When I asked my writing colleague and friend, a fabulously witty fashionista in her own right, about her thoughts on the Miss Universe pageant, and beauty contests in general, she dryly replied, “I don’t get it.  There are so many other things to spend money on.”  Well, tell that to Donald Trump, the American mega-entrepreneur, and “Comb-Over King”, who co-owns this international extravaganza of eye-candy with NBC.  The question I pose is what is the relevance of the Miss Universe pageant? A “Legs on Parade, Best in Breasts” beauty competition, and international institution, that has gradually sprinkled in more “head, heart, & humanitarian efforts” along the way.

It was actually my aesthetically and intellectually well-endowed childhood friend (we find the term “BFF” to be TMI) who called from New York City to tell me that Miss Universe was on, and to tell my mom who might enjoy it.  I had no idea.  So I kept it in mind, and turned it on quickly—a few hours later due to the time difference in California—so I could catch my favorite part: the beginning where you get to “meet” every single contestant from around the world.  From Miss Kosovo to Miss Ghana, Miss Ukraine to Miss Korea, Miss Argentina to Miss China—who was the tallest one on stage, seriously- and even Miss USA.  There were 89 contestants in all at this year’s 60th Anniversary of the Miss Universe Pageant, held in Sao Paulo, Brazil on September 12, 2011, and if you blinked during the introduction, you probably missed a myriad of these “beauts”.  Try as I might to watch “just the beginning,” I ended up sitting through the entire show, along with my mom, who did enjoy it.

It’s quite fitting that this event was held in Brazil, not only due to the fact that it served as a pre-game celebration to the South American country’s future hosting of both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, it’s also a place that wouldn’t bat an extended eyelash to womyn strutting around in high heels and bright bikinis.  As www.msnbc.com explained about Brazil, “women from all walks of life, not just beauty queens, sport barely there swimwear on beaches throughout the country.”  Frankly, the non-thonged bathing suits these gals donned were most likely considered modest to Miss Brazil and her crew.

When I asked my NYC Bestie why she decided to watch Miss Universe on a Monday night, she wasn’t quick with an answer.  In fact, she got slightly defensive, claiming the annual TV event was “only on in the background.”  With a little prodding, she made it clear that Miss Universe is the only Pageant she watches, as in not Miss America or Miss USA, and is only interested out of curiosity to see what other countries around the world “are up to”, and who they consider to be beautiful.

So who does watch this beauty contest of “universal” proportions?  Is it the same kind of folks from “Anytown USA” in the midst of middle America, as it generally is for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA Pageants?  Maybe Miss Universe is a highly anticipated event put on a pedestal by countries without a whole lot of other opportunities to shine?  Or perhaps the whole “abroad factor” broadens the horizons of the viewers?  Well, it’s estimated that over one BILLION people around the world tuned in or streamed live to watch this shimmering showcase.  And, despite the fact that this Pageant arguably demeans world renowned Beauty Queens without means, based on their external appearance rather than their inner-beings, the answer to the question of, “Who watches this show?” is simple:  I DO!!!

And, in case you weren’t lucky enough to have a friend call you the night it aired, or you’ve been living somewhere other than the 89 countries and territories represented that night, I’ll also tell you who won: Miss Angola!  This is huge, as 25 year-old Leila Lopes is merely the fourth winner from Continental Afrika, and only the second of the four to actually be of Afrikan descent.  Now brace yourself.  Believe it or not, since the Miss Universe crown has been placed atop this beautiful Black womyn’s head, bestowing her with the heavyweight title of, as Prince would say, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, there’s been controversy.  As IBTimes San Francisco casually emitted, “naturally, people around the world are curious if Lopes is really the most beautiful woman in the world.”  What?!? Why??  (Perhaps you should be sitting down for this.)

At first, I tried to play it cool, and not jump to conclusions regarding that comment.  Then I learned that in addition to allegations that Miss Lopes falsified some documents, and made some bribes, with the help of supposed “Pageant Organizer” Charles Mukano, to become Miss Angola-UK last year—all which has been denied by Miss Universe officials—word on the street is that Miss Angola is actually Cuban, and speaks fluent Spanish!  Oh boy.  Ignorance is NOT bliss in this increasingly racist situation.  OK.  For those who did not watch, or had the TV on “only in the background”, Miss Angola actually addressed the entire Brazilian audience in Portuguese, much to their delight, NOT in Spanish. Why?  Because it is the colonized tongue and official language of Angola silly!  And sure, maybe she does speak Spanish as well; it is another Romance Language after all. That still doesn’t make her Cuban.

