The Fix Is In: Miss Universe 2016

To me there are three High Holy Days of Pageantry each year: Miss America is the apex (with a Holy Week to go along with it), then Miss Universe, and Miss USA. It's no secret that my favorite part of Miss Universe are the national costumes. I actually missed them live this year because I was on a train ride to the North Pole with my kids in New Hampshire (again, see that previous link for my feelings on the lack of traditions and rituals in Miss USA/Universe, because who would have ever thought Miss Universe would be on a Sunday in late December?!). 10656353_10205232723284251_863363905_nMy eldest son's face clearly presages people's reactions to the crowning moment a few hours later...

Because of the important trip to see Santa and his elves, and then getting our intrepid travelers abed, I didn't turn on Fox until 9:30ish last night. The Top 3 were being announced and I immediately thought Miss Philippines would win. I gasped when I saw her dress and the history with Miss USA and Miss Colombia with Miss Universe (recent winners, etc.) told me that the pageant-happy Philippines would be celebrating in half an hour.

I only half paid attention during the Seal song and the long walks, though I do think it was nice that they Top 3 got so much attention and time to shine. As for the final question it was *such* a softball and I thought Miss USA was too rehearsed/Patty and that Miss Philippines continued to exude grace. All I could think during Colombia's answer was how much she looked like Sofia Vergara's unknown younger sister...

When Miss USA was announced second-runner-up, I think the only one truly shocked was her:


And then the real weirdness began. I have seen over 100 pageants (for research and over my life course watching all three Pageants each year). When the winner is called from the final two (which doesn't always happen, as I briefly explain here), the usual protocol is to announce the name of the first-runner-up, so by default you know who the winner is. Then a few seconds later you introduce the new queen by her old title and new title. When it didn't go down this way I actually thought, "Huh, that was odd." I also thought it odd that there was a pause before the outgoing Miss Universe (also from Colombia) came out, although they then jumped excitedly together. I assume there was some frantic movement off camera that the television audience couldn't see.

When Harvey came back out I was shocked and immediately knew what happened, even though this was unprecedented. I honestly initially thought, along with many others, that this may have been a publicity stunt. Some pageant fans still believe this for some interesting reasons. But I have now watched the press conferences after and if it was I don't think Harvey was in on it and it appears to be a terrible mistake from someone who I don't believe has ever hosted a pageant before. There was a reason people like Bert Parks, and now Chris Harrison (who hosts another elimination show filled with emotion and anxiety), needed longevity to perform their iconic roles well.

As I write at the end of my Psychology Today article on this (which covers more the sociological analysis of why me might care so much), "As this story continues to dominate social media and major news sites (and sadly not other pageant-related stories like the tragic car accident right outside the hotel after Miss Universe last night (link is external), Miss Canada World being denied the opportunity to compete earlier in the weekend over political issues with China (link is external), and the appearance of Miss Slovenia at Miss Universe after a health crisis (link is external)) it is clear that pageantry and dream fulfillment still exert a powerful hold on a diverse group of people worldwide."

(And after you read my Psych Today piece you will understand that whenever I see my own mother's crowning moment, that up-close dream fulfillment, it makes me tear up because it is amazing to see the moment when her life changed, and by extension mine as well [I wish in some ways I had a video of when I tore open my college acceptance letter, in the dark ages before email, etc.]. Note that this was her reaction to NOT being called FIRST-RUNNER-UP, since that name is always read first!58d20194b899c4f88c2fece95b541ce9One final aside: They de-crowmned Colombia, but left the sash on her. How awkward was it to get that sash off?! Anyone know of any photos of this?)

And as I explain in this thoughtful article at Christian Science Monitor, "'Miss Philippines and Miss Colombia displayed grace under pressure in an unexpected and unprecedented situation,' says Friedman. 'What happens in the next few days will show what may or may not have occurred behind the scenes. For better or for worse both contestants, along with emcee Harvey, will live on in social media infamy.'"

I'm guessing that for the next Pageant (and all the preliminaries and state contests leading up to it), a new ritual may be added to the crowning ceremony: SHOWING THE WINNER AND AUDIENCE THE RESULTS CARD!


