If Jennifer Hawkins’ crowning as Miss Universe a year ago was regarded as a national triumph - as the flag-emblazoned souvenir posters in newspapers seemed to suggest - her handing over of the $US250,000 Mikimito tiara recently to a leggy, blue-eyed brunette hailing from Canada might have been regarded as a national disappointment - “dashing Australia's hopes of back-to-back wins”, as one report put it. Fair dinkum, we didn’t even make the top 10.
Even before Australia’s Michelle Guy hit the floor in the “national” costume parade (always an educational event, since it makes you realise how many cultures have adopted the Brazilian wax) the bookies had her on long odds - no country has ever taken the title back-to-back.
But Australians are a competitive mob, and we expect our sheilas to do us proud. Guy was, after all, the very model of a Miss Universe - just the sort of leggy blue-eyed blonde to excite the interest of contest co-owner Donald Trump (though it should be said that Trump, 58, married leggy, blue-eyed brunette model Melania Knauss, 34, earlier this year, so he might not be on the pull for months).
It is no coincidence that four of the five finalists were from Latin America (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela). These countries take beauty pageants seriously, and the results show. Since it began as a bathing beauty competition in 1952, Miss Universe has been won by a Latin American girl 18 times. Venezuela, with a population of less than 25 million - a quarter of them living in poverty - has produced four, along with enough finalists to fill several years worth of Playboy centrefolds.
If this were a sport we would expect action, and request the government to proactively encourage elite model programs, scouts scouring the nation’s beaches for talent, coaching clinics in schools to teach young girls about make-up and dieting, university entrance rules that recognise as an important life skill, the ability to look relaxed while strolling around in a bikini and stilettos, co-operative research centres specialising in cutting-edge cosmetic surgery, and an open door to young émigrés from Russia.
If winning beauty pageants delivers the nation the same patriotic glow as winning an Olympic medal, why not pump taxpayer dollars into it? That’s what we do with elite sport.
Our beauty queen factory, the Miss Australia Institute, could be funded through one of those private-public partnerships that so enamour modern politicians. Here’s a chance for the Packers and the Murdochs to do something for society via the society pages. They’re already in the business of publishing pictures of beautiful women - why not make it a public service. Whenever a young women poses for a camera, let her dream of representing Australia on the world catwalk.
As a flag-waving exercise, beauty pageants certainly have advantages over military adventures. Safer photo opportunities for a start - instead of khaki election campaigns, they could be khaki-print. And at the very least a taxpayer-funded program would give the nation an actual reason to celebrate an individual’s success as if it were somehow our own.
For that is the strange part of this well-heeled jingoism, this patriotic celebration of winners, regardless of who is handing out the gongs. The Miss Universe organisation, lest it be forgotten, is not akin to United Nations, even though the contestants are called “delegates”, or to the Olympics, where competitors have earned their place through their performance at national heats. Before she was Miss Universe, Hawkins was not Miss Australia or even Miss NSW. She was NRL cheer girl of the year, and came third in the Indycar Girl contest. Being judged the most beautiful woman in the world doesn’t even mean you are the most beautiful woman in the car park.
The magnitude of the contest’s claim betrays its limitations. The only truly out-of-this-world association the pageant has is Trump’s surreal hair-do. But even if the title was scaled back to Miss Solar System, there might still be doubts about the validity of the selection process, where choices seem, like Playboy, skewed towards the predilections of its owners - though perhaps the influence in this case is due less to Trump’s eye than co-owner NBA’s eye for its audience demographics.
It not just that the winner always comes from earth. In 52 years of the contest, white women have won 27 times. Two white African women have won, but only one black African - Miss Botswana, Mpule Kwelagobe, in 1999. Only 7 have been from Asia - a region comprising nearly half of the world’s women - while an equal number have come from the US, which has only 2 per cent of the world’s women (with a disproportionate number those on the porky side). But of course the US is a big television audience, home to the second and third biggest beauty pageants in the universe: Miss USA and - my personal favourite - Miss Teen USA (both also owned by Trump in partnership with NBC).
Winning Miss Universe, in truth, should be no more a source of national pride than an Australian actor winning an Oscar for mimicking an American accent. The elite rarely reflect the average. The international success of a few film stars says little about the state of the domestic industry, just as the success of athletes says little about the physical activity of a an increasingly sedentary nation that is merely looking on.
After all, what got Hawkins over the line last year was perhaps not being encumbered by a national identity. In the swimsuit parade, the Wisdom of Solomon would be needed to separate one perfect model from the next, but in the national dress parade Hawkins shone out, precisely for having no national dress.
The rest of the field looked like a Moulin Rouge production of Oklahoma!, an LSD-laced pina colada of Las Vegas showgirls and Eurovision contestants. Hawkins' dress made her the girl you wanted to take to the prom, not to the marshalling area for the Mardi Gras parade. Her appeal was she didn’t seek to wear her nationality on her sleeve, let alone her head. There’s a lesson in that for us all.