Monday, August 29, 2005

Archive: On Beauty Queens

* My sound-off on the Miss World Contest (2003 edition), and Nigerian Beauty Queens...

On Beauty Queens

Last month in Sanya, China, the Miss World contest buried the ghost of Nigeria 2002 when the pageant had to be moved hastily to London at the last minute. The beauty queens will never forget the experience, a luxury more than 200 who died in the riots will never have. As the contestants fled so did Isioma Daniel who now lives in a foreign land somewhere - fearful of the fatwa.

Another year and a new Miss World to be crowned, and all Julia Morley of the Miss World organisation was prepared to say about the previous year’s upheavals in Nigeria was: “last year was sad.” That was it, nothing more; just “sad”. I guess to expect any depth from this devotee of everything surface would be like waiting for stone to bleed.

Beauty contests are no longer deemed politically correct in western countries but elsewhere, they are booming. In Venezuela and India, beauty contests are all the rage. We in Nigeria are also wild about them. I hear contests are now being held even for young girls, taking us down the slippery slopes of the objectification of children. Every title imaginable is vied for by our girls, even those verging on the ridiculous. It has gotten to the point where we can never be sure which one of our top-range title holders will show up at the international pageants. That was exactly what obtained in Miss World 2003 when Miss Nigeria made her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. The poor girl was unrecognisable, an unknown! It cant be easy though, when Nwando Okwosa gets all the press.

The contest got under way and the only African in the semi-finals was Miss Ethiopia, her country’s first beauty queen. Another semi-finalist was Miss Venezuela who told us her country had won the crown five times and didn’t we think it was time to get it back? Not! Miss Switzerland sounded more like a beach surfing Californian; and Miss Norway would have been perfect for the TV series Baywatch as she strolled in a bikini, boobs-a-jiggly.

Agbani Darego’s triumph at Miss World 2001 was a huge source of pride for Black Africa. It also boosted the confidence of then Miss Nigeria, Sylvia Edem. This led to comparisons between the two girls in which Sylvia was nearly always judged to be the more beautiful. Is she automatically better looking because she’s lighter-skinned? Sylvia Edem went around during her reign with an ever present choker round her neck. She paraded a predictable style, with the dated glamour of a southern belle (and we’re not talking southern Nigeria here). As for her hair, it was pulled back into the same ponytail hairpiece look for a whole year, and she thought she was the height of fashion!

The world is full of pretty girls who look like Sylvia Edem. Beauty goes beyond the face. Outstanding beauties have more, a certain je ne sais quoi which sets them apart. And Miss World judges saw that something in Agbani Darego in 2001. The UK Guardian hailed her win, saying that political incorrectness sometimes had its compensations. Agbani has a cutting-edge style that is timeless and cannot be taught. And now, she has that ethereal air of a supermodel while still looking like the girl next door. On the panel of judges for Miss World 2003, Agbani looked stunning in a daring cut-away dress. But Agbani, Pride of the Niger, why so skinny? I swear I could see ribs!

Entertainer Bruce Forsyth was in the audience in Sanya with his wife who long ago placed third in the Miss World contest. She could still give today’s contestants a good run for their money. It made me think how some beauty queens prove their true worth in the passage of time. A lifetime after she won the Miss Nigeria contest, I ran into the ageless and peerless Julie Coker in London’s West End. I approached her to say what I couldn’t keep to myself: she looked very well. She was gracious and though old enough to be my mother, thanked me with full courtesy in Yoruba: “e se”.

Other past Miss Nigeria winners arouse in me only mixed feelings. Take for instance Bianca Onoh, wife of the Ikemba of Nnewi, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Bianca undoubtedly gave Ojukwu what some might call an enviable love life, but she also helped hasten the great Igbo leader’s descent into irrelevance. During the 70’s, there was a huge vessel used for party cooking which in my part of Yorubaland was called “agbari-Ojukwu” meaning Ojukwu’s head or skull. Nothing politically correct about this, but I don’t think the term was used in a purely derogatory sense. Beyond hinting at the shape of the Ikemba‘s head, “agbari-Ojukwu” alluded to qualities associated with the Biafran leader. Looking at the agbari-Ojukwu, my mind would conjure up the romanticised idea of a fearsome, mythical warrior with superhuman strength. Ojukwu, to me, was an inspirational, anti-establishment figure - a legend.

