Originally posted on Critic – Te Arohi.

One day on George Street, two women intercepted me. The older one stared with such intensity that I felt sure she was a relative I’d forgotten about, and I slowed to meet her. “Excuuuse me,” she said, “I’m from Miss Universe New Zealand Otago.” Her voice was enduring, and loaded with upwards inflections. “You have such a beautiful figure!” The mermaid-haired young woman next to her piped up, “and you’re so tall!” They both had big doe eyes, and maintained the kind of strongly empty gaze particular to hypnotists and murderers. I kept my armpits shut tight so they wouldn’t smell my ugly, and stretched out my forearms to take their business cards. “Please get in touch!” they sweetly begged, and then strutted away. They were Donna, a signwriter by trade, and Annilise, a girl with modelling experience beyond her years. Together, they directed Miss Universe New Zealand Otago.

My story is a typical one. A young woman is seen and approached with business cards. Rachael was approached countless times: at Glassons; Dotti; work; the supermarket. “She would not give up until I said yes,” she tells me, and so eventually she conceded. Post-competition, she had to have them trespassed from her work. Most of us sat on the opportunity for at least a week before agreeing to it. “The first time I met her,” says Missy, “I thought she was really nice, and genuine. She said that she saw a lot of potential in me. I was all excited.”

Most people went to coffee with the director before they entered, so that she could vet us. You really have to embody being a traditional “Miss” to compete: no marriages, no children, and forget about it if you weren’t born female. This last rule was explained to me through laughter, as though trans* people were mythical creatures written into the rules by an overly superstitious head office.

The trainings served to bond us all together: we’d spend hours learning to walk, something we’d been doing since we were toddlers. Walking in stilettos is a little more difficult, but the training time got ridiculous: “I thought we wasted a lot of time at trainings,” Missy scowls. When asked what she learned from her trainings, Rachael says: “nothing.” We incessantly went over basic turns, watching Annilise demonstrate over and over, slowly and then more slowly, how to face another direction from the one we’d been walking in. At home I was handling corners completely fine, but at the trainings I could feel myself getting more stupid. For one fleeting moment I completely forgot how to stand up, let alone walk, and had to lean against a wall.

Our first event came up, organised by one of the contestants: Mary, a veteran of Miss Otago. She saw an opportunity for charity work at a place where people threw their money away all the time: the Wingatui Race Course. We were doing a bake sale, which was repeatedly described as “really disorganised and bad,” to raise money for Variety: the Children’s Charity. “We need to be here to help the children,” Donna reminded us, “if you see a child in need, help them.” I looked around at the kids’ smooth skin and wobbly walks from being carried everywhere. “The ODT is going to be here all day!” she was bubbling, “where are the children in need?!” I wondered if I had any sunscreen.

Mary and Yolanda, heroes of the day, arranged for us to do “promo” – to walk around encouraging incompetent gamblers to buy someone else to bet for them. “$200 was donated,” says Mary of the day’s earnings, “and I got no thanks for it. Nothing.” She arranged for us to be there and set up the promo opportunity, and for her to go unrecognised was, in her own words, “just sad.”

It was at Race Day that one of several inappropriate self-harm speeches was given. Later, a girl who left would be accused of cutting herself; two were accused of anorexia; another would be “self-hating” because she didn’t like a photo. “Donna made us all sit at the table, and was like, ‘girls, I want you to know that I’m not going to place anyone who’s stick thin in this competition’ … Then she said, ‘Sabrina, are you doing this?’”

With swimwear around the corner, her attitude to weight flipped: Sabrina suddenly had an amazing body, and girls were told to, among other things: lose weight; cover their stretch marks; get laser surgery; change their hair; use anti-wrinkle cream – on their faces and asses, for cellulite – and one was recommended a lip plumping procedure. In addition to the criticism crusade, Missy was annoyed because “it was more training than we needed, and more money: bikini; jewellery; fake tan; shoes, etc.”

