I saw her walk in. A small, fresh-faced, blonde-headed girl heading in the direction of the other girls. This will be interesting, I think to myself. She spoke with a large smile beaming her face and in introducing herself, suddenly, the girls went from plastic-doll look-alikes to caricatures of puzzled agony. With jaws down, eyebrows crouched in, noses squinted and left cheeks up to one side, the girls were definitely confused. Dyala had just presented herself as the newest member of Miss Lebanon Australia Beauty Pageant 2013.
Gazing upon her pearly white teeth, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had whitening. They were a serious case of Omo Matic. All the girls analyse her, head to toe. I think she’ll just make the cut in their books. Their eyes flicker to one another with rapid eyebrow lifts, as if in a sorority, to approve the candidate’s gestures and efforts. Dyala awkwardly removes herself from the inner circle in an attempt to assimilate with the rest of the girls, who were in a big circle almost about ready to break out in song with ‘WE ARE FAMILY’.
“Pageants are public cultural spectacles with huge built-in audiences, so they are a platform for protest,” Carol Hanisch, a feminist activist, postulates. Many could argue that a pageant – whether it be for beauty, scholastic or talent purposes, or all three – is open for controversy. If this is the case, is controversy key to success, key to recognition, key to everything else defeating the purpose of a pageant in the first place? In the latest Miss Lebanon Australia Beauty Pageant, held in April this year, the focus of the Pageant was to demonstrate and elude femininity, grace, talent, intelligence and beauty. Instead, the Pageant became the culmination of politics and controversy.
Hit or Miss?
The judges disappear, having been called for a quick meeting just before the winners are announced. Held in Doltone House, Sydney, with a bare-black stage, the catwalk in between audiences resembles a long walk-of-shame. Deedee Zibara, the previous year’s winner begins the night with:
…the past year has been the greatest year of my life, I’ve had pitfalls and triumphs… I’ve learnt the significance of what it means to be an ambassador. Miss Lebanon Australia is a vehicle for the Lebanese community and the Australian Community to demonstrate their beauty.
For Deedee, though her points hold credibility, it seems that neither feminism nor changing demographics will stop the ritual of showcasing enthusiastic, academic, good-looking women who are ambitious. Ambitious, and stopping at nothing to achieve their best. As Brigette Constantin said, “I go for what I want, and I don’t stop until I have it.”
Miss Fashion is presented to Stephanie Azzi. Miss Elegance, Miss Charismatic, Miss Personality, Miss Interview and Miss Confidence follow. Miss Photogenic’s title was next to be announced, and Natalie Chalhoub, with one foot-forward, steps back in new knowledge that her photogenicity is not recognised. The title is held by Crystal. Girls look at each other, some with eyebrows raised – I gather – sensing something is going wrong.
Natalie looks to her right, smiles, and claps. Many told Natalie she was very photogenic and deserving of that title. Natalie, 18, studying journalism at UTS, with a slight pause, answered her first question with her personal motto: “for beautiful eyes look for the good in others, for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness, and for poise walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” Striding on in a black top, white pants and open-toe black shoes – likened to a Middle-Eastern barbie doll – a distinct and large jawline compliments her nose with bouncy, curly hair tumbling onto her back and collarbones like a porcelain doll.
Her second question, a personal one ending in teary eyes, was which person she admired most and why. Looking around, smiling, she answers her grandfather, Boulous Chalhoub: “my grandfather is a true testament to the human spirit. He is the epitome of selflessness and when he was alive he was the true jewel of our family. He was absolutely incredible and I hope to marry a man exactly like my grandfather.” Natalie smiles, and walks simply and graciously away, like the form of a ghost floating by.
Winner of Miss Photogenic, Crystal, still seems to shy away from camera photos. She quips that recently, a magazine had published a photo of her, but she had refused to be a part of it as she looked “disgusting.” An inside source reveals “that is the most ironic thing . Crystal literally used to run away from the camera.”
In the wake of the many other awards, including Miss Model, Miss Runway, Miss Swimwear, Miss Congeniality and Miss Friendship, girls break out of character with jaws clenched, eyes drooped, whether it be by genuine surprise, be it good or bad, yet trying to maintain their pageantry “happy-shock” moment.
At this point Natalie had been the only one without a title or crowning; a shock to be quite honest, her answers were one of the strongest in the competition. At this stage, every title was handed out, the last unknown to everybody was Miss Charity. It has been known for many years now that the contestant who had raised the most money by selling the most raffle tickets would be crowned this title and in turn would travel to Lebanon to represent Australia in charity work. Looking slightly out of place, looking as if she was a rabbit caught in headlights, Natalie receives the title of Miss Charity.
With a genuinely unexpected face, Natalie takes the crown and smiles like a typical lady-like pageant girl, pinches the former Miss Charity and murmurs something. Suddenly, one of the other contestants, Stephanie, whole family stands up and leaves.
Maintaining her character, yet clearly wavered slightly at the sight of Stephanie’s family’s mass exodus, Natalie waits for her call to exit.
Backstage, there is a hype and buzz, heightened by the chatty girls gesticulating wildly to one another. Natalie says to the former Miss Charity, “this isn’t my crown, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m definitely not Miss Charity, I sold my tickets last night.” The former Miss Charity persists that it may just have been a random pick of who was meant to acquire the title this year. Natalie responded passionately, “no, it’s the person who raises the most money and this is unfair.” Hands on curvaceous hips, she murmurs under her breath to somebody …this is unfair and part of me just wanted to go to that microphone and just stuff everything up and tell them something was going on because I knew for a fact that Stephanie raised the most... Miss Charity was for the girl who raised the most money and sold the most raffle tickets.
