hung off cosmetically impeccable women who all seemed to stand a full head taller than me.
And then there was me, a suit jacket and grey, vaguely ironed shirt only partly counteracting the worn, dark blue jeans and decaying black Cons that I had substituted in for formal legwear. Smart up top, casual down below. Compared to the rest of the crowd, I looked positively homeless.
In my defence, it is Miss Universe. A Donald Trump backed homage to finely pointed, finely tuned beauty, clarified to a point where the slight imperfections which otherwise define human beauty are strangely absent. It’s less beauty, in that ineffable sense that catches your breath as you watch a moonlit waterfall tumble into endless nothing, than it is beauty, the type you might be able to dial up or down on a character in a video game. I presumed this evening would have all the depth of a Gossip Girl episode. Smart casual might be giving the whole thing too much credit.
In Australia we tend to approach the entire idea of beauty pageants with an assumption of C-grade glitziness, if not outright sleaze. We struggle to differentiate between something like Miss Universe and the Clipsal 500 bikini model competition. I thought there was every chance that the clientele would be the sort to holler at women in the street; parading women down a runway in their swimsuits seems like a socially sanctioned excuse to do just that. But no. With tickets starting at $300 the hollering set was largely excluded. I, quite evidently, also should have been excluded too, but that’s what you get when you invite the media in: ignorant slovenliness. They should just be glad I wasn’t wearing one of those hilarious tuxedo t-shirts.
Precision is everything in the Miss Universe competition. Not merely from the women involved, although they show a degree of lockstep choreography that would put most Soviet military marches to shame, but also from the event itself. The whole thing is burnished to a bright, impossible sheen that matches the competitors themselves. Opportunities for improvisation are few and far between. Certain lines are repeated throughout: “the glitz, the glamour”, "the crown, worth over $150k". Sponsors are name-checked again and again, in the right order, with the right vocal emphasis. There’s too much money at stake, it seems, to leave anything to chance.
Seated at the table of platinum sponsor DMK, a skincare company that boasts an emphasis on biochemistry and a 70-year-old founder who looks uncannily like he’s in his mid-30s, early buzz settled on Victorian Olivia Wells, a medicine student who’d recently spent time doing charity work in Tonga. When, a few minutes later, another of the contestants used her 30-second opening statement to announce that her hobbies included “scrapbooking”, it became increasingly obvious why Wells would make such an appealing prospect. Although, I was assured that compared to Miss World, where the emphasis is on well-roundedness, here the competition was about beauty and beauty alone. That’s just the kind of thing Donald Trump is into. Olivia would have to do more than merely save the world if she wanted to win – before the night started she was a 55-1 rank outsider.
The competition itself is split into four phases: introduction, swimsuit, evening wear and question and answer. The talent component was sadly absent, again being something that only Miss Worlds need to think about.
The introductions sees the girls, one by one, coming up to the microphone and delivering a brief statement describing who they are, and why they want to win. There are interior designers and accountants, surfers and scrapbookers. One wants to replace Liz Hayes on 60 Minutes. Another wants to host Getaway. Wearing identical dresses, with largely identical hair and idealised forms of beauty, I realise at the end that I can only identify about 1 in 10 of them. I may have beauty blindness.
The swimsuit section begins the competition proper: 30 similarly striking women in 30 largely indistinguishable, colour-matched bikinis striding down a runway in high heels. My mind involuntarily pitches up the image of Dr Evil’s FemBots. They gather in precise rows at the base of the stage, hands on hips, smiles fixed with the force of cement, and 20 of them are promptly evicted from the competition. This was apparently based on interviews the girls had done with the judges in the days leading up to the event, but the seeming arbitrariness of it all is winding. The losers leave the stage, smiles as immovable as Earth, and the final ten do one more lap of the runway. Olivia has made it through.
Evening wear begins with the girls that didn’t make it being forced to do a full tour of the stage in their fanciest gowns. As the saying goes: No rest for the wicked or the losers of beauty pageants. They all look stunning and individual and a much needed dose of humanity seems to enter proceedings. They’re also playing Rhianna’s ‘Diamonds’ and that shit’s just emotional, y’know? At one point I think to myself, “This is just like RuPaul's Drag Race, but with vaginas”, which probably indicates more than anything precisely how infrequently I think about beauty pageants. But it is also a compliment because RuPaul’s Drag Race is AMAZING. The ten finish the parade and an envelope containing the final five names is handed to the MC – Marsi Fernandez, Tegan Martin, Kristy Coulcher, Mary Vitinaros and Olivia Wells.
[As the five finalists leave the stage, the 20 first culled come back on and do a dance in Novo Shoes to something that sounds a lot like Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ but is not actually Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’. “Novo Shoe Ambassadors” or not, they just ain’t worth the full royalties.]
The question and answer section is really the only part of the entire show where anything is left to chance. A judge is picked randomly and they ask a pre-prepared question. One question for each contestant. This is of course the giddy ritual that once led to this:
And more recently this:
I find myself surprised by the intensity of the questions on offer. Fernandez gets asked about casual racism in Australia. She provides few insights, basically proclaiming that it doesn’t exist because we’re multicultural. She’s done and the crowd knows it, providing what could only be described as “polite applause”. The second question is on gay marriage, the third on violence against women in the wake of the Nigella Lawson incident, the fourth about combating childhood obesity. The fact that a professionally thin woman is being asked about obesity is an irony I feel may be lost on much of the audience. Olivia strides up last and is asked what disadvantaged communities she’d like to help if she became Miss Universe. If this pageant were ten-pin bowling, then she’d just been given the ramp and gutter guards. The sound of the other contestants’ teeth grinding together in frustration is almost audible. She’s won. They all know it. Although you’d never be able to tell just by looking at their smiles. (I’m later told that during rehearsals the girls were grouped into bunches of five and had to practice looking happy as somebody else took the crown. They’re nothing if not professional.)
Olivia wins, surprising nobody. She weeps tears of joy and looks legitimately shocked. Unlike many of the entrants, you got the feeling she’d never really considered her beauty the fodder of a lifelong career. This is perhaps what made her so appealing in the first place – a certain strain of unpractised imperfection that startled against the glossy backdrop of the rest of the competition. She seemed real in a pit of unreality and her victory seems like a victory of some broader principle, some greater triumph of authenticity against the supposed facileness of beauty pageantry. I’m suddenly intoxicated by the occasion – by the camaraderie of the other contestants, by their passion, by the ceremony, by Olivia herself. By how much it clearly meant to everyone involved. We applaud and applaud. Then a woman leans across to me and says, “Ugh. Did you see her walk? Has she never worn high heels? She’ll never win in Moscow.”
Precision is everything.