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17 October 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 10:16am

And the winner is . . .

From Miss Watermelon in Louisiana to the Face of Africa contest in Sun City, Rosie Goldsmith discove

By Rosie Goldsmith

”And you gotta recall, Miss Rosie,” Jessica Tucker tells me in her Ya-Ya Sisterhood voice, “that this is a scholarship programme and we are all professional ladies.” Tucker, Miss Watermelon, is competing in the Miss Louisiana beauty pageant for the fifth time, and “failure” is a dirty word. (They call it “failing forward”.) Miss Louisiana is one of the US-wide preliminary state heats for the coveted Miss America, to be held in January 2006. For this one contest you may train for up to a year, up to 16 hours a day. Tucker is indeed a professional – a qualified electrical engineer. She is also an excellent pianist and has been able to get herself through college with her beauty pageant winnings. The pretty, athletic 22-year-old has been “pageanting” for several years. The reigning Miss Louisiana, I discover, started at 18 months old. “We prime the boys for soccer and baseball, and our daughters for pageants,” her doting mum explains. “And here in the South, we love our pageants.”

In politically correct Britain, beauty contests are an apologetic, backstreet industry, but they still flourish elsewhere: my beauty odyssey for Radio 4 took me from Louisiana in the US to Sun City in South Africa and Hangzhou in China. All the competitions I saw were buoyed by eager corporate and community sponsors and undimmed by feminism, anti-racism and falling TV ratings. Beauty pageants are lucrative for the hotel and restaurant trades, as well as for the beauty and fashion industries. In China, the sole reason given for the enormous, extravagant Miss Tourism Queen International pageant was to promote tourism and “the beauty of China” in the city of Hangzhou, in east China’s Zhejiang Province. It was the same story with Miss Louisiana and the Face of Africa in Sun City: beauty as a calling card for tourism. Beauty pageants mirror the state of a nation: its economy, its ambition, its self-image.

The modern beauty competition was born in the US. The world’s market leader, the country holds in the region of 3,500 contests a year, from Miss Chicken Drumsticks to the spectacular, lavish, celebrity-driven circuses of Miss America and Miss USA (the latter is part-owned by Donald Trump). Miss America started off in Atlantic City in 1921 as a showcase for both beauty and tourism. The first contests were seedy affairs, but they were soon touched by Hollywood glamour and, during the Second World War, became patriotic, respectable and a particularly American form of upward mobility. (It wasn’t until 1984, however, that the first black Miss America – Vanessa Williams – was crowned, after decades of protest.)

In China, pageants remain a novelty. After years of official disapproval – in the 1950s, Chairman Mao called them “bourgeois nonsense” – they only really took off in 2003, with the arrival of Miss World in its new home of uncritical capitalism. Today, pageants in China can’t be big or brash enough. They are an integral part of the country’s huge beauty industry, which is the fourth-largest growth area in China after cars, real estate and tourism. Paul French, a market analyst in Shanghai, observes: “Pageants are a sign that China has arrived on the world stage and can match the US.”

In the new multiracial, inclusive South Africa, I was astonished to find there were no white finalists at all in the Face of Africa. The message these days is “black empowerment”. The slick and splashy competition was a conscious display of black music, black fashion designers and black beauty – a backlash against the apartheid years, when even beauty contests were segregated.

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Beauty pageant finals tend to be vast, frenzied affairs. In nations without royalty, the winners can become queens, elevated and idealised far beyond their often humble beginnings. One Face of Africa hopeful had taken a four-hour bus ride from her village and stood for hours in the baking sun for the auditions.

But why do these women push themselves so hard? The answers were always the same: “To get a better life”, “To become a TV star/get a job in fashion”, “To travel”and “I’m doing this for my country”.

Each of the 30 Miss Louisiana finalists won cash towards college fees, while Miss America 2005, Deidre Downs, received $50,000. In China, the monetary prize is small, but you have the chance to travel and promote tourism. This year’s Face of Africa winner, Kaone Kario, received a three-year modelling contract, clothes, free flights, make-up, a holiday, mobile phones: big prizes for any girl.

So has feminism given up on the beauty contest? Wherever I raised the issue of exploitation, or pornography, or victimisation, people looked at me quizzically. Today’s beauty queens were born long after the 1960s when feminists called for pageants to be banned.

“How can you be happy for your daughter to be lusted over in public?” I asked Byron, the Methodist minister father of Katherine Putnam, one of the Louisiana finalists, after watching her scissor-walk across stage in her revealing swimsuit. “That,” Byron said, “is the problem for the observer, not for us. Beauty is not evil. Katherine eats well. She works out. She has a healthy body: those are good things to promote in our society. If she wins, she’d be a role model for others.”

At the end of my odyssey I felt I’d been at a month-long wedding: uplifted but rather sick on the excess of glitter and gaiety. The girls were little more than pretty bridesmaids in a big national branding campaign. In South Africa, village girls plucked from obscurity have been launched on the international modelling stage, to become, as one judge told me, “our own African Kate Moss”. In China, I found the 70 contestants in Miss Tourism Queen International desperate for the whole shambolic event to end. They’d been travelling through the country as “tourism ambassadors” for nearly a month. They’d lost weight, and their frocks and sashes were grubby. The contest organiser, however, was unsympathetic: “Being a beauty queen is a job and they have to treat it like training for the Olympics. With discipline.”

Winning Beauty, a three-part series exploring the world of beauty contests, and presented by Rosie Goldsmith, starts on 21 October, 11am, BBC Radio 4

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