Stick-thin, Stripper shoes, and Slick bodies: My Random Reflections on Miss Universe 2014

It might be because I am 30+ weeks pregnant and I was so tired after a dinner out with my husband I fell asleep before it even fully aired (full disclosure: given the time change and tape delay I actually looked up the results before I even went to dinner), but I found this year's production pretty boring, and filled with unnaturally skinny competitors (USA excepted, who actually looked muscular and fit in her swimsuit). The Miss Universe 2014 Pageant didn't have to be boring. Before it even took place it generated quite a bit of controversy thanks to its Moscow location and Russia's new, formal anti-gay legislation (Andy Cohen dropped out as host and I kept hoping one of the women would make a statement about it during the event). The Pageant could have been even bigger in the USA considering the reigning Miss Universe, Olivia Culpo, was Miss USA. But besides the usual camp it was boring and the ratings, I believe, were the worst ever; only .9 of adults 18-49 watched, way down from last year.

One bright spot for anyone who knows how much I *love* the national costumes was that during the Parade of Nations each contestant's costume was pictured alongside them as they did their live intro. Anderson Cooper did a pretty funny send-up of the costumes earlier in the week (chilis on butts and man babies were my favorite parts, in addition to his giggles), but I can't believe he didn't mention France with the Eiffel Tower on her head! During the Parade I couldn't help but notice the stand-out hair of Canada (like an anchor woman stuck her finger in a socket), Slovenia (a truly unbelievable bottle shade of blonde), and Switzerland (a funky short do that we got to see again as she made Top 16). Also making Top 16 was Nicaragua, who won the National Costume award!

The 16 came out of 86 contestants, so making the cut is a big deal. The one woman who I was truly surprised didn't make it, based on looks and some of the pre-pageant hype and stories, was Miss Israel. In every shot of her she looked stunning, so I wonder what happened... The other thing I noticed right away when the Top 16 was announced was that Miss India was so light-skinned, lending credence to many of the claims that the reigning Miss America, Nina Davuluri, wouldn't be considered beautiful in India because of her darker skin.

As usual swimsuit kicked things off (along with the usual somewhat odd musical guests). I hated the tacky close-ups of body parts at the start of the number. Also, the aforementioned oiled and too-thin bodies. I also disliked the "fur" wraps the women wore out and carried with them. It's already so strange to see them in high heels (and "stripper heels" refer to the platforms built on to many to add additional height, which are even now favored in evening gown), so why add a fur wrap while in a bikini?! The eventual winner, Venezuela, was especially well-oiled and thin.

I was impressed that Olivia Culpo came out in the million dollar suit. While she dd keep most of herself covered with the wrap, I can't imagine an outgoing Miss America putting on a swimsuit more than a year after her win, so kudos to her (even if her white eye make-up/concealer around her eyes was distracting). Culpo is a true beauty though-- I thought Ukraine looked a lot like her and expected her in Top 5, but perhaps their similar look explains why she didn't make the final cut.

The final cut featured three our of five women from South America. The final questions were predictably awkward, but nothing terrible happened. For me Venezuela's Gabriela Isler was a standout-- especially with her neon white teeth and long-sleeved gown-- so I wasn't surprised when she won.

2D9652267-tdy-miss-venezuela-131109-04.blocks_desktop_large by Pavel Golovkin for AP

I think USA/UK canceled one another out from making Top 5, which was too bad as UK was a great contestant this year. Some women seemed especially unhappy to not make a cut at all; for instance, every time I saw Azerbaijan in the background she was scowling. Then again, the Top 5 seemed happy. Each woman clapped for herself when her name was announced as a runner-up!

The end to the Pageant was extraordinarily strange though. Here it is in its entirety:

The winner not hearing her name was edited out of the US broadcast, but the crown falling stayed in.

The one other thing to note from this Pageant was that on TWO occasions one of the co-hostesses commented on women being "former tomboys." The implication was always that they were unattractive then and only later became beautiful. This is of course ridiculous. You can be a tomboy and be beautiful as well. And in the US this is usually seen as a good thing. But perhaps the focus on beauty and not athleticism/fitness is why so many of this year's contestants were absolutely too thin. Let's hope for better next year, wherever Miss Universe is held.

Bikini Babes: Olympic Gold and Pageant Bling

Last week some pageant bling helped me get into the holiday spirit. Take a look at these amazing/atrocious gowns from the 2012 Miss Universe Pageant and tell me they don't make you think of a) A Christmas Tree and b) A Mrs. Claus outfit gone wrong. Miss Venezuela 2012

Miss Mexico 2012

(Well, actually only if Mrs. Claus was a part-time baton twirler and a part-time stripper-- seriously I don't know HOW they can call this a dress!)

