Despite its name, Miss World started as a Eurocentric enterprise, in which white women modelled bikinis—considered novel and risqué back in 1951—to market them to other white women. Much has changed since then; Miss World is now a globally recognised beauty pageant, with a diverse pool of contestants extending beyond Europe and the United States.
While the bikinis have been swapped out for a more modest wardrobe, the idea of gussied-up women lined up to be judged seems archaic and male gaze-y by today’s standards. Contestants sidestep this diplomatically by claiming that it is as much—if not more—about inner beauty than a pretty face, while think pieces debate whether the pageant is about female empowerment or simply good old objectification of women, repackaged.
Regardless, it’s too early to be tolling the death knell for beauty pageants. For one, they’re still hugely popular around the world. More than 900 million people across 140 countries tuned in to the 2019 Miss World competition, with about 100 million voting in the public rounds.
For many, large-scale beauty pageants such as Miss World continue to carry the allure of a modern Cinderella story. Getting into Miss World transforms lives overnight—glass slippers optional. On top of cash prizes and getting a swanky New York City apartment, winning the title unlocks otherwise inaccessible opportunities. Many titleholders go on to become ambassadors, models, and, for a lucky few, Bollywood actresses.
Given the stakes, this has spurred a whole pageantry industry in countries obsessed with them, such as India and the Philippines, where parents dole out serious dough for beauty bootcamps, regional pageants, and more. They do all this in hopes that their children will one day claim the title.
A striking irony, perhaps, is that these hopefuls often come from countries historically underrepresented in Western media. The Miss World pageant presents them with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be seen and heard on a global stage, as representatives of their countries and communities, even if under the superlative display of glitz and glamour. When a contestant represents her country on the Miss World stage, her words reflect the hopes, aspirations and needs of her people—not to mention her own.
So, what do contestants actually say when given a platform to address millions of people with? Asian contestants, in particular, come from strong pageant cultures, and the region has enjoyed an impressive track record despite being minorities in what had started as a Eurocentric event. What do they choose to amplify?