Katie agrees: “they were picking on vulnerable people.” She quit the competition just before the swimsuit event, saying it cost her too much and she had to focus on her studies. At the training before swimwear, she didn’t show up. Some of us knew she’d quit, but we were all gathered together for the announcement: “because Katie didn’t come today,” the St Kilda surf gave us a drum roll, “she is, actually, eliminated from the competition.” I briefly wondered if I was on Survivor. Talking to Katie weeks later, she was bewildered: “Seriously? She was asking me to re-join the competition for two weeks after that event.”

“I did enjoy [swimwear],” says Missy, “but I also found it weird, because there were four-year-old kids in the pool.” Yolanda also thought it was OK, admitting, “it gave me a little more confidence in my body.” She and Mary both thought the swimwear event was to be expected: “it’s just the norm in a pageant, right?”

When I’d first sat down for coffee with Donna, it was revealed that Miss Universe New Zealand was attempting to change with the times: she explained that they now considered girls prancing around in bikinis on stage immoral, so “we’re holding it at the beach!” Not only does this not actually solve the problem, it is not what national HQ meant. We were eventually sent an email that, among other things, explained that there should never have been a swimwear event – just a short photoshoot. The ethicality of this can still be called into question, and if Miss Universe really wanted to change with the times they should try to reduce objectification by not running a beauty pageant. At least letting us get our personalities across would have been a good start.

Wall Street was the next event, and it was a breeze: we were just wandering around in T-shirts trying to get money for Variety. “It was really embarrassing!” blushes Missy. “It was a joke,” sasses Mary. We were made to walk around the mall in a line, over and over, just to get attention. Then we hit people up for money, which was a lot more effective than the beautiful stalls half the girls had set up to entertain children.

For me, Wall Street was when I realised what had been bugging me about the competition. Before I entered, I believed that girls in pageants were objectified. Afterwards, I realised that we’re made into objects of ridicule, not lust or envy. There are very few pockets left in NZ society that respect the #pageantlife. We certainly didn’t. Walking around trying to hustle for charity, we were met with either distaste or enquiry into our lives outside Miss Otago, but mostly with disinterest. Contestants weren’t all proud of it, either: for many, it was a shameful foray into girliness.

Final night was around the corner, and despite the public’s apathy, things were beginning to feel like a real competition: us versus the directors. After being told about the additional $40 modelling training fee, some of the girls began to snap. None of us remembered it being in the contract, and when we asked for a copy of what we’d signed it appeared to be re-written. One girl and her mother contacted Donna, upset. At our next training, she was called out on it. “I was contacted by someone’s mother last night,” she told us, and then explained that she didn’t appreciate it. She then named the girl, who was there, and shaking with anger. Donna explained that she didn’t like mothers getting involved, before calling her own daughter over to train us.

Shauna contacted the national director, Nigel Godfrey, who stepped in. Donna was to quit as soon as Miss Otago was over, and she’s now running Miss Earth New Zealand. Opinions were mixed on Nigel: most people’s phone calls with him were “not a two-way conversation.” He was obviously trying to save his brand, not us. When he arrived, he took over. “He knows what he wanted,” says Missy of his commanding style, “and I liked how it made Donna be quiet for a bit.” “Shit kinda got real when Nigel came in,” adds Yolanda. “That’s when it started feeling like a competition.” On the overall production, Mary confesses: “it was still shit … but you can imagine how bad it would have been if he hadn’t been there.”

Final night was around twelve hours long. We arrived for our interviews with the judges at twelve, which was an exercise in trying to be someone’s favourite toy. What are you most proud of? “Entering this competition!” Would you ever do a nude photoshoot? “I’d never do that,” we knew to say. Missy scoffs when she tells me this, “which is stupid, because I would.” Again, we were made into objects – tools, really – by those who ran the competition. We couldn’t do nude photoshoots of our own volition, but we could still do a swimsuit calendar that promoted Miss Otago: “I thought it was really scripted and not fair.”