I remember the glorious day Ojukwu returned from exile in the Ivory Coast. Thousands lined his route along Ikorodu Road to welcome home their hero. One of the dailies, the National Concord I think, emblazoned on its front page: Agaracha Returns! I wanted Ojukwu to continue in the same vein, inspiring strong emotions forever and to never compromise. But now the Ikemba seems content to act the lovesick old man to Bianca Onoh, and he wants the rest of us to marvel at this great romance! He forgets that she may not even be everyone’s idea of the perfect woman.

For Ojukwu’s 70th birthday, Dare Babarinsa of TELL called on the Ikemba to fulfill his last great duty - and write his account of the Nigerian Civil War. Ojukwu himself declared in one newspaper: “I am the Final Biafran Truth”. But there’s no point being the final truth if that truth is not told. For her part, Bianca has told us: “Ojukwu is still romantic and active at 70”. A bit too much information, Bianca. I wish the Ikemba long life but I guess this is why some people prefer their heroes dead. Millions who carry Che Guevara in their hearts like a torch know he died in a blaze of glory. From beyond the grave he remains a beacon for the living and can never disappoint.

Like Julie Coker, the former Helen Prest is a source of quiet pride to me. The famous picture of her back then showed the newly crowned Miss Nigeria 1979 perched on her Peugeot 504 prize. I saw that picture and dared to think that maybe, just maybe, poor little me could one day compete for Miss Nigeria. Never mind that there were a few obstacles in the way of this dream, not least a scar acquired at age five in a hot water mishap - involving an agbari-Ojukwu, no less! Now Mrs Ajayi, Helen Prest remains a stunner any day, a willowy beauty with impeccable taste.

But not all former beauty queens go on gracefully. Anyone seen a picture of the 1984 winner, Rosemary Okeke, lately? Someone switched a light-bulb on inside Rosemary Okeke! The lady who won Miss Nigeria as a brown sugar has become one big bottle of fanta. Okeke has gone very pale and thinks we cant get enough of her, so she wishes to live perpetually on the pages of soft-sell magazines. I don’t know which is more objectionable: that a standard bearer for gorgeous brownness has gone yellow, or that a magazine then praised her “glowing new look” and “flawless light-skin”.

Is it only pale skin that can be flawless? Can dark skin not glow? What kind of message does this send to our young girls: you’re no good unless you’re light-skinned? Rosemary Okeke has shown herself to be an irresponsible role model to all the little brown girls who might have dreamt of being like her one day. Skin bleaching is the result of crude minds using crude methods and produces only jaundiced apparitions who think they’re beautiful, when in fact they’re hideous.

It was alleged recently that Miss World results are sometimes fixed according to Julia Morley’s priorities - allegation denied. But I wonder if third placed Miss China (to be fair a beauty by any standards) would have fared as well if the 2003 contest had not taken place in her country, which paid Morley £10m for the privilege. Second place, and to me the rightful winner, was Miss Canada, Nazanin Afshin Jam. She was born in Iran from where her family fled during the Revolution. Iran’s loss is Canada’s gain and Nazanin combined a beautiful bone structure with intelligence - looking like a greek goddess in an ivory dress. Here was an undeniably beautiful modern Arab woman. If the Miss World organisation had any vision at all, it could have made a profound statement for the world as it is today by making Nazanin Miss World.

But Julia Morley had a frothy fairy tale to get on with. And Miss Ireland, daughter of singer Chris de Burgh, was declared Miss World 2003. Her father sang the slushy 80’s love song “Lady in Red.” Miss Ireland wore pink. After lifting a 54 year ban on beauty contests, China has warmed to Miss World and will host the pageant again this year. Like Cinderella, 12 is the magic number for the new Miss World’s reign - 12 months that is. The show’s presenters called Julia Morley “the lady who makes dreams come true”. I suspect the greatest dream being fulfilled is Julia Morley’s.

  • Published in The Guardian, January 11, 2004


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