I tweeted about both of these dresses during the December 19th Pageant; in fact I tweeted so much that I got put into Twitter jail, a place I did not even know existed (for this rules-following girl who never ever got a detention this was traumatic). I got locked out right after I saw Miss Mexico's monstrosity, so I'll blame her fashion choices.

Such questionable fashion choices almost made up for the fact that again this year my favorite part of the pageant didn't appear live. But what could really make up for seeing a jaw-dropping ensemble, like that worn by Miss Angola 2012, on your TV screen?

Miss Angola 2012's National Costume

The next best thing is reading hilarious commentary about those national costumes, like that written by Tom & Lorenzo, which I encourage you to check out.

In addition to her questionable gown choice Miss Venezuela got a lot of disdain thrown her way after her unintelligible answer to her final question. But the most interesting question to me was for Miss Brazil and it came from Olympic Gold Medalist Kerry Walsh Jennings. Walsh Jennings asked Brazil what she thought about the fact that they both compete in bikinis and did she see this as sexual.  Brazil totally deflected the question, but I found Walsh Jennings observation to be spot-on-- and something I mentioned here back in March after the decision was made to allow female beach volleyball players to wear something other than bikinis. To be sure female beach volleyball players are criticized for their uniforms (some even went so far as to speculate that the skimpy attire is why women's beach volleyball was featured so much in NBC's primetime Olympics coverage), but not the extent of pageant contestants, likely because sports are so much more valued in society today. I find it interesting though that Walsh Jennings is so enormously popular right now (just last week she found out of the sex of her third child live on The Today Show; and her former gold medal partner appeared on Dancing with the Stars). Perhaps these sorts of female athletic stars are just a new incarnation of the once enormously popular pageant queens of old?

Just like Walsh Jennings and many other female athletes at the Olympics, an American woman ended up at the #1 slot. Miss USA, which was a nice surprise. I knew Miss USA Olivia Culpo would do well-- as she is so beautiful-- but right after her USA win I speculated that she might be too short to win. I guess adding some inches with her high bun helped out though as she took the crown away from other strong contenders like Australia and Philippines. Olivia Culpo will definitely represent the crown well, even if she is disdainful of her Miss America pageant sisters.

My thoughts on Miss Universe are a bit belated as I've been down for the count with viral bronchitis (no fun to have over your son's first Christmas!). During my convalescence I caught up on some movies and my absolute favorite was Queen of Versailles. It's a thought-provoking take on the 1%, real estate market, income inequality, and the American dream. I was pretty surprised that beauty pageants were a part of this story, though I guess I shouldn't have been given the final two items in that list.  Jackie Siegel, the Queen of Versailles, was Mrs. Florida in 1993 (when married to a different man) and in 2008 she took over as director of the Mrs. Florida Pageant. Her husband is a huge supporter of the Miss America Pageant and Miss America 2009 is shown, along with 2010 contestants, at the Siegel's Florida mansion.  Siegel presents the Miss America Organization with a huge check in the documentary.

I'm not sure this is the type of attention the Miss America Pageant wants, but in the context of the Bravo-fication of American pop culture (note that Andy Cohen hosted Miss Universe and many of the channel's reality show stars were judges at Miss Universe, along with others with reality show ties, including co-host Giuliana Rancic who is married to the first ever winner of Donald Trump [who owns Miss Universe]'s competitive reality show The Apprentice) it's not shocking. Now, Andy Cohen, just get Jackie Siegel her own reality show, stat. And a crown (real diamonds, natch) to go with it.

Bully for Beauty: In the Press

This past week I was thrilled to appear on NECN's Morning Show to talk about issues in the lives of today's high schoolers (from the celebratory to the traumatic)-- and what parents and educators can do to help. Bullying is a major issue for kids today, and the new documentary Bully was the impetus for the below conversation (I personally find it interesting, horrifying, and heartening that the filmmakers intervened when the bullying of one boy became too dangerous [imagine how bad it must have been when cameras weren't present...]).


Prom is supposed to be a fun occasion, but it can also be problematic thanks to bullying and conflict with adults over proper attire. Some schools have started to clearly spell out rules on proper attire for males and females. In the below segment I talk about some of the sources of "sexy" dress trends for girls, and what parents can do.