On the night, the curtain opened and the music played – and not one of us was on stage. “Oops,” we collectively murmured, and walked on. The music began again, and we started our dance. “So the false start happened, which set the tone for the rest of the night,” said Donald, an audience member on the night. “I thought the dance was good, but it was very clear you weren’t professional dancers,” Cal was another attendee, who put up with an “intense blue beam of light in my eyes for twenty minutes.” Donald explains the light malfunction: “that’s meant to make the audience feel more involved, because then they can yell, ‘this show is hurting my eyes!’”

Donna and Annilise gave their speeches while we quickly changed into the right shoes for ours. We came back after our quick-change for a 15-second spiel about our sponsors. In most pageants, this is where we’d talk about ourselves; in Miss Otago, it’s where we advertise so that our sponsors don’t feel they’ve sunk $450 into nothing. There was no promotion of the sponsors except for the T-shirts we wore once and the hardly-sold calendars, and hardly any promo for the show itself, “except when Nigel tried to make us change our [Facebook] banners.”

Unfortunately, our speeches coincided with the beginning of the largest sequence of microphone fuck-ups in pageant history. “Oh my God, the wailing!” remembers Cal. “The girl was very upsetting,” Donald is shuffling uncomfortably while he remembers the first musical act, “not only was it high-pitched and nearly a scream, but the microphone kept on cutting out and it sounded like a police siren.” Every single act was tinged with eeriness or loaded with mistakes. “It’s weird how everything in it they managed to fuck up,” I’m told. “You’d think they would have by chance got one thing right.”

Before we came out in our evening gowns, a slideshow was presented of our swimsuit calendar shots. The pictures were in a random order, sometimes there were two or three pictures of one person, some girls who’d been eliminated were in the slideshow, and Nigel, doing the voice-over, got some names wrong. “He desperately tried to describe the overly-sexualised photos without sexualising it,” Cal laughs. Donald remembers the event nearly exactly the same way: “Everyone was trying to find something to look at that wasn’t the exploited women.” The hosts tried to explain the cancellation of swimwear events co-existing with the calendar by saying, “That’s not the world we’re living in,” but “we still want the girls to have an opportunity to wear swimsuits!”

The show might have been a hilariously hot mess for the audience, but for those of us on stage it was painful. We’d been in heels since midday, and smiling for three hours straight is just short of torture. My cheeks and jaw were on fire, and my lips dried out so much they stuck to my gums. I couldn’t stop smiling without licking my own face, which isn’t very beautiful. I made the top ten, but was cut after that; I immediately sank to the ground and into a little ball. I had it easy. Yolanda, still waiting in the top five for the final results, was in even more pain: “I broke my hand,” she confides; the same hand she had to hold her hip with for the duration of the show.

Finally, prizes were awarded and the ruthlessness of beauty pageant judges emerged: wrong nail polish colour, slightly too-sexy dress, short hair; a myriad of things that make one wonder, “I can’t believe they even noticed that.” Finally, though, it was over. When Yolanda stood there at the end, free at last, she looked down at her sashes, and thought, “fuck yeah. I could die right now and be happy.” “The best bit was having it all over and done with,” says Mary, a sentiment we all shared.

There are plenty of warnings about pageants, but not enough about the comedowns. I’d invested time and money, and while I found my sudden collection of heels and fake tan irritating, it was nothing compared to a void in my life where 20 friends used to be. I used to spend hours a week with them; afterwards I spent even more wondering why I suddenly felt both more confident and more lonely. The confidence came not from learning to be beautiful, but from knowing so many supportive, friendly, and fascinating women. I don’t have that twice a week anymore.

My confidence is sticking, but pageants are a fading tradition. There are plenty around but next to zero coverage. I’m thankful for the friends I made and newfound knowledge of the art of bronzing, but it’s obvious that Miss Otago wasn’t as successful as it has been in the past. Ineptitude was key to this failing, but it should be remembered that most people just aren’t interested in it. The failure of Miss Otago to be the prestigious tradition it apparently once was is probably because, as was rightly said, “that’s not the world we’re living in.”

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