Miss World or bust? A modern woman’s guide to pageantry

I have always been obsessed with beauty pageants; since I was a child the televised Miss World contest seemed to me to be the height of glamour and sophistication. My younger sister and I would be allowed to stay up past our bed time and were encouraged to pick our favourite countries for the runner up spots and of course for the top prize winner.

While drinking cups of tea and inhaling the contents of the family biscuit tin we would deliberate, evaluate and generally rip to shreds the performance of any and all of the contestants. Buck teeth, chunky legs, asinine answers to the ridiculously fatuous interview questions were all up for grabs; however, that is where our critical opinions ended.

Beauty pageants in the 70s and 80s were all about judging these books by their covers – Pakistan never competed so we relished voting for whoever we thought was the prettiest girl in the world. Miss United Kingdom was never a favourite as we all knew she was going to end up in the top three thanks to Eric and Julia Morley, who created the Miss World franchise in 1951 with a bikini contest. The pageant was successfully repackaged in the 1980s with a philanthropic catch phrase, “Beauty with a purpose,” and became one of the most watched programs on British television. The Miss World Organisation has also raised over £250 million for children’s charities across the globe which is a laudable bi-product from something essentially seen as fluff.

Fading beauty

In later years Miss World and other pageants like it, Miss Universe for example, have faded from mainstream programming and landed on satellite channels. I believe the current Miss World is Yu Wenxia of China, and yes I did have to look it up, however, I still remember when Sarah-Jane Hutt won in 1983. Nowadays, watching young women parade up and down a catwalk in swimwear and evening gowns while professing to love animals, ecology and world peace is not such a crowd puller.

Isn’t it just as subjective to critique women on their piety as it is to give them marks out of 10 for being beautiful?

Ahlya Fateh

However, this week pageants are right back on the front page as the new Miss America is vilified and abused on social media sites for her Asian heritage; strangely Indians and Arabs are one and the same to many Americans and the beleaguered beauty queen is now accused of terrorism among other ridiculous things. Considering there has already been both an African American Miss America and an Arab American winner in previous years, it seems odd that Nina Davuluri’s triumph for diversity is being greeted with such hostility. This news was preceded by the outing of Miss Uzbekistan as being a fraud – Rahima Ganieva simply turned up in Indonesia and claimed to be the reigning champ in order to qualify for the Miss World contest. She was soon denounced by her countrymen as an imposter, but don’t you just love her for trying it on? Imagine all the pretty girls in far off lands, now googling “countries without a national beauty pageant” in order to make their own play for the sparkly, diamante encrusted Miss World crown, not to mention the blinged up sceptre!

More than just looks

Finally, for those who really, really, really don’t like the idea of judging women purely on how they look, you can always check out the Muslimah World contest, also being held in Indonesia as an antidote to the corruptive influences of Miss World. Contestants will be required to show piety and how they “balance a life of spirituality in today’s modern world,” in the words of its founder Eka Shanti. Instead of the dreaded swimwear parade they will be judged on their ability to tie a headscarf and recite Quranic verse – all very worthy skills, I am sure, but isn’t judgement the same no matter what its subject matter? Isn’t it just as subjective to critique women on their piety as it is to give them marks out of 10 for being beautiful?

In our home, for either of my two daughters to assert that they might be “the prettiest girl in the world” is an invitation to a full on fight, complete with championship hair-pulling to rival anything seen backstage at a beauty contest. It is then that I am forced to weigh into the fray as I pull them apart, silencing my two beauties with a look as I crow, “now, who’s the prettiest girl in the world?” Just wait till I get my hands on a diamante crown! 



With extensive publishing experience and significant knowledge of the fashion, retail and luxury industries, Ahlya Fateh is currently a highly regarded senior executive who combines a strong creative vision with an astute strategic understanding and exceptional management skills. In 2010 Ahlya was brought in by Tata Naka as Managing Director to re-launch the fashion brand at London Fashion Week. Previously Ahlya was Managing Editor of Tatler magazine from 2001 to 2010. 

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.