The concept of a “beauty pageant” often elicits suspicion from women in this day and age. The concept can seem superficial. Aren’t we supposed to be working toward some type of post-pageant society where women are judged not by our form, but the content of our character?
Truthfully, the pageants of the future offer something in between the swimsuit contest and talent section. No one proves this more than Miss Universe 2019, Zozibini Tunzi. She is one of the most stunning human beings on Earth, but it’s clear that isn’t what won her the crown. It seems she is dismantling the house that the patriarchy built — from the inside.
This competition, despite its problematic roots, has made huge strides towards recognizing and celebrating beauty that is more than skin deep. And it was Tunzi’s winning response to a challenging question that served as a marker for our great progress.
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The first Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A local businessman came up with the idea, as he thought it would attract more tourists to the region. At only sixteen years old, Margaret Gorman won the title and $100.
Since that fateful pageant, the pageant business has been booming. At least, for the most part. When the women’s liberation movement came around, things got a little more complicated. Like protesting and throwing oppressive symbols in a “freedom trash can” complicated.
Women started considering that maybe being scantily clad in front of the masses, while being judged by a panel of men on how beautiful they were, was kind of dehumanizing. Second wave feminism led a crusade against pageants that mostly ended in protests.
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Despite the controversy of these pageants, they have continued to be a huge part of both American and world culture. The Miss America pageant gave way for the Miss Universe pageant, a global (despite its name) competition celebrating beauty and talent.
After all, in case of some alien invasion, it’s important that we know who holds the universal beauty title. Right now, it’s the incomparable Zozibini Tunzi. The South African contestant raised in the village of Sidwadweni beat out fifty other women when she was crowned.
In the early days of the beauty contest, it was strictly that. The women would be judged by their evening gown and swimsuit attire and then judges would crown the winner. A new element was added in the 1990s that changed the entire dynamic.
Crown hopefuls are now required to complete a live interview with questions asked in front of an audience of millions, including attendees and TV watchers. In the past, this was an area of much contention.
Not everyone thrives in this setting. Looking beautiful is one thing, but sounding composed and informed while projecting a million-watt smile in front of half the world is a whole separate thing. Luckily for Zozi, it was her time to shine.
Her previously mentioned ethereal beauty and incredible grace is not what she is known for. Her answer to a specific interview question won her the title and the respect of nearly everyone.
The question asked earlier the same evening she would be crowned Miss Universe was this: “What is the most important thing we should teach young girls today?” Anyone would be tripped up by such an open-ended inquiry, but not Zozi.
Lights, cameras, and the eyes of millions looked on as she delivered a near perfect response. “I think one of the most important things we should be teaching young girls today is leadership,” she said without missing a beat. She went on to explain.
“It’s something that has been lacking in young girls and women for a very long time – not because we don’t want to but because of what society has labeled women to be. I think we are the most powerful beings in the world,” she declared.
For an event that is often chastised for thoughtless and senseless answers to these questions (see the 2001 classic Miss Congeniality starring Sandra Bullock) Zozi’s response knocked the collective socks off of watchers.
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Plus, her words weren’t just intelligent and powerful. She reintroduced the concept of empowered feminism in an arena that has made money off of women for decades, but historically usurped their power. She was fearless.
Zozi summed up her response like this: “We should be given every opportunity. And that is what we should be teaching these young girls – to take up space. Nothing as important as taking up space in society.” She might as well have dropped the mic.
The audience roared with applause, and then did so once again when she was finally and officially crowned Miss Universe. She is the first black woman to be crowned Miss Universe since 2011 and the third winner from South Africa.
Beyond her remarks about the place of women, Zozi wants to focus on inclusion and representation for women. “I have been very vocal about my mission to break beauty stereotypes,” she posted on social media. This mission is a rarity among beauty contestants.
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The crowning of Zozibini Tunzi as Miss Universe is a step in the right direction that could usher in a whole new world of pageants. Her verbiage stands in direct opposition with many of the skeletons in the pageantry closet. Or, more accurately, dressing room.
If the pageant of the future promotes inclusivity, representation, and women being powerful and taking up space, then maybe those second wave feminists would reconsider the freedom trash can. Though, realistically, they probably wouldn’t. Why waste a good picket sign?
The new wave of pageantry doesn’t erase the often vapid past, but it makes the future seem brighter. The beauty and brilliance of Zozibini Tunzi as Miss Universe makes us proud of the way earthlings are represented across the galaxy.
