Old-fashioned ? Sexist ? Racist ? Nationalistic? Whatever the criticisms, beauty pageants, like football in a way, attract a vast audience and represent, in the end, a competition between countries and the pursuit of excellence, a contest that many find important on a political and diplomatic level. They’re also a great way to showcase a nation’s heritage and culture.

A bit of history

It was in 1920 that a female beauty contest was first organized in France. “The most beautiful woman of France” was the idea of the Belgian journalist Maurice de Waleffe.

After an interruption due to the Second World War, the Miss France contest was relaunched in 1947. The Miss France committee was chaired from 1981 to 2007 by the famous Geneviève de Fontenay, a former Balenciaga model known as “The Lady in the Hat”. With her black and white look, unchanged since 1957, she led the competition with an iron fist, with puritanical ideas and never stopped fighting to make the contest a “showcase of the multiracial France”.

The rules were simple: To become Miss France, it was imperative to be female, to be of French nationality (by birth or naturalization), to be at least 18 years old on November 1st of the current year, to be at least 1.70 m tall and to have a clean criminal record. You must not have posed partially or totally nude or promoted erotic activities, be tattooed (except for discreet tattoos) and/or pierced, have had plastic surgery (except for reconstructive surgery), or have associated yourself with political or religious propaganda.

Elected for one year, the winner serves as the image of the sponsors and represents her country, in particular by participating in charity events and actions, the “Miss” will then hand over her crown to her successor the following year.

The concept is exported

In 1928, Miss France became international, and soon developed into “Miss Europe”, a contest that would later, strangely, include Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Kazakhstan. This already shows its diplomatic, if not political, dimensions.

In 1951, the Miss World contest was created in the United Kingdom. It was the year when the bikini was introduced on some beaches and the idea was to popularize the concept. Miss World attracted 27 candidates from around the world and caused a scandal.

The next year, in 1952, the Californian clothing brand Pacific Mills was inspired by Miss World event to create Miss Universe, which put the national Misses in competition according to the tried and tested ritual of presentation in a swimsuit – not in a bikini- and then in an evening gown before undergoing a Q&A with the judges. Since then, the winners of each country has the option to try their luck at either Miss World or Miss Universe, or both.

Where are the Arab pageants?

It is noteworthy that only two “Misses” from Arab countries have distinguished themselves to date in these international competitions: Miss Egypt 1953, Antigone Costanda, was elected Miss World in London in 1954. The following year, when she was supposed to hand her crown over to her successor, she did not make the trip because of the Suez crisis between Great Britain and Egypt.

In 1971, Miss Lebanon 1970, the blonde Georgina Rizk, 18 years old, of a Lebanese father and a Hungarian mother, was elected Miss Universe. And since then, there have been no Misses from the Arab world on the international podiums. This relative absence raises questions, as there is no lack of national candidates.

After more than forty years of interruption, Morocco organized a Miss contest in November 2021. The winner, Fatima-Zahra Khayat, a financial analyst based in Paris, was to represent her country at the Miss Universe contest in Israel the following month, but an accident forced her to give up her title.

In April 2022 Algeria (whose first election of a Miss had taken place in 1985), organized the 37th edition of its national contest in Oran. A student in biotechnology, Melissa Hammoumraoui, originally from Algiers, won the title of Miss Algeria.

Egypt has been innovating, adding a Miss Eco International to its competition Miss Egypt Bent Masr (which was founded in 2016 as a natural extension to the Miss Egypt Contest which has been held since 1927). Miss Eco is a beauty pageant officially registered with the Ministry of Culture of Egypt in 2015. The pageant aims at promoting environmental awareness and eco-tourism. The winner automatically becomes A UN goodwill ambassador to help the planet and to promote eco-tourism worldwide. Nadeen Elgayar, a 21 year old dentist and dancer was crowned Miss Egypt 2021 on 20th September 2021.

Some other Arab countries argue that it is inappropriate for women to compete in a pageant because it goes against their country’s traditional religious values.

The Lebanese event: Georges Hobeika and Nicolas Jebran

After a four-year hiatus, this summer the Lebanese TV channel LBC International organized the comeback of Miss Lebanon for its 2022 edition.  The teaser for the campaign was “We Miss Lebanon” and its ambition was to put Lebanon back on the world map. Since Georgina Rizk won the title of Miss Universe at the height of Lebanon’s golden age, the country has been one of the most serious about the contest.

While in other Arab countries the ceremonies are rather low key, the Beirut event had a Hollywood feel. Fireworks, a laser animation, there was no economy of effort for an event that wants to show the revival of a battered country. The contrast between this pomp and the difficult reality, was flagrant.

The evening dresses of the competitors were made by Georges Hobeika, who dedicated a special collection to them, while the female members of the jury, including the influencer Karen Wazen, were dressed by Nicolas Jebran. Singer Nancy Ajram, who hosted a large part of the evening, stood out with three outfits: a black and silver dress by Dolce&Gabbana, a silver V cut dress with shoulder pads by Alexandre Vauthier and a final golden look, custom made for the show, composed of a ruffled crop-top and flaired pants.

By their presence, Julia Morley, president of the Miss World Committee, Karolina Biewleska, Miss World 2021, and Toni-Ann Singh, Miss World 2019, marked the institution’s official support.

From the 17 contestants, it was Yasmina Zaytoun, a 19 year old journalism student, at 1.67m and 51 kg, who took the crown of Miss Lebanon and won the competition endowed with a prize of 100,000 USD.

“What do you think of the campaign launched by the Ministry of Tourism and which region would you choose to promote?” she was asked. Zaytoun naturally touted the assets of her country and, later in the Q&A, she promised to contribute to the fight against malnutrition among children around the world.

Generosity

From the very beginning, whether through cinema, or television, or physical parades, the Miss competitions have raised considerable amounts of money that they share with various charitable organizations.

This generosity must be considered in a debate where Miss contests are criticized for their rigidity, their lack of diversity, their objectification and the standardization of the female body.

Outdated? Sexist? Nationalistic? Whatever the legitimacy of the criticism, these contests still find a vast audience and continue to feed a certain national pride. They are also an opportunity to highlight, especially through the presentation of evening wear, the prowess of haute couture. They are still perceived as showcases of national excellence, and the Misses’ response to social or economic questions reflect, in some way, the cultural values of their environment.