What do you think about beauty pageants? Are you for or against?
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Do you think they demean the entrants and reduce them to being objectified as archetypes of beauty, usually decided by a member of Western patriarchal society? I’m talking about you, Donald Trump, who make others feel miserable about themselves because they don’t fit the narrow stereotype often dictated by factors such as age and race, and can never achieve the “ideal” beauty.
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Or, do you think they are a great way to raise money for charity, and a great career path for someone (usually a woman) to use all their assets, including their good looks? Winning the tiara or crown means the winner will have the spotlight shine on them for a year, and with a bit of luck and excellent planning, they can parlay this into another career or market themselves as a product.
I’ll leave it to you to form your own good opinion because it is a complex issue. Should there be an age limit on beauty contests, such as entrants being 18 years-of-age or over? Many of us feel slightly uncomfortable viewing the entrants of toddler beauty pageants, and the only way we can recognise the girls as being under five is because they still have all their baby teeth! It’s true – many young girls love dressing up… but when does it become too much?
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Then there’s the “Teen Queens” – pageants designed for younger teens where they have the opportunity to show off their commitment to their community as well as their catwalk skills.
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Many might argue that there is nothing wrong with encouraging good grooming and deportment, being articulate, and a confident public speaker.
Thanks to Jennifer Hawkins taking the Miss Universe crown in 2004, beauty pageants in Australia have had a bit of a renaissance. We are not like Venezuela that has won the Miss Universe title several times – we had never won, so when Jen took the coveted title, not only was it a win for her, it was a win for Australia.
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And a fairy-tale win at that – hailing from Newcastle, Jennifer Hawkins had never been overseas before travelling to the USA to compete in the Miss Universe contest. Life would never be the same for the former legal secretary, NRL cheerleader, and part-time model.
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Jen stayed grounded and, surprisingly, never let the fame go to her head, but has built a very lucrative business around her product – Jennifer Hawkins Miss Universe 2004. She continues to model and be a spokesperson for Myer, designs lingerie and swimwear and probably other things as well, and puts her name and image to Mount Franklin Water – both sparkling and still.
After years of not knowing the names of the Miss Australia entrants in the Miss Universe contest, we are now quite familiar with some of the previous titleholders who did not, like Jen, go on to win, but did go on to enjoy quite high profile careers in the media. The television show, Get Away, seems to be the training ground for former Australian representatives in the Miss Universe contest, and who better to show us the delights of the Taj Mahal than former Gold Coast girl and Miss Congeniality winner of the Miss Universe pageant in 2010, Jacinta Campbell.
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And no less than three other former Miss Australia representatives in the Miss Universe competition cite model/television presenter as part of their skillset: Erin McNaught (2006), Laura Dundovic (2008), and Rachael Finch who began her pageant career in 2006 as Miss Teen Australia and finished as the third Runner-Up at Miss Universe 2009.
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It’s almost, but not quite, a return to the glory days of beauty contests. The now defunct Miss Australia competition, which raised money for the Cerebral Palsy Association (formerly known by the now politically incorrect title of the Spastic Welfare Association) was a really big deal in its day. The title of Miss Australia had a lot of currency and the Australian public remembered the titleholders with great fondness.
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When Miss Australia 1957, Helen Wood, married in her hometown of Brisbane in 1959, The Courier-Mail reported “Near Riot As Crowd Mobs Couple” about the enthusiastic fans who turned out to see her wed Ashley Cooper, a Victorian tennis player and the reigning Wimbledon champion.
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And who could forget Tania Verstak, a quietly beautiful brunette with hazel eyes, who was crowned Miss Australia in 1961 – she became an instant celebrity, and the nation adored her. There are some who no longer think beauty contests are relevant in the 21st century. A work colleague who holds this view nevertheless gets misty-eyed when she recalls the time when Tania Verstak flew into her hometown of Maryborough and literally the whole town turned up to greet her and were dazzled by her beauty and grace.
