When beauty means more than the shape of the face

Miss World Kenya 2010 Natasha Metto (centre) August , 22,2010, is all smiles after being crowned during the pageant's finals at the Braeburn's Auditorium, Nairobi. She is flanked by the 1st runners up Farida Diba (left) and 2nd runners up Ndarasho Mshila Photo/Elvis Ogina (Nation )

What you need to know:

  • It took half a century for judges in the Miss World beauty pageant, for instance, to spot it on a black African woman

A fortnight ago, Ximena Navarrete was declared Miss Universe 2010 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. In the same week, Natasha Metto was declared Miss World Kenya 2010 and drove off in a Toyota Ist.

But, what would it take a Kenyan girl to be Miss World/Universe this or that?

If you wish to contest in the Miss World Kenya pageant, just drop those marriage plans. Also, you should never have been married.

And you should be armed with a gynae’s certificate indicating that there is nothing growing in your womb. Scars, traditional markings and tattoos are out.

You must also be sweating 25 and below, but not as far down as Sweet 16. It means beauty might as well not just be in the face. Or on your face. It took half a century for judges in the Miss World beauty pageant, for instance, to spot it on a black African woman.

That was Nigeria’s Agbani Darego, the 2001 Miss World. When the psychology major at New York University was crowned at the finals in South Africa, she enthused “...it’s a wonderful feeling and it’s indescribable…. I have made history…. Black is beautiful.”


No other black-skinned African has won the crown in the competition’s history. Okay, there were three other African Miss Worlds — Egypt’s Antoine Costanda in 1954 and South Africa’s Penelope Coelen (she later married wealthy sugarcane farmer Graeme Rey) and Anneline Kriel, who were crowned in 1958 and ’74 respectively. But they were not black.

It seems a patented cutie is likely to win Miss World — the oldest surviving international beauty pageant — if she comes from anywhere but Africa.

Consider this: Of the 52 Miss Worlds since Eric Morley mused up the idea, 25 have come from Europe, 13 from the Americas, 10 from Asia-Pacific, seven from the Caribbean and a measly four from Africa.

The sheen of being declared “the fairest of them all” is likely to shine with a visible patina if you were born in Venezuela. Or India, for these countries boast the highest number of Miss Worlds — at five crowns apiece.

Of course it is debatable whether the winner is really the planet’s most beautiful, as Catharina Lodders opined when she was crowned in ’62. “I don’t think I’m the most beautiful girl in the world…. I am the most beautiful here.”

Miss World aside, there has been only three Africans who have claimed the Miss Universe title: South Africa’s Margaret Gardiner in ’78, Michelle McLean of Namibia in ’92 and Botswana’s Mpule Kwelagobe in ’99.

The human body could be a great work of art, but are the parameters of judging “beauty” in these contests squinted through Western eyes?

Well, beauty pageants are symbolic representations of collective cultural identities. The concept of beauty varies from culture to culture.

In the West, beauty equals tall and rim-rod skinny. In traditional Africa and Asia, it’s big, bigger, biggest — proportionality notwithstanding.

Blame the Stone Age man. The chubbiest wife was her own insurance against famine. Today, in Mauritania for instance, girls are deliberately “fattened” since high are the chances of getting a hubby if you’re barreled enough, love tyres and all.

In Africa, the concept of what is beautiful has little to do with being not taller than 1.68m, or being a “leggy-rover” with high cheekbones on a moon-shaped face.

Enter the Greeks, who believed beauty has mathematical properties. Beautiful things, they postulated, are usually symmetrical and proportional. Hence, the 36-24-36-body radio required of today’s contestants, who must also exhibit talent, poise, intelligence, resourcefulness and social consciousness.

But hey! Where do you place the belief that “our culture,” and therefore perception of what beauty is, “is superior to yours”?
Unlike Miss World or Miss Universe, Miss International Beauty Pageant, the “Festival of Beauty”, is not based on how fetching one is in the looks department.

Contestants are expected to serve as “Ambassadors of Peace and Beauty”, oozing tenderness, benevolence, friendship, beauty, intelligence and ability to take action, besides having a great international sensibility.

But, even, here, in the “Olympics of Beauty”, no African has ever been crowned. Unlike modelling pageants, where the winner must have angular features, hanger-like shoulders, a lanky frame and that elusive “X” Factor that makes Kenya’s Ajuma Nasenyana and Sudan’s Alek Wek such fashion and image marketing machines, the Miss Anything winners — say, Miss World — spends a year travelling.

The current Miss World, Kaiane Aldorino of Gibraltar, represents the Miss World Organisation in its various charities. The organisation, which is franchised in more than 100 countries, has raised millions of dollars for children’s charities over the years.

But, in spite of its large constituency of 22-carat cuties, Kenya has not performed beautifully on the global stage over the years.
And the only Kenyan “Miss World Something” in a global sense was crowned by default.

Winfred Omwakwe, the First Runner-up during Miss Earth in 2002, was crowned after the actual winner, Dzejla Glavovic from Bosnia Herzegovina, failed to fulfill her duties.

The farthest a local contestant ever went in the Miss World contest was Khadija Adam, the 1984 Miss Kenya. “Katie” sashayed to the semis in the 1984 Miss World, where she was crowned Miss Africa.

Khadija Adam, a product of African Heritage, became the first and only Kenyan beauty to have graced the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.

That feat of securing a semi-final slot was equalled 16 years later by Yolanda Masinde during the Miss World beauty pageant in 2000.

She was crowned Miss Africa, and could have legged further were it not for that small matter of choosing Mariah Carey as her role model “because I also sing on the side.”

Contestants are judged using an inimitable scoring system that awards points up to 110 per cent: personal interviews with the judges (50 per cent), national gown evening wear (25 per cent), swimwear (25 per cent), and an optional 10 per cent for achievement portfolio.

Then there is stage presentation and the random Question-Answer session. This is the trickiest part that requires a scholarly effort.
In the 1980s, the pageant was repositioned with the slogan “Beauty With a Purpose” and added tests of intelligence and personality.

The first man went to the moon in 1969, the year Filipino Gloria Diaz became Miss Universe. She was asked, “If the man from the moon landed in your hometown, what would you do to entertain him?”

She replied: “I guess since he has been in the moon so long, he would enjoy anything that an ordinary man would.”

The question calls a contestant to think on her stilettos.

During the Miss Universe of ’94, Charlene Gonzales was asked, “How many islands are there in Philippines,” she retorted: “High tide or low tide?”

We can’t forget Miss Serbia in the 2003 Miss Universe. The question posed was: “If you could be either water or fire which would you be and why?

Her response? “Well, I’m a human being and I don’t know how is it to be fire or water and for that reason, I really don’t have an answer to that question. I’m human being, a girl that has emotion that fire and water don’t have.”


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