Kristin Hall: Maybe it's time we give it a Miss

By Kristin Hall

A moral dilemma faced our nation last week. It was a quandary of honour, rivalry and that thing we Kiwis seem to get so touchy about, citizenship. It was an issue that questioned our national identity, our acceptance of other creeds and cultures but more embarrassingly it revealed that New Zealand still takes part in beauty pageants.

On June 3, 22-year-old Avianca Bohm was gifted the glorious title of Miss Universe New Zealand. Porcelain smiles were flashed, tiaras were passed and in the interests of actually justifying pictures of an attractive blonde on its pages, various news organisations spat out some nice, frilly pieces about Bohm's favourite hobbies and life ambition of becoming a chartered accountant. The world kept spinning and Miss Bohm got some innocuous time in the sun.

Yet just a day later the blonde, bronzed belle returned to our headlines, this time for something more sinister than hairspray and world peace.

It appeared that Miss Universe New Zealand was not in fact a "real" New Zealander at all, an offence commonly punishable by widespread terror and loathing even without all the media attention.

South African-born Bohm was pressured to hand over her crown to the next "eligible" contestant, but claimed the issue had been blown out of proportion - her citizenship would be fast-tracked, and for a fleeting moment there was hope she would officially be recognised as one of us rather than an alien from District 9.

It was too late for amends though. New Zealand's little-known pageant "community" was up in arms. Miss Universe NZ director Val Lott was called to give up her position and in the most cringe-worthy piece of pageant-related theatre since Miss Congeniality, a representative for the competition's runner-up slammed the win as "an appalling miscarriage of justice".

Lott later delivered a letter to Bohm, advising her she was ineligible to represent her country and requesting she graciously give up her title to the next breathing Barbie lucky enough to have hatched on our shores.

News websites took the borderline newsworthy but deliciously petty public scuffle to the people with the ever-accurate reader poll.

Predetermined opinions on offer included: "I wish NZ had more beauty contests", "They're harmless fun" and "They're entirely inappropriate", yet none seemed to really delve into the issue of how and why New Zealand got involved in the heinous ritual in the first place.

Amateur research shows one of the first conventional beauty pageants took place in 1854 but was closed down due to public protest. Considering there are now more than 5000 pageants in the US per year, that fact alone is enough to make one seriously question the state of human evolution.

Over the years the humble county-fair type contests morphed into a spangly global extravaganza, with each country harvesting their most beautiful females and throwing them together in a tropical location to see who looks best in a bikini.

After a five-year absence Miss Universe NZ was re-launched in 2006, bringing with it a raft of excruciating mini dramas including claims that gentlemen, or at least sponsors, do indeed prefer blondes.

Judges of this year's competition say Lott asked them to pick a blonde as winner in order to please a collective of Asian businesses in Manukau. Although the sponsor rejects that, five of the past seven winners have been fair of mane, suggesting the competition is not only superficial and pointless but hair-ist too.

In a country known for smart, pioneering women, the saga makes one shudder to think what our truly deserving icons would make of the palaver.

When Bohm was interviewed on TVNZ's Breakfast, she asked why her citizenship could not be fast-tracked if the same was done for Kiwi Olympians. If you turned up the volume enough you could practically hear Kate Sheppard vomiting from the grave.

The thing about pageants is they are just that. Organisers pride themselves on the premise that the competition is one of looks and character, yet everyone knows you could cure cancer, Aids and a burning third-world orphanage and still not stand a chance if you had a hunchback and somewhat googly eyes.

Perhaps it was simply one of those things Kiwis felt the need to get involved in. Thanks to an ongoing national case of short man syndrome, and a desperate need to prove ourselves, we saw something big and shiny and American and said "Us too!" The fact Americans also think tanning salons for 3-year-olds are a good idea seems not to have been a factor in the decision-making.

So who should attend Miss Universe 2012? Avianca Bohm, runner-up Talia Bennett, or one of the horde of young Kiwi girls lining up to be measured and dissected by strangers who like rhinestones and terrifying smiles? I say none. Not only because Miss Universe is about as disturbing as dwarf-tossing and thumbscrews but because no one should have to fight world hunger in five-inch heels when all they really want to do is be an accountant.

- Rotorua Daily Post

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