And, just so you know I wasn't exaggerating about kicking off my high heels to dance and have fun, here's proof. I actually encouraged guests to do the same! You see, I try to be a fun academic and not a fuddy-duddy complaining about "cut-outs" in dresses. I really do like sequins just as much as the next girl...


Another girl who likes sequins? Jenna Talackova. Talackova, a 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant, made international headlines recently when she was denied a spot in the upcoming Miss Canada Universe pageant. Why? Talackova was born a boy and pageant organizers intimated she lied about this-- though she is a female on all official legal documents and she has undergo sexual reassignment surgery. When I spoke with French-Canadian reporter Catherine Lalonde last week for her story (for a rough English translation from the French, click here), I predicted that Trump would ultimately allow Talackova to compete because he loves publicity (as does Gloria Allred, of course, who is now involved).

I was right. Trump announced this week that Jenna was welcome to compete. I'm now predicting the biggest ratings for Miss Canada Universe. Ever.

This would never happen if Talackova was trying to compete in the Miss America Pageant. As I explain in the article, Miss Universe/USA split from Miss America when Miss America refused to be crowned in a bathing suit. Ever since then Miss Universe has had a sexier image. Miss America has tried to project a "girl-next-door" image that is reinforced by its famous morality clause, started by pageant legend Lenora Slaughter. This morality clause got a work-out, and an expansion, after Vanessa Williams was famously dethroned for posing in pictures with another woman in sexual positions. So, yeah, I don't think Miss America will *ever* have a transgender contestant. They have had contestants who were openly gay, but never any major state winners (that is not to say there haven't potentially been lesbian title holders, just that they were/are not open about their sexuality).

I hope Jenna Talackova wasn't too bullied when she was growing up-- and I bet she wore a pretty amazing dress to her prom. I just hope it passed muster with her school's dress code!

Whitey Bulger's Beauty Pageant Connection (from The Huffington Post Culture)

CLICK HERE TO READ THIS ON THE HUFFINGTON POST CULTURE! He was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for twelve years. But Whitey Bulger was ultimately brought down by Miss Congeniality.

No, not Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock's eponymous female FBI character in the 2000 film), but Anna Bjornsdottir.

According to The Boston Globe, which broke the story, Bjornsdottir is a 57-year-old graphic designer and yoga instructor who splits her time between Reykjavik, Iceland and Santa Monica, California.  During her California months she stays near Bulger's former hideout-- where he lived for sixteen years with girlfriend Catherine Greig while on the run from authorities in Boston (If you aren't familiar with Bulger, he was a former boss of the Irish mob in Boston, accused of killing at least nineteen; he was also the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in 2006's The Departed). Ever congenial, Bjornsdottir and Greig bonded over the neighborhood stray cat... Though at the time Bjornsdottir knew Greig as Carol Gasko.

After seeing a story on Whitey Bulger and Greig back home in Iceland, Bjornsdottir made the connection between Gasko and Greig and called in a tip to the FBI. She has since, reportedly, collected $2 million for her good deed. And, now, she has also gained international attention.

But this isn't Anna Bjornsdottir's first time in the international spotlight. Back in 1974 she competed in the Miss Universe Pageant as Miss Iceland. While she didn't win-- or even place as a semi-finalist-- she was crowned Miss Congeniality.

If you're interested in her national costume (my favorite part of the Miss Universe Pageant, which I've written about before) start watching at about 3:04:

After her pageant experience Bjornsdottir moved to California to pursue modeling, apparently doing quite well in print and television commercials (according to a People story, she earned more than $2000 a day for appearing in Vidal Sassoon and Noxzema commercials).

This also isn't the first time that the 1974 Miss Universe Pageant has been touched by intrigue and scandal. The winner, Miss Spain Ampara Muñoz, resigned her title a few months after crowning, citing irreconcilable differences with the Miss Universe Pageant. By that time the first runner-up, Miss Wales Helen Morgan, had won the title of Miss World (as Miss United Kingdom). In a bizarre twist, she also gave up her crown after it was revealed that she was a single mother. The Miss Universe title wasn't offered to any other runners-up. The following year Miss Universe 1972 crowned Miss Universe 1975, since there was no reigning queen.

Muñoz passed away earlier this year, not knowing that eventually one of her fellow contestants' involvement with a scandal would overshadow her own. Miss Congeniality, indeed. Just ask Whitey.