Much like Zozibini Tunzi, beauty queen H’Hen Nie captured the hearts of many. From her trademark cropped pixie haircut to the statements she gave to the press, she’s received ample attention. Another similarity between the two is their confidence and desire to improve the world.
For the rest of the world, H’Hen Nie might not seem like a radical choice as the country’s representative for the title of Miss Vietnam. However, she’s broken barriers as the very first ethnic minority crown holder, representing an incredibly proud small community.
H’Hen Nie / Instagram
Born into the Rade ethnic group, H’Hen is among a 270,000 person minority in a country of 95 million people. As a matrilineal society, an emphasis is placed on the mother’s lineage, where husbands take the names of their wives, and women inherit all property.
The norm for a young woman like H’hen would be to marry, a practice that begins around age 14, and raise children in the traditional multi-family homes. She didn’t envision that future for herself at all, so she broke the mold.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s capital, was more her style. In order to stay in the bustling metropolis to get an education, H’Hen worked hard, balancing multiple jobs cleaning houses, nannying, and waitressing. Then in 2014, a door opened to a much more profitable opportunity.
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Given H’Hen’s striking beauty, she pursued modeling, eventually applying and getting accepted into the reality television program Vietnam’s Next Top Model. Appearing on the show gave H’Hen an invaluable platform where she was noticed by millions, though she had her first taste of scrutiny.
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Critics roasted H’Hen for her darker skin tone and athletic build, calling her too thin. They slammed her runway walk as “not particularly outstanding.” All the negativity slid off her back, and she left the show eager to prove them wrong.
So, she pivoted directions just a fraction, and in addition to modeling, she pursued the pageant circuit. It was as if a light switched on for H’Hen when she walked across that stage. She was clearly right where she was meant to be.
The 2017 Miss Universe Vietnam judges saw her brightness too. She snatched the crown, making history, much to the delight of her supporters back home in Dak Lak. The win gave representation to a new type of beauty, but H’Hen held onto a different meaningful focus.
At first, H’Hen was going to designate 70% of her $10,000 pageant winnings for charity. After a meaningful conversation with her mother, though, she agreed it was right to commit the full amount to philanthropy.
H’Hen Nie / Facebook
Holding the title of Miss Universe Vietnam made H’Hen an overnight sensation. Opportunities and sizeable paychecks rolled in, and all that cash went directly to making the world a better place. That year, she paid off all her family’s debts and built a library to promote education in her homeland.
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Fans adored her innate altruistic values and bombarded her social media with support. The next stop was the larger Miss Universe 2018 pageant, where representatives of every country battle it out on a worldwide stage for the title, the perks, and open-ended monthly salary.
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H’Hen stood out among the many contenders for her hilariously fun spin on the national costume category, working the runway in a garment paying homage to Vietnam’s tasty sandwich, the Banh Mi. It was a quirky display of nerve and personality rare to the pageant scene.
Riding the wave of unwavering adoration from her fans in Vietnam, as well as her newly converted fans from her unforgettable Miss Universe performance, H’Hen handled an unpleasant dig from a rival queen with her head held high.
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Miss USA Sarah Rose Summers was criticized for a statement made on Instagram, saying, “Nie’s so cute and she pretends to know so much English…when you ask her a question after having a whole conversation with her and she goes…” She mimed a confused nod and smile.
In response to her online dragging, Sarah Rose quickly issued an apology, saying she never intended to mock or offend her fellow contestants. As they say, success is the best revenge, and H’Hen certainly walked away from the episode with the upper hand.
While Miss USA placed 20th in the Miss Universe 2018 pageant, Miss Universe Vietnam scored another historic victory for her country. She placed 5th in the competition, a first for her nation and the highest a Vietnamese contestant ever finished.
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True to her promise, H’Hen distributed all of her fifth-place winnings to a variety of charitable causes including the organization she’s a global ambassador for, Room to Read. The nonprofit works to improve education and literacy for young girls in Asia and Africa.
Like a real-life superhero, H’Hen considers it her duty to funnel as much money and energy into improving the lives of young girls in remote parts of the planet. No crown or number of social media followers feels as satisfying as changing the world.
H’Hen Nie . Facebook
Before heading to the Miss Universe competition, H’Hen squeezed in a trip back home. In a video detailing her visit, she said, “One of the greatest loves is the love you receive from your people. When you have this love, no crown nor riches can ever steal that from you.”
In an industry that receives criticism for being solely focused on objectifying women, H’Hen showed the world how the next generation of queens wants to shift the narrative. Thankfully, she’s not alone on her mission.
