After a three-hour sequin-studded spectacle in the early hours of Monday morning in Eilat, Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned Miss Universe, capping off 70 years of the global competition.
Internationally, the contest gained attention for all the predictable reasons — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s new regional allies and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. But locally, the buzz focused more on a very different question: Should Israel be hosting a beauty pageant at all?
Critics contend that a competition based in large part on judging women by their physical appearance, especially one that includes a famed — or infamous — swimwear section, is wholly outdated. Outrage is often also leveled at the pageant’s draconian entry restrictions, which rule out women who are married, divorced, or who have children.
How is there room in today’s world for a primetime spectacle of women parading on stage, in front of judges, in evening gowns and skimpy bathing suits, until one is crowned the winner?
Linor Abargil, a former Miss Israel who went on to win the Miss World contest — a similar but separate pageant — in 1998, came out against Israel’s decision to host the competition.
“The year is 2021 and women are walking in bathing suits while people objectify them and choose the one who will be Miss Universe — really??” Abargil wrote on Instagram. “It’s simply a disgrace that our girls have to live, even today, with the idea of external approval of their bodies.”
Abargil added that “the day will come that we will look back and not believe that competitions like this ever existed — a disgrace!”
Even Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, who championed the competition as a boon to COVID-devastated international tourism, appeared to somewhat walk back his initial enthusiastic support on Sunday, hours before the contest began.
“As a father to two daughters,” Razvozov told Channel 12 news in response to complaints about the event, “perhaps today I would look at it differently. Maybe I would make a different decision about this event.”
Unsurprisingly, organizers and current contestants are quick to defend the competition as empowering for young women — and about much more than just physical appearance.
“Through beauty pageants we want to embrace each and every woman out there who is watching this, who aspires to be the leader of her life,” Sandhu told reporters an hour after her big win, in response to a question about the relevance of the contest in the modern age.
Tamara Jemuovic, this year’s Miss Canada, told The Times of Israel that the criticism is unfair to the contestants.
“I think that the stereotype is sort of disintegrating. There’s so much weight on the interview portion of the pageant, that the external beauty is not on the forefront like it may have been many, many, many years ago,” she said. “We focus a lot more on empowering one another and helping each other.”
Meg Omecene, the director of communications for the Miss Universe Organization, also pushed back against the critiques.
“I would really challenge [critics] to go speak with some of the women who are competing,” she said. “These are not women who just look good in a swimsuit or know how to wear an evening gown. They are smart, ambitious, talented, charismatic, caring, philanthropic — they are truly the total package.”
Organizers argue that the participants — and particularly the winner — are granted opportunities to use their newfound fame to promote causes and issues that are important to them. 2020’s Miss Universe, Andrea Meza of Mexico, has been vocal on the issue of gender-based violence, and Sandhu, the daughter of a gynecologist, has spoken out on the importance of women’s health.
“The platform that they get through winning Miss Universe is really unparalleled,” said Omecene. “They go from being a representative of their country, to then going to the United Nations to advocate for the cause that they’re passionate about.”
“One woman’s life really changes overnight, and it’s not the woman who might have the smallest measurements or be the most conventionally attractive,” Omecene continued. “It’s really about the person who knows what she wants to do with this platform.”
Still. some of those involved in staging the production did not hold back from questioning parts of the competition. Assaf Blecher, an executive producer on the Israeli side, said he understands the outrage.
“It’s a good question, and it’s a fair discussion,” Blecher told The Times of Israel on Sunday, though he stressed that hosting the contest was “a great promotion for Israel.” And the competition, he added, may not be what people imagine. “If you meet the ladies, you see that they are strong, smart, intellectual — and beautiful. They don’t all look alike. Miss Bahrain is 5’1”. And Miss Thailand is not skinny by any means.”
Blecher suggested that when the Miss Universe Organization began its work on the Eilat show, “Israel gave them a reality check.”
“They got a lot of voices, and opinions, and they listened,” he claimed. But Blecher said that when the Israeli organizers suggested swapping out the swimsuit section for sportswear, the idea was nixed by the Miss Universe Organization.
Omecene said such a conversation did take place, but it was never seriously under consideration.
“If you talk to the women who are competing, if you ask them their favorite part of the competition, I’d say 95% of them, maybe even 100% of them, love the swimwear competition, it’s where they say they feel the most powerful, the most confident on stage,” Omecene told The Times of Israel, noting that the women were “able to choose” the swimsuit style “they felt best suited their personality.”
Miss Bahrain, Manar “Jess” Deyani — the first Miss Universe contestant from any Gulf nation — opted to wear a full head-to-toe covering when she appeared in the swimwear section of the preliminary competition, which was held Friday evening and streamed live digitally. Only the top 16 contestants took part in the bathing suit competition during Sunday’s live finale.
Officials in the Tourism Ministry admitted that the decision to host the contest was a pragmatic one, and not necessarily an endorsement of the contest.
“I myself wouldn’t go and I wouldn’t send my daughters to go,” said Sara Salansky, the director of overseas marketing for the Tourism Ministry. “But people still watch it, it’s still a platform, there is a level of interest.”
Rina Mor, the only Miss Israel to ever win Miss Universe, back in 1976, told Channel 12 news that her feelings about the legacy of the competition are “complicated,” but that she does not regret taking part. While she quickly left behind the world of modeling and entertainment and became a prominent lawyer, she said the competition provided her with the opportunity of a lifetime.
And Mor appeared on the live broadcast in Eilat on Monday, telling viewers around the globe that she was “so happy that the Miss Universe Organization chose to celebrate its 70th anniversary in Israel, in my hometown, so I could show you all our beautiful country.”