Out of all beauty pageants, Miss Universe, which began in 1952, makes the boldest claim: that it can single out one person to represent an idealized vision of womanhood suitable for the entire world (or more grandly, the “universe”). On Saturday, R’Bonney Gabriel, Miss USA, was crowned the 71st Miss Universe, beating out 82 rivals in a three-hour Mardi Gras-themed extravaganza in New Orleans.
By today’s standards, looking for a single ideal of beauty feels antiquated and unenlightened. This year, Miss Universe felt troubling for reasons beyond the objections one might have to scantily clad young women being assessed by so-called experts before an audience of millions. This year, no amount of glitter could distract us from the darker issues just beneath the surface, including climate destruction, human rights abuse, the 2022 suicide of Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019 (and a Miss Universe finalist that year), and, especially, Russia’s war against Ukraine.
One of the stranger moments of the show happened when Viktoriia Apanasenko, Miss Ukraine, received the “Spirit of Carnival Award,” presented by Carnival Cruise Lines to the contestant who embodies “fun, friendship, diversity and inclusion.” Christine Duffy, the president of Carnival, lauded Ms. Apanasenko’s “mission to remind us that the war is ongoing.” A resort company was rewarding Miss Ukraine for fun, friendship and for reminding the world of war’s devastations.
Stranger still was the “National Costume Show,” held three days before the main pageant. For this, contestants modeled comically outlandish outfits that hovered somewhere between Surrealism, ethnic stereotyping and Hollywood set design.
Miss Belize honored her nation’s rain forest and jaguar reserve by bedecking herself with trailing jungle vegetation, a spotted cat-print leotard and what looked like a miniature jaguar’s head affixed to her lower abdomen. Miss Indonesia was a ship at sea, Miss Netherlands a jaunty Stroopwafel. Miss Guatemala turned into an entire pyramid temple; and Miss USA portrayed the 1969 NASA moon launch, in a 30-pound costume including a metallic spacesuit-style leotard, illuminated headdress and a 3-D replica of the moon hanging above her head.
But all this campy extravagance could not hold off the specter of war. Anna Linnikova, Miss Russia, defiantly wore a costume entitled “The Crown of the Russian Empire,” consisting of a pearl- and jewel-embossed satin minidress topped with a sweeping red velvet cape and a crown — an unabashed advertisement for Russian imperial aggression. (Reports from Russia say that the Hermitage, rumored to have lent the crown, was not involved.)
In counterpoint, Ms. Apanasenko channeled the archangel Michael, considered the defender saint of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Dressed as a “Warrior of Light,” she was resplendent in a gold unitard and halo, floating white overdress, brandishing a sword, and framed by astonishing 16-foot feathered wings in the blue and yellow of her country’s flag.
It was hard to know how to respond. Were we meant to delight in the Stroopwafel and then lament the spoils of empire and the ravages of war? And did putting three days between the national costume show on Wednesday and the main event on Saturday succeed in helping us overlook all the unease that had been stirred up? (Neither Miss Ukraine nor Miss Russia made the finals.)
In fact, the discordant nature of Miss Universe 2023 was just a heightened version of the tension that routinely pervades any beauty pageant. Such competitions strive for gravitas, interviewing women about world peace or domestic policies. But it’s hard to turn a pageant into a seminar on global politics. And it’s also hard to turn women into abstract symbols of nationhood.
All beauty pageants turn women into places to some extent. Those sashes they wear announce the names of regions or cities, never their names. But in the case of Miss Universe, each woman becomes an entire country — a tricky task. It’s true of course that nations have long been called “she” and imagined themselves as feminine figures: France uses “Marianne” to symbolize its lofty republican ideals. The United States has Lady Liberty.
But beauty pageants complicate the woman-as-country motif. Contestants, however accomplished or philanthropic they may be, are not there to represent noble virtues, remind us of suffering or incarnate a nation’s character. They’re there to be sexy eye candy, to create watchable programming that sells products (mineral water, skin care and upcoming Roku series were among the commodities hawked onstage during the pageant).
And despite the insistence on internationalism, this pageant, like all pageants, is really a festival of uniformity. Virtually every participant is a tall, slim, young woman with long legs, long hair, long (false) eyelashes, perfect(ed) white teeth and precision-sculpted features — all poured into skintight, extremely revealing sequined dresses, atop vertiginous stilettos. The effect is more Rockettes than United Nations.
Yet Miss Universe 2023 leaned heavily into its cultural and ethnic variety, seeming to offer it as evidence of a new, progressive agenda. Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, a Thai billionaire, out trans woman and C.E.O. of JKN Global Media, is Miss Universe’s new — and first female — owner.
In her onstage speech Saturday, Ms. Jakrajutatip (who at 43 looked like a contestant herself) made the pageant sound like an updated Lilith Fair, proclaiming it would, from now on, be “run by women, owned by a trans woman, for all women around the world to celebrate the power of feminism!” (JKN bought the pageant last fall from IMG, which bought it from Donald Trump in 2015.)
In a news release at the time of the sale, Ms. Jakrajutatip said: “The global reach of the Organization, its relationships with global partners and brands, and its wealth of content, licensing, and merchandising opportunities make this a strong, strategic addition to our portfolio.”
Acquiring Miss Universe is about commerce. And this, in the end, explains the curious tone of the pageant. Beyond its claims of feminist solidarity, uplift and national heritage, this is a giant branding opportunity for an ambitious, global media platform, a commercial empire. And like all empires, it needs a royal figurehead, an empress or queen.
The nostalgic royalism of a beauty pageant, with the jeweled crown that rewards the winner, provides a perfect vehicle for this 21st-century form of monarchy. That the contestants struggle to embody nationhood or signal selfless virtue while parading half-naked in heels does not matter. They are perfect embodiments, wittingly or not, of the ideals of their sponsors. They are less citizens of specific, individual countries than they are of the marketplace writ large, with its standardized beauty conventions and practices — our new (and also our old) universe.