H’Hen Nie / Facebook
Considering Miss America first began as a “bathing beauty revue,” it’s no wonder that physical appearance long dominated the judging of its contestants. You’d think this wouldn’t fly in today’s political climate, but boy did it fly for quite a while.
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Miss America held onto its long-established swimsuit competition portion until 2018. We don’t know where the contestants were swimming, considering this pageant excerpt was so darn shallow. It was hard to decipher what was really important to Miss America for a long time.
In the midst of Miss America’s hollower years, it met the likes of Former Miss Alabama 2004, Deidre Downs. At the time, Miss Downs was a Samford University graduate who originally began competing in pageants in hopes of earning scholarship money.
@deidredowns / Twitter
And it worked! She wound up winning the title of Miss America in 2005. While Downs had a lifelong goal of becoming a doctor to fulfill, a less politically correct 2005 still just saw another pretty, thin, white girl steal the crown.
Diversity and inclusion weren’t at the forefront of the mainstream public’s mind back in 2005. It wasn’t even until 1983 that Miss America saw its first black winner, Vanessa Williams (despite her later resigning after scandal hit).
This isn’t to say anything negative about Downs, as she’s quite the brainy, classy lady, but it didn’t hurt her chances that she fit the mold of the idolized “standard” for women.
Essentially, it was hard to see the Miss America Pageant as even remotely deep. Though interview questions regarding US foreign policy, war, and poverty were common, contradictory elements overpowered the meaningful ones.
Considering a 2005 America held drastically different values than it has in recent years, the unforeseen 2018 news surrounding Deidre Downs’ romantic life had the public, as well as various media sites, floored.
Deidre Downs married the love of her life in April of 2018; and the love of her life happened to be a woman, attorney Abbott Jones. The two brides wed during a ceremony held at Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art.
The couple’s ceremony was overseen by an out lesbian minister, Rev. Jennifer Sanders, pastor of Birmingham’s Beloved Community Church. Her prideful presence only added to the day’s wafts of freedom that penetrated through Alabama’s normally conservative overtones.
Downs’ and Jones’ wedding photographer, Kelli Hewett Taylor, warmly detailed the occasion’s elegant aura, describing it as a “classic Southern fairy tale.” While she made sure to happily prattle over the couple’s “undeniable electricity,” others focused on the political aspect of the affair.
Sites, such as NBC News, reflected on what the American political climate was like at the time of Downs’ 2005 Miss America win. Since gay marriage hadn’t even been legalized yet, it’s now sour to imagine a world where Downs couldn’t have her magical day.
It became clear that Downs, who’s now an accomplished reproductive endocrinologist, was more than just another poised pretty face after all. Though she wasn’t out at the time of her crowning, Downs is a queer lady proudly working in medicine, which is beyond inspirational.
We’re obviously not the only ones who see Downs as an inspiration, as her equally as sagacious wife had some stunning words to say about Dr. Downs to AL.com.
“I have no doubt she will continue to be a role model to so many, especially to young women who can look to her and see that regardless of who they love, they can be beautiful, intelligent, and confident in their own skin,” Jones said.
Upon hearing of Downs’ big day, Brit Blalock, the founder of SAFE Samford, Samford’s LGBTQ+ alumni group, thought back at Deidre Downs’ college career, as well as her influence as a whole on Samford. It seems that nobody could get enough of this altruistic pageant queen.
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“Samford was very proud to lift her name up. I hope they are still proud because she is a phenomenal person. During her time as Miss America, she was campaigning for cancer research,” Blalock gushed of Downs’ good deeds.
In the midst of the endless shower of approval and compliments Downs received during this time, she gave an uplifting personal statement to AL.com regarding her own painstaking journey to self-approval.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Coco Chanel. ‘Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.’ It can take courage to be who you are and to realize your worth as a person, but once you do it is such a beautiful and freeing thing,” she said.
Downs has always believed in Miss America’s good intentions and morals (as she’s grateful for the platform it granted her to further advocate for children’s healthcare) despite its common “misconceptions.”
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With that being said, the current Miss America 2.0, which considers itself a competition rather than a pageant, has shown well-intended progress. Hopefully Downs’ authenticity and righteousness will inspire Miss America to bring on even more change.
While Miss America has had its issues, benevolent, intelligent past winners, such as Deidre Downs, have given the competition some well-needed merit. Well, the more celestial Miss Universe Pageant’s pool of past winners is also swarming with good, magnanimous ladies, one being Wendy Fitzwilliam.
