CURRENT ISSUES gender
The changing face of beauty pageants
by Diana Mavunduse

Beauty pageants are no longer about modelling half-naked in catwalk styles, but a life-time opportunity for young women to become ambassadors for their own countries. To be such an ambassador, a woman is chosen on the basis of her beauty, deportment and intelligence, and not political ideology or affiliation.

“Modelling is no longer considered just as a hobby, it is a profession. It is a stage for young women to show their talents and for designers to show how professional they are,” says Marvellous Nyahuye, communications manager for M-Net/Multi-Choice Zimbabwe.

Former Miss Botswana, Mpule Kwelagobe (19) was this year crowned Miss Universe. The pageant is American-owned and was previously dominated by western contestants. Over the years it has spread to Africa, allowing more and more African beauty queens to take part in the competition.

The question of motherhood concerned the pageant. Miss Guam, Trisha Helfin, from the Marian Island in the South Pacific, was sent home because of her “indelicate condition”. Pageant officials contended Trisha was pregnant, a condition outlawed by the competition owners.

The question of whether Miss Universe should step down if she became pregnant was answered Mpule’s victory. “I think pregnancy should not in anyway interrupt her duties, she should celebrate her femininity. Having children is a celebration of womanhood for all females, including beauty queens,” she told the competition judges.

“The question to some seemed so provocative in the sense that it [infringes on] a human right to have babies,” Maleta Mogwe-Lock, the organiser for Miss Universe Botswana, said.

“With her intelligence and composure, she came out as a personification of the ideal southern African woman, one who is forward-looking, educated, ambitious, and assertive. It was as if she was speaking for an entire generation,” added Mogwe-Lock.

The pageants have long been derided by some, especially gender rights groups, as shallow affairs that demean women by promoting style over substance as a feminine role model. But that perception has been eroded over the years.

“To all young Batswana women we say: the sky is the limit, Mpule has set the pace. She has proved that women can take Batswana to greater heights, especially in the next millennium. Cast your vote for a woman in the coming general elections.”

Commenting on the advertisement, Alice Kwaramba of Women in Development Southern Africa Awareness (WIDSAA) Project said, “The sky is the limit for all women in southern Africa. Mpule proved that for women to make it in this competitive world, there is need for self-confidence, determination and education.”

The increasing number of entrants from southern African countries in international beauty pageants shows that attitudes have changed over the years. People are now appreciating the event.

“I think pregnancy should not in anyway interrupt her duties, she should celebrate her feminity...”

“Parents are encouraging their children to participate in these pageants. Misconceptions have been erased by the success of other beauty queens. Who wouldn’t want to see her daughter to be an ambassador?” says Nyahuye in an interview.

She adds that the introduction of Face of Africa may help foster a positive image of the continent by creating valuable and exciting new opportunities for many of its talented models, both male and female.

Young as she is, Mpule is not only representing her country or southern Africa, but Africa as a whole. Faced with many duties, the most challenging one is to portray a positive image of Africa and to counter the negative aspects reported about the continent.

Like her predecessor, Wendy Fritzgerald of Trinidad and Tobago, Mpule wants to highlight the AIDS issues from a southern African point of view. Her country, Botswana, and other southern African nations such as South Africa and Zimbabwe are among the worst affected by the deadly pandemic.

Most models know that being a beauty queen brings many opportunities in the business world. Those who come back after their one year stint in Europe often start their own modelling agencies, some become designers, others complete their studies there and come back to work in their own countries.

The exposure they get enriches their minds to start up businesses and it is also an opportunity for African designers to show their professionalism, as happened to designer Angelo John of Savannah Creations, Botswana. He designed the dress that helped Mpule win the crown.

Like Mpule, Angelo instantly got international acclaim and since then his life has changed over night, he has been asked to design clothes for other countries.
The western media is notorious for highlighting only negative events in Africa. Recent inroads by Africa’s beauties into the fashion and beauty business are helping change attitudes.

Mpule’s win has opened a golden marketing opportunity for southern Africa. “Most Americans have never heard of Botswana, let alone have a clue where it is, southern African tourist organisations have been presented with a golden opportunity which should be seized upon,” writes Milan Vesely in African Business magazine.

The producer of Face of Africa, Jan Malan says, “there is need for conscientisation in schools and in the society to try and change the perception of beauty, especially with the parents.”

Mpule, the first African to win the prestigious title, has proved that old prejudices and misconceptions no longer apply. Her win signifies the African woman’s coming of age and opens the door for other contenders.

“The will-power, courage and positiveness combined with dazzling beauty and brains will get Mpule wherever she wants to go in life. Could there be a fitter celebration of femininity?” writes Victoria Massimo of The Voice, a Botswana weekly..


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