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.

The "Cool" Power of Pageantry

This morning I was on NECN's Morning Show talking about the controversy surrounding the Indian Land Elementary Warrior School Pageant-- a child beauty pageant meant to be a fundraiser in South Carolina that was ultimately canceled after parent protests.

You can read more of my thoughts on "Parents against pageants" by clicking here.  In a nutshell I think there are reasons to be concerned about schools sponsoring elementary school-age pageants (as opposed to high school level "pageants" like Prom/Homecoming Queen), but that doesn't mean all child beauty pageants are bad. As I say, there's reason to think it's easier to do a child pageant at 6 months than 6 years.

As Steve, the anchor, mentions about 55 seconds into the clip, Miss USA (the first ever from Rhode Island-- hence her New England connection), appeared about 45 minutes after I did. I know it's easy to confuse us-- ha!

At about 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the above clip Olivia Culpo does address the South Carolina school pageant.  Note that she does so in very stereotypically pageant fashion though, emphasizing that beauty is really on the inside.

I was somewhat surprised to hear Culpo respond in that way because as I was driving to NECN's studios earlier I heard her talking on the radio.  During her radio interview I was a bit shocked by how candid (and fun) she was about a few things.  One of the things she said was a bit negative though-- which I think she herself recognized because she then effectively said, "Whoops, shouldn't have said that on the radio!" While talking about her cello playing the radio hosts asked her why she chose to compete in Miss USA, which doesn't have a talent component.  She responds that she thought about doing the "American" system, but decided to do Trump's Miss USA because it's "cooler."  You can hear this exchange starting around 3:20 here.

Both Miss USA and Miss America have positives and negatives and while there are some cross-over contestants most young women opt for the system that fits them best.  Because Miss America places an emphasis on talent and interview/platform the women who go that route often aren't as "sexy" as Miss USA system contestants.  Trump's system is known for being physically sexier, but both Miss America and Miss USA have done a great job of helping women get into the entertainment industry.

Note that former Miss USAs (like Susie Castillo) are more likely to be entertainment reporters, while former Miss Americas (like Gretchen Carlson) are more likely to be news anchors/commentators.  The difference between Castillo and Carlson reflects slightly different politics (Miss America is known for being more conservative, as I wrote about in June on Slate-- though note that despite Trumps' known conservatism the Miss USA system is noted for being liberal, which helped lead to the first Miss Conservative U.S. Pageant in July).

Of course not all beauty queens go on to entertainment careers. Some go into politics, and I wrote about some of those currently running for political office yesterday at The Hill. You can check out my piece by clicking here: "From reigning to campaigning: Beauty Queen political candidates."  Despite Culpo's comment I found all the women I spoke with for this article to be pretty "cool."  I especially loved that Caroline Bright's (Miss Vermont 2010) mother has a PhD in women's studies and that Lauren Cheape (Miss Hawaii 2011) decided to run for office on her plane ride home from the Miss America Pageant (it is a long flight from Las Vegas to Hawaii, but it's not life-changing for everyone!).  I also loved Lauren's attitude about her noteworthy talent, jump-roping (yes, including a "butt bounce"!), which she uses to help fight childhood obesity and to explain to kids that you will inevitably make mistakes (like stepping on the jump rope) but you just need to keep going.

And, again, while some Miss America contestants may not be considered traditionally "cool" by their Miss USA sisters, many of them are pretty amazing individuals who I'd love to have a conversation with.  Take, for instance, the reigning Miss Montana who will compete for the title of Miss America 2013 in January.  Alexis Wineman could be the first woman with a developmental disorder to win the Pageant. The 18-year-old was diagnosed with autism at age 11.

The name of her platform is pretty clever, by the way: "Normal is Just a Dryer Setting, Living with Autism."

Wineman reminds us that "cool" comes in all different settings and any pageant that can teach children that cool and beautiful come in many different shapes and sizes is probably okay with me-- especially during October, which is Anti-Bullying Awareness Month (for more recent thoughts from me on anti-bullying this month, check out the profile of our little family toward the end of this newsletter).

A New England Beauty Queen: Miss Rhode Island wins Miss USA at Last

The drought is over. It's been 61 years and Rhode Island finally got a Miss USA (note they haven't yet had a Miss America). Last night Olivia Culpo was crowned Miss USA.

I had a lot of fun watching the pageant (and live tweeting) and RI was a standout from the beginning. Her gown was gorgeous, especially the color-- as was her face-- and she answered her final question with aplomb.

What was that final question? It was about the pageant, of course. If you recall a few months ago the Miss Canada Pageant had to deal with controversy when a transgendered contestant was first denied and then reinstated as a competitor (I wrote about this and linked to some press coverage here). So Culpo was asked, "Would you feel it would be fair for a transgender woman to win the Miss USA title over a natural-born woman?" Her response: "I do think that that would be fair, but I can understand that people would be a little apprehensive to take that road because there is a tradition of natural-born women.  But today where there are so many surgeries and so many people out there who have a need to change for a happier life, I do accept that because I believe it’s a free country."

The whole Miss USA Pageant this year was both meta and self-referential. It was a pop culture smorgasbord with too many reality television stars to count. On the judges' panel alone there was a Kardashian, an Apprentice, a Bachelorette-- need I go on? And Giuliana Rancic of E! and her own reality show fame (note she married another reality TV star, Bill Rancic, Trump's first winner of The Apprentice) along with Andy Cohen, Bravo exec and host of Watch What Happens Live!, co-hosted.  Rancic wore three dresses, one with an aspirational Jolie leg slit; needless to say, in general, her dresses dominated the questionable pageant styles donned for the telecast (particularly the Sherri Hill monstrosities "modeled" during the Parade of States).

The final questions were the real pop culture test. Out of the five three referenced pageantry-- the transgendered contestant query for RI, another mentioning Toddlers & Tiaras, and the most amazing referred to an embarrassing clip from Cohen's WWHL that showed several contestants unable to name Biden as the VP (and the contestant explained how the girls just "misanswered").  One of the others about women in movies and TV made a strange reference to Pretty Woman, which also has a T&T link after Paisley appeared in her "prostitot" streetwalker costume.

Not nearly as bad as the Miss SC Teen fiasco from a few years ago though (to relive that gem, click here).

I do have to say that I hated it when the outgoing Miss USA pulled out a "factoid" that is meant to apply to the Miss America Pageant (although, statistically speaking, I suppose it could apply to both pageants). Alyssa Campanella said that parents have a better chance of having a son play in a Superbowl than a daughter who wins Miss USA. I've been using this for some time (I first wrote about it in 2007) and I know it is supposed to refer to Miss America. Let's keep our pageant systems straight ladies!

The next stop for Olivia Culpo won't be a return to her dorm room at Boston University-- at 20 she just finished her sophomore year.  Instead she'll be in New York starting to make appearances and prepare for Miss Universe.  Despite Culpo's beauty it's hard to imagine that she'll be able to stand up with the tall international queens, but you never know! I'm curious why she opted for Miss USA and not Miss America (given that she has a talent beyond being able to tie a cherry stem with her tongue, which is playing the cello).  Pageant watchers, was she "too beautiful" for the Miss America system? In any event, she's ended her state's drought and taken her own rightful place in the pop culture pantheon.