In 1998, Wendy Fitzwilliam of Trinidad and Tobago was the first contestant to wear a two-piece on stage! She went on to become a lawyer and advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, and was honored by the United Nations for her service.
2. Finland (1952): The first Miss Universe winner was 17-year-old Armi Kuusela. While touring the world after her victory, she met her future husband, a Filipino business man named Virgilio Hilario.
3. India (1994): At only 18 years old, Sushmita Sen won over the judges, bringing honor to her family and country. The daughter of an Indian Air Force Wing Commander and a jewelry designer went on to model and act in the Hindi, Tamil, and Bengali film scene.
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4. Trinidad & Tobago (1977): The first black woman to win, Janelle Commissiong paved the way for future Miss Universe participants by using her platform to advocate for minority rights. As a result, her home country awarded her the Trinity Cross medal.
5. Chile (1987): One of the most prestigious pageant winners, Cecilia Bolocco made a career out of being a Spanish-speaking journalist for CNN, Telemundo, and other television programs, which earned her two Emmy awards.
6. United States of America (1954): Miriam Stevenson was the first American to win after a tie-breaking decision crowned her over Brazil’s Martha Rocha. Following her reign as Miss Universe, Stevenson remained in the limelight as a Miss Universe judge and TV host.
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7. Mexico (2010): Born in Guadalajara, Ximena Navarrete returned to her hometown after winning to work with Children International, a humanitarian organization focused on helping impoverished children.
8. Japan (1959): It was during the 8th annual Miss Universe pageant that the first Asian contestant, Akiko Kojima, was crowned. But the 22-year-old didn’t use her newfound fame to further her career in the spotlight; instead, she chose a quiet married life.
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9. Australia (2004): From the Land Down Under, nothing about her accomplishments were underwhelming. Jennifer Hawkins became the CEO and founder of two companies, the manager of a portfolio of properties, and host of Australia’s Next Top Model.
10. Norway (1990): Mona Grudt was the first and only Miss Universe contestant from Norway. The last to accompany Bob Hope on his tour to entertain the troops, she also guest starred on Star Trek and placed second on Norwegian Dancing with the Stars.
11. Greece (1964): Corinna Tsopei won over the judges with her desire to help people if given the platform to do so. She followed through on her promise and used her crown to become chairman for an organization that aided children diagnosed with leukemia.
12. United States of America (1995): Hailing from Texas and raised by great-grandparents, Chelsi Smith was the first contestant of African-American descent to become queen. Afterwards, she pursued a career in acting, singing, and television hosting.
13. Philippines (1969): Gloria Diaz was the first Filipino crowned Miss Universe. Shortly after winning the title, she landed a mega role in the Philippine film industry. To this day, she is still recognized as one of the country’s best actresses.
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14. Russia (2002): Oxana Fedorova was the first Russian contestant to win after the fall of the Soviet Union. For reasons that are still unclear, Fedorova was stripped of her title just 119 days later after being unable to fulfill her Miss Universe duties.
15. Israel (1976): Miss Universe winner Rina Messinger wanted to show “Israel [had] another side, not only war.” When asked which country she wanted to visit after winning, Messinger replied, “an Arab one.” She actually went to Thailand.
16. Philippines (2015): This year, pageant host Steve Harvey accidentally crowned Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez, by mistake. It was painful to watch Gutierrez take the crown off her head and give it to the rightful winner: Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach.
17. Colombia (2014): Paulina Vega, born to a cardiologist, always had a passion for the medical field. After getting crowned, Vega joined the fight against HIV/AIDS, volunteering with many organizations and marching in the New York City AIDS walk.
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18. Canada (1982): Beating out the United States, Guam, Italy, and Greece, Canada made history when Kate Dianne Baldwin won. She remained in the spotlight for many years following her reign, but ultimately chose a career in real estate.
19. Japan (2007): At 4-years-old, Riyo Mori started her career as a dancer. Following her win, she starred in Donald Trump’s Pageant Place and Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty. She fulfilled her lifelong dream of opening a multicultural dance school.
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20. South Africa (2017): During the competition, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters took a stand for women’s rights when she pointed out that there are still parts of the world where “women get paid 75% of what men earn for doing the same job.”
21. Philippines (2018): Despite moving to the Philippines when she was 18, the half-Scottish, half-Filipino Catriona Elisa Magnayon won several beauty titles for the country thanks to her famous slow-mo twirl.
22. Daniela Bianchi: Though she never held the crown, Bianchi did earn a runner-up position in 1960 before heading off to Hollywood. Media attention helped her land the role of Tatiana Romanova in the Bond film From Russia with Love.