originally published December 21, 2012

As I’m sure most of you are aware – my audience is comprised heavily of pageant aficionados – the Miss Universe 2012 pageant took place Wednesday night at the Planet Hollywood resort in Las Vegas. The winner was the lovely Olivia Culpo from Cranston, Rhode Island. I’m optimistic that she just happens to be a gorgeous woman who catapulted to the pinnacle of competitive beauty, and that she never underwent the horrific debasement of the childhood pageant circuit that seems to have appropriated the entire TLC channel from its once-proud heritage of room decoration shows.

I am opting today to be topical in regards to this competition, rather than dwell on the Mayan apocalypse that everyone seems to be talking about, though that has served as a great distraction from small-talk about the weather or how it’s almost Christmas. Miss Universe has a long and interesting history – at least interesting enough to fill the next 850 words.

The story begins with the International Pageant of Pulchritude, which began as an international beauty competition in 1926 in Galveston, Texas. Pulchritude is another way of saying ‘beauty’ – quite possibly the least-used synonym of the term, mostly because it would be difficult to shoehorn into a pop song. Here’s what beauty pageant contestants looked like back then:

The winners in the contest were almost always Americans, and by the end of the 30’s it had fizzled out from the pageant world. Then, in 1951, a scandal arose within the world of Miss America, all thanks to this woman:

That’s Yolande Betbeze, winner of the Miss America title in 1951. Yolande had been raised in a convent school, and while she was fine posing in swimsuits to gain her tiara, once crowned she refused to don the suits of pageant sponsor Catalina Swimwear. Pacific Mills, the company who owned Catalina, must have forgotten to drop a clause into their contract with which they could form a legal basis for a lawsuit, so instead they withdrew their sponsorship and started their own game: Miss USA. Then they concocted Miss Universe, despite maintaining a strict policy of not allowing competitors from any other planets besides Earth.

Yolande’s protest actually prompted the pageant world to re-examine its priorities, and to tweak up the focus on brains and personality.

Entries for the Miss Universe event are expected to come through pageant winners from around the world, but this is not always the case. In 2000, Australia eliminated their national pageant, believing it to be an antiquated concept. The Miss Universe people disagreed, and sought to recruit a suitable young Aussie lass from a modeling agency. This continued for a few years, until this woman happened:

That’s Jennifer Hawkins, the Miss Australia 2004 who was cast by the Australian modeling world to represent the nation. She ran the table at Miss Universe, and Australia returned to the antiquated national pageant system the following year with renewed pride and optimism.

Some nations have a problem with their contestants appearing in swimsuits for the competition. Others think the entrance fee is far too high. Other countries crown their queen at the young age of 17, which fails to meet the minimum age requirement (18) of Miss Universe. There’s a lot of paperwork going on behind this thing.

2012 was a significant year for the contest. Mostly because of Canadian Jenna Talackova.

Jenna was banned from competing in the Miss Universe pageant because she had been born with the name Walter, and the unfortunate disqualifier of having a penis. She underwent gender reassignment surgery four years ago, and at age 23 she was ready to compete.

Donald Trump, who has owned and operated the competition since 1996, didn’t think so. Jenna hooked up with Gloria Allred, who worked her patented Allred-magic and talked Trump into changing the rules. Jenna didn’t snag the Miss Universe Canada crown, and thus never made it to the big show, but her appearance on the runway is a brilliant marquee for the changing times and the glimmer of hope that even beauty pageants can display some form of evolution.

Lest you think that failing to capture that crown is a reflection of failure at the pageant (or at least scoring first runner-up – you know, in case the winner gets busted pushing meth or something), there are a number of other awards to be won. Miss Congeniality has been handed out every year since 1952 – strangely more often to competitors from Guam than any other nation.

There’s also an award for Miss Photogenic (Miss Philippines won this seven times) and Best National Costume (won most often by Miss Colombia). There have been awards for Best Style, Best Hair, Most Popular Girl In Parade, Expo Queen, Miss Press, Miss Followed By Media, the Silk Award, Miss Smile, and Best In Filipino Tradition Costume – only handed out once, not won by Miss Philippines.

That’s Armi Kuusela from Finland, the first winner of Miss Universe. She is still around today, kicking back in San Diego, not far from where she won her crown. I’m not entirely certain how winning Miss Universe would open doors to a vast swath of career options, but I suppose there must be some.

Only one nation – Venezuela – ever won back-to-back titles, in 2008 and 2009. The longest interval between victories goes to Japan, with 48 years separating Akoko Kojima’s 1959 win and Riyo Mori’s 2007 victory. There are a number of little trivia tidbits about the competition, like the first bald woman to compete (Miss Tanzania, 2007), the tallest winner (Miss Dominican Republic, 2003, at 6’1”), and the biggest twit in the pageant’s history (Miss Lebanon, 2001 withdrew because – oh no! – Israel was competing!).

If Miss Universe isn’t your thing, or if it is your thing and you just want a lot more of it, you can watch Miss Earth instead. This 11-year-old pageant supports environmental awareness. Well, environmental awareness and attractive women –you need to get viewers somehow.

There’s also Miss World, which is actually older than Miss Universe, and Miss International. The latter is quick to state that it is not just about looks, but also about having an international sensibility, intelligence, benevolence, etc. Yet strangely all the winners are physically attractive.

Whether you think beauty pageants are debasing and crass, or whether you actually see value in judging women as they parade around a stage in various outfits, that probably doesn’t matter. Pageants are here to stay, and as long as Trump keeps promoting Miss Universe, the show will always have a place on some TV network.

Now if we can just get those other pageant monstrosities yanked off the airwaves, I think we’ll all come out ahead as a society.

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