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Tania Verstak, the beautiful “New Australian”, became a national superstar in 1962 when she was crowned Miss International. Never before had we had an international beauty queen to call our own, and a wave of surprise, pride and pleasure rippled across the country. The 21-year-old became the epitome of Australian womanhood. But what was most memorable about Tania Verstak was that she was also a migrant.
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I have a personal soft spot for Belinda Green, who, apart from coming from very modest beginnings, also had very fine hair but went on the be crowned Miss World in 1972. Belinda credits her fine hair for the win – in the sea of big bouffant-haired competitors in the 73-strong contest, she felt this proved her main advantage. “I was noticed and that’s the first thing – just being noticed,” she said. Back in her hometown of Nelson Bay in New South Wales, her mum Gwen had just started her morning shift cleaning motel rooms. A phone call came through to tell her Belinda had won, and she assumed it was a joke. Later, when it has been discovered to be true, the motel put up a sign: Mrs World Works Here.
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I was in primary school when Queensland teacher Gay Walker was crowned Miss Queensland, and shortly after, Miss Australia, in 1972. Like many young girls, I kept a newspaper clipping of Gay Walker’s photograph, radiant and aglow with her crown perched on top of her blonde bouffant hairdo and holding the specter in her well manicured hands. Gay Walker was the epitome of beauty and grace and we all wanted to grow up to be just like her.
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Gay Walker (now Clarke) said she was always treated extremely well when she reigned as Miss Australia. “I remember being on a flight and the pilot announced I was on board and everyone clapped. That would never happen now.” Often, Miss Australia titleholders became celebrities overnight.
But 1972 was a pivotal point for beauty contests because the women’s liberation movement was becoming a force for change. After her reign as Miss Australia, Gay married, as was expected of her, but then did a complete 360 turn, divorced and went back to university, studied law and eventually became a law lecturer.
Beauty contests continued over the next few decades but never really regained the momentum of earlier years. I remember working with a reigning Miss Queensland in the 1980s who was given a golden opportunity but didn’t last the distance because she was caught driving under the influence – unfortunately, this made the front page of the now defunct Sunday Sun. It seemed the stuff beauty queens were made of had changed.
But what about beauty contests for dogs and cats? One might argue that those who enter their pets in such competitions are as bad as the stage mothers who truss their toddlers up in sequin dresses, curl their hair, mascara their eyes, rouge their cheeks, and paint their lips… except they can’t even pretend that their dog or cat likes it or wants to do it. I mean – who has ever heard of a dog saying “it is my dream to get primped and fluffed up and get a crown put on my head?”
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But before you are too scathing and judgemental, think of the money that can be raised for good causes, such as the RSPCA. And, this is why I agreed to enter the Poochettes in a sort-of beauty contest. Everyone had the opportunity to put a photograph of their pet on display on a pin board – there was one lone cat, no birds or guniea pigs, but quite an array of dogs in various poses: playing, sleeping, and generally looking like dogs – faithful and loyal.
The winning pet would be the one with the most ticks against its photo. The judges were those attending the RSPCA cupcake morning tea. I hate to admit it but I snuck in two ticks, one against each Poochette so at least they would have one vote each (although technically I think I was only allowed to make one tick).
I kept visiting the board and seeing that some dogs were well ahead in the race and some were still yet to receive a tick. How unfair – these un-ticked pooches were someone’s “best friend” and family member! One dog is not more beautiful than another dog – all dogs are beautiful, I thought. The lone cat scored well – I suppose the cat-lovers in the group united in solidarity and voted.
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But, at the end of the day, it was about those animals who don’t have homes, are abused, sick, and in need of care that mattered, and the event was a resounding success, raising in excess of $1,300 – a good effort by cupcake bakers and voters alike. Sally, a golden Labrador, took out the prize as the “cutest” pooch, but I admit to being a little sad that neither of the poochettes were in the running for ‘best in show’.
Regardless to say, I still haven’t made up my mind about beauty contests – whether they are or are not a good thing? How about you?