Beauty in a bubble

2011-12-17 11:52

‘So what’s the buzz around Miss SA this year?” asks one lady at dinner at Sun City the night before the pageant. “Didn’t you hear? The buzz is there’s no buzz,” jokes a man nearby.

It’s true, of course.

Despite the new, improved televised recordings and an ever-slick PR campaign from owners Sun International, the crowning of the “face of the nation” is increasingly seen as irrelevant.

I understand why that’s the case in, say, London, where pageants have been picketed for years for being male-owned enterprises that judge a woman by her looks and create negative role models.

“They do Miss UK in the ballroom at the Grand Hotel for a couple of hundred people,” says Miss SA TV producer Mark West.

“Don’t even bother asking a person on the street who the titleholder is.”

But it’s not the same in other parts of the world. Since Donald Trump bought Miss Universe and Eric Morley’s Miss World found financial muscle in China (where a stadium in the shape of a tiara was specially built), the international bikini fests are still each returning more than a billion TV viewers. Ratings show a dramatic spike at the start of the swimsuit section.

In Muslim Malaysia, the pageants are rerun on TV for months. Miss Russias are newsmakers of the years – fuelled by sagas of shoplifting, drug taking and sex tapes.In most African countries, the queens are toasted by the first lady, streets are lined and flowers are thrown.

When Botswana’s Miss Universe Mpule Kwelagobe returned for an event the other day, there was such a crush she was literally held hostage at the Mahalapye Youth Park.

But nowhere is crazier than Latin America. The four-hour Miss Venezuela extravaganza attracts more viewers than the Soccer World Cup.

Contestants attend a “booty camp”, where celebrity cosmetic surgeons add ching to their smiles, enlarge their boobs and tuck or suck away at the rest.

They’ve won more international titles than any other country.South Africa, by contrast, grooms its contestants with life skills and political smarts.It makes no bones about looking for a “youth leader” and “brand ambassador” who will also hopefully be physically stunning and win Miss Universe, injecting some much-needed brand equity into its investment.“So here we go, the search for the girl with the best-looking inner beauty in the land,” I say to one of the organisers ahead of the Miss SA Teen final.She clucks her tongue. “It’s about finding a role model,” she replies, “don’t be so cynical.

”So I settle in and try to keep my cynicism in check. It’s just a beauty pageant, after all.

Somehow I make it through the opening number – with its neon sportswear and legwarmers for summer, and radio twins Hlelo and Ntando bobbing about like Christmas decorations in a storm.They will be the last of the black entertainment, despite host Siya Ngwekazi proudly claiming that “tonight proves that we have tons of young talent”.We get a tortured white seductress singing a peppy solo and then Dave from Idols with a searing rendition of Starry Starry Night.

“They would not listen. They’re not listening still,” croons Dave.

I look around. It’s true. A tip to the owners – if you want to be relevant, represent the nation.By the time Devon Marshbank and his street dancers (one a little too plump to jaiva live on TV) have taken the stage, insult is added to injury.

Our man Dev is the new umlungu and it’s getting worse.He actually talks in a black accent when not rapping in forced vernacular that we should “come drive” in his “disco taxi”.

The girls return, fighting with their evening dresses – sporty marshmallows that ride up – and outdo one another proclaiming inner-beauty’s triumph over outer.

“Beauty is not in the face, it is an echo from the heart,” says a girl with a beautiful face.The gratefully short spectacle ends with the crowning of Celeste Khumalo, the only beauty to make it through the Q&A intact. It is then that my evening takes a turn, when I find her for an interview.

 Given that the contestants are trained to deal with cynical journalists, I throw some tricky questions at her.She throws them back with amazing frankness.

“I did it for the bursary prize. I have a single mom. She’s unemployed. We have been surviving by God’s grace.”I ask her about her father and she tells a story of a man who was in and out of her life, who promised to pay her school fees but didn’t.Parktown High ended up exempting her. “It’s very important to me, this,” says Celeste. “I’m going to claim my future.

I want to study corporate communications in order to become a media mogul.”So perhaps a pageant that changes lives should not be so casually written off by a cynic. And the black entertainment drain was restored in spades at the following evening’s Miss SA pageant.

Powerhouse performances by Tira and Big Nuz, and vintage jams by Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse rocked the Superbowl.If you look at the last few years, statistics already told us there would be a white Miss SA and a black Miss SA Teen this year – more clucks from the organisers when I mention this.

Melinda Bam is again the only inner-beauty queen to survive the Q&A and lift the tiara. She’s a fitness-loving blonde with a passion for leadership programmes in schools.

But here’s the thing about Miss SA. It was like a bipolar aunt veering between charitable acts and daring displays of flesh.

The biggest number of the night – all dramatic lights and costume reveals – was the bikini parade.“Talk about a moment you wanna watch again and again,” enthused host Proverb.

 “A PVR rewind moment, huh guys?” We sell you product while we objectify you.

On the giant screens, the “Mother Theresas in bikinis” get treated to a visual effect – a few seconds of busty slowmo at the end of the ramp. For the announcement of the best legs sash, the contestants are made to stand behind screens, chopping off their bodies and faces.

Even if we can get over the race issues that have always dogged Miss SA, I’m not so sure we’ll care any more.

It’s caught between the politics of youth leadership and the pressure of trying to beat the Venezuelans. And so it offers a role model that’s worse than just a pretty face – she’s impossibly unrealistic.As for me, my Miss SAs on the night were Hotstix’s backing singers. There they were, shaking what their mamas gave them while also delivering soulful African jazz from the heart.

» Blignaut is a freelance journalist

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