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People & Events: Beauty Queens on a World Stage

Miss Tall America ContestBeauty pageants are not just an American phenomenon. Pageants around the world draw on local and international audiences and span every conceivable group and interest. The origins of beauty contests extend back for centuries; the modern pageant can be traced to the United States and the 1921 Miss America Pageant. Hollywood films and newsreels helped spread the idea to different countries in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s, many beauty contests were held around the world as part of decolonization and rising nationalism.

In 1951 the Miss America Corporation, a non-profit foundation unrelated to the Miss America Pageant, unified regional contests and separate national contests and invented the Miss World Pageant. Later, when Miss America Yolande Betbeze refused to wear a bathing suit in public, Catalina Swimwear pulled out as a sponsor of the Miss America Pageant, and founded the rival Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants.

While beauty pageants around the world are primarily about putting idealized versions of femininity on a competitive stage and awarding a "royal" title and crown to the winner, they are also about using femininity to represent other issues. As diverse as beauty contests are around the world, write historians Colleen Ballerino Cohen and Richard Wilk, they are remarkably similar. "Whether the title is for Miss Universe or the Crooked Tree Cashew Queen, these contests showcase values, concepts, and behavior that exist at the center of a group's sense of itself and exhibit values of morality, gender, and place."

Several recent pageants underscore the importance of beauty queens as symbols. The 1996 Miss Italy Pageant generated a national dialogue on race. Denny Mendez, a black Carribean immigrant, was crowned Miss Italy. Mendez's victory ignited a controversy and Italians debated the issue of national identity and what it means to be Italian. Commentors all over the country used the Mendez victory to discuss the issue of racial tolerance in Italy.

That same year, the Miss World Contest, held in Bangalore, India, made international news when feminist and nationalist protesters picketed the pageant and threatened mass suicide. Their message was not only that women were degraded, but also that the Miss World Pageant threatened Indian culture with its importation of western values. Objections to international pageants center on the use of these events as global showcases for Western products and Western standards of beauty. This critique, which equates the selling of women to the selling of Western products and values, has some basis. Miss Universe, for example, is broadcast to more than eighty countries and has an audience of six hundred million people.

International pageants also play a role in national aspirations. As cultural scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser has suggested, many countries that send contestants to these pageants are making a claim. In the context of the world's cultural economy, having a contestant at an international pageant can be about claiming inclusion in the "family of nations" that comprises the international community. In 1994 women from India won both the Miss World and the Miss Universe pageants. Many people in India and in other countries celebrated the event. Because of its newly acquired monopoly on beauty titles, India could claim its women were among the world's most beautiful. In successfully meeting the pageants' standards of beauty, the new Miss World and Miss Universe staked a claim for India in the international commercial culture these pageants represent.

On the international stage of a pageant like Miss Universe, and on Miss America's national stage, participants, organizers, and audience look for shared values and ways to feel national pride. Though beauty pageants sometimes have been critiqued as trivial or irrelevant, what makes them important to many people worldwide is the somewhat mysterious process by which an individual woman can become a symbol of national identity, group values and pride.

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