Anyway, if you’re not buying into the whole racism argument, maybe John from IBTimes San Francisco’s “Join the Conversation” posts will make you think again with his comment about Miss Lopes: “She Fugly….and nappi headed no matter what race she is.”  I even had to sit down for that one.

In light of the news stories, commentaries, questions, criticisms, rumors, gossip, and plain ol’ hateration that has surfaced over the last couple weeks since the selection of Miss Universe 2011, I will say, what was originally going to be a basic socio-political commentary on the sexualization of womyn to become “relevant” in the universe via pageantry, has become a battle. Now it’s on!  People are taking the crowning of Miss Angola, and trying to turn it into a modern day lynching.  Yeah, I said it.   Just check out the UC Berkeley Republicans Bake Sale happening next Tuesday.  The race debate in America—and worldwide—is alive and well.

Mind you, we’ve been here before.  In terms of Beauty Pageants, this scenario is sounding all too familiar to the story of one of, if not the most famous Beauty Queens to ever catwalk across a Pageant stage.  She also could be considered most infamous for her “fall from grace” in the Miss America Pageant.  In case you’re a tad rusty on your Past Pageants’ trivia, I’m referring to none other than Vanessa Williams.  The year was 1983.  The film & soundtrack Purple Rain were on the brink of stardom, and the Pageant winner theme song, “Heere she iiiisss…Miiisss Amerrricaaa…” was played for the first time ever for an Afrikan-American womyn.  Then, in Milli Vanilli fashion, the music stopped.  (Insert record screeching sound here.)

Vanessa Williams in 1984 and Today

Some “artful” pictures of Miss Williams in her birthday suit surfaced and were promptly put in Hustler magazine without her consent, 10 months into her reign as Miss America.  Upon pressure from Pageant officials and sponsors, Miss Williams relinquished her title, passing it on to her first-runner up that year, Suzette Charles, who is also Black.  I wonder if the hate mail and death threats that Miss Williams received after winning simply got forwarded to Miss Charles, also as known as Miss America 1984b.

What could have led Vanessa Williams down a walk of shame, filled with emotional scars, social stigma, and other ingredients for a Reality TV show, turned into one of the greatest exemplifications of “relevance” by blowing up the R&B charts in 1988 with her debut album & single, “The Right Stuff”.  Other tracks, telling of her incredible comeback include, “Work to Do”, and “Save the Best for Last”, her biggest hit to date.  Miss Williams went on to do “Right” in essentially everything else she did.  From Broadway (In the Woods) to an Oscar win (Best Original Song, “Colors of the Wind”) to marrying former LA Laker Rick Fox (though now divorced), to Film (Soul Food) to TV (Ugly Betty), this beauty definitely proved she also has both brawns and brains.

This seemingly unlikely combination of Beauty & Brains is what turns off another friend and colleague of mine.  Aside from being a looker herself, with a younger sister on the modeling track, backed by Halle Berry’s “beauty insiders”, she is decidedly disinterested in Miss Universe and other Beauty Pageants, for these ladies are simply, “not role models for (her).  They are not authors (she) reads…not creators (she) admires.”  Even being born abroad, my gal-pal is unmoved by the potential significance of her country’s representation.  She’s just not into it, “knowing how the system is (in her Motherland), and how they treat the women there.”

My clever colleague likened this battle between Beauty & Brains to Greek Mythology’s Aphrodite & Athena.  Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, also known as Venus, was a mistress at using her “fly trap” to capture the hearts of men, both mortal and immortal, while Athena was most notably the Goddess of war & wisdom.  Though strong and wise, Athena was considered a second-runner up in the beauty department, if you will, by the Trojan prince Paris, who gave Aphrodite the “prized crown” over her and Hera. And so the story continues today, with Beauty & Brains finding little overlap in today’s value system.

It seems Miss Universe 2011 is aware of this quandary and conundrum, and realizes she too has “Work to Do” to change stagnant worldviews.  According to www.msnbc.com, Leila Lopes, who proudly said she wouldn’t change a thing when asked in the Pageant finals, recently said—in English (Yes, she speaks English too!), “I want to show, especially women that we can work, we can study; we can be beauty queens.  We can set an example to the entire world.”  The confident Miss Lopes lets it be known, “as Miss Angola (she’s) already done a lot to help (her) people,” and plans to do more humanitarian work including help in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  As for the subject of racism within the race for Miss Universe, Miss Lopes replied, “Any racist needs to seek help. It’s not normal in the 21st century to think in that way.”  Bravo!

So is the Miss Universe Pageant relevant?  I’ll let you be the judge of that.  Will I watch Miss Universe next year?  I haven’t ruled it out.  Perhaps I’d be more inclined if it was followed by the Mr. Universe Pageant.  You know, ladies first.  Even Queen Latifah knows that.