Dad bought like five booklets, I didn’t sell any, and I know there were some girls who sold like $2000 more than me.
She turns her body around to where I’m facing, and pretending I had just arrived to the scene of the crime, I ask her how she is feeling. In what may have been a vulnerable moment, she said, “Stephanie was devastated, she walked off the stage and went to her parents and left, which killed me because that was her moment to shine and I took that away and it wasn’t even my choice, it just came, that made me feel really bad.”
Backstage, I hear girls approach Natalie saying, “you’ve got it in the bag”, referring to her placing first as winner of Miss Lebanon Australia 2013. Natalie, with a nervous and disappointed smile, now knows that, with the crown of Miss Charity, whether rightful or not, she is ineligible to be crowned winner.
In no particular order, the seven finalists are announced: Dianne Rizk, Macey Nemer, Natalie Chalhoub, Dyala Bachour, Layla Yarak, Amanda Hanoun, and Brigette Constantin.
Not just a pretty face?
From the end of the 1960s, contestants in beauty pageants were asked questions on current affairs and politics. In this year’s competition, only one was asked: “so tonight’s pageant represents Lebanon and Australia, what do you admire most about Lebanon and most about Australia?” One of the girls confidently proclaims that “Australia is very multiculturalism”, but others respond to a much higher standard. Macey, answering with a strong sense of direction says, “the resilience of the country and the people themselves bounce back from everything they have faced gives me great pride, what the country has, its beautiful landmarks and its people, simple things like food…” Natalie postulates:
…what I admire most about Lebanon is the fact that Lebanon has undergone civil war as well as invasion in just a short amount of time and Lebanon gets back on its feet and it returns to its firebread atmosphere… what I most admire about Australia is that it is a very democratic nation and if you work hard enough it will reward you with fruits of your labour.
With a big cheer and what looks like an ovation from the audience, whistles were thrown around.
Dyala stated she had most admire from both Lebanon and Australia “…the same thing from both countries. I admire the national pride that Lebanese people have in Lebanon and that same national pride is the pride that Australians have in Australia.” With an ordinary clap, Dyala walks off proudly with her chin up and daring smile.
The Winner Walking back on stage, with their right hands on their hippy forms, pointing sharp-angled elbows out, almost in an attempt to whack the opponents from the competition, the finalists stare glimpses at the ground.
Natalie is named second runner-up. Although the competition was tough, there were a few girls I believe who were worthy of the title, and Natalie was certainly one of them. With murmurs across the reception, people wonder why she didn’t receive first-runner up at least, if not the winner. The winner of first-runner up 2013 is Layla Yarak. Layla smiles and laughs, happily taking her crown.
The time comes to announce the winner, and it is Dyala Bachour. I recall her previous question, which was which famous person she would like to spend time with if granted the opportunity. With a sigh, Dyala answers that, if she could spend an hour with someone famous, it would be Princess Diana: “I think she is an inspirational woman, her compassion to humanity, her intellect, her class and her elegance, is everything I aspire to be. It would definitely have to be the late Princess Diana.”
The remaining girls, with jaws hanging down at least a metre, laugh innocently and kiss her. A girl in the background mutters a swear-word. Dyala stands their oblivious to the ill-reception behind her, excited in all her glory.
The Aftermath As soon as Dyala was announced winner, the judges left, apparently “running for their lives,” an insider discloses. On departure, I overhear a sponsor of the event muttering that the judges “had no say in the event” and “had no idea where the results came from.” An inside source reveals that a contestant’s father was at the judges’ table as soon as she stuffed up. A contestant’s mother was also seen screaming at the organiser of the event outside the function centre.
Girls also began to question the morals of the competition after finding out that the cheque that would potentially be sent to Lebanon for the charity work would not be sighted on the day. Whether it ended up being sent, no one was sure. With the girls only receiving a watch, their rightful sash, and a book titled Meeting Your Dream Man and Keeping Him by Robyn Partridge, many believed there was not much reward for their efforts and their investment in the competition.
An insider believes that some girls’ participation in the competition was tempered by internal influences: some girls were invited to every gala dinner, others almost all the time, others barely any. It wasn’t until after the end of the Pageant that a few began to lay ‘the cards out on the table.’
The Miss Lebanon Australia 2013 Facebook Page had a minimum of 200 people “blocked”, as many were posting negative and cruel comments. Photos were uploaded of contestants, “that were revolting,” a source believes, “it was like propaganda.” The difference between the polemic now and in the early days of pageants is the constant media presence, of which social media plays an integral role. This can be seen as an aide-mémoire for the next pageant, on both a local and global level. The only photo that wasn’t “revolting”, according to the source, was Dyala’s.
The final straw of controversy in the Pageant was how Stephanie Azzi ended up with the title of Miss Charity. An inside source confused by it all had told me that Natalie, in her humble state, handed the crown over to Stephanie as she realised the very moment she received the crown that it wasn’t hers. Natalie, however, said that she had realised that the rightful winners of the Miss Charity crown would be either Stephanie or Jacinta Harb. Natalie had contacted the girls two days later and asked them how much money they had raised, before “returning” the title of Miss Charity to Stephanie.
After a night of controversy, Stephanie will now travel to Lebanon with Dyala, where Dyala will compete in Miss Lebanon Emigrant 2014. After watching the Pageant unfold, peering through the clouds of hairspray and the whitened teeth, I wondered whether the whole experience would be worth it, given the lack of transparency in the process. As Dyala said to me after being awarded the crown, “I like to be positive so can be naturally oblivious to negative vibes or views sometimes.”