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The unseen side of beauty pageants

Features
  This year’s Beauty of Africa International Pageant Messry Lung'atso. 

Kenya’s Messry Lung'atso, a University of Nairobi student is the new pride of Africa. She is the latest Kenyan model to bring home an international crown.

A week ago, adorning a floor-length blue gown, complimented with beautiful dazzling dangling white earrings and her hair swept back into a ponytail, she was crowned this year’s Beauty of Africa International Pageant (BAIP) queen.

The journey, as she puts it, has been a difficult one but finally culminated in her being crowned, beating 12 other contestants from across the continent.

“I would like to thank my supporters and organisers of BAIP. It was a tough journey but we made it,” said the elated Messry.

“This was not the first time I had given a shot at this contest. Last year I was also among the contestants but along the way, I lost it. So I gave it my all although generally there are different struggles that a model goes through. In my case, I received lots of backlash from supporters and fans after I lost but I guess that made me grow a thick skin,” she said.

While Messry is a success story, the challenges these models, mostly young girls aged between the ages of 18 to 23, go through before gracing the national or international stages remain majorly untold.

The promise of recognition and fame with a golden ticket to hitting the showbiz arenas aggrandises such contests and sometimes pushes the models to unwarranted heights.

It is an allure that comes with heavenly promises; a brand new car, millions in cash prizes and life-changing opportunities, that oftentimes ends in tears.

But the glamour industry has a dark side that has soiled the glitz and glamour, as well as the fame and fortune it is associated with.

One may want to ask at whose expense one goes to get here.

With their centuries-old traditions, beauty pageants have managed to portray a picture of setting ‘unrealistic demands’ on women - some starving themselves to get the desired ‘body shape’ - but a majority of models argue that this is not true.

For example, in the Miss World pageant, “the judges mostly focus on the outer beauty, of course, the dental structure and character, which is mostly seen in the Beauty with a Purpose project.

They judge one’s etiquette as well as one’s focus and determination in the competition,” said Terry Mungai, the Miss World Kenya franchise owner in an earlier interview with The Standard last year.

She said the boot camp, attended by the participating models in the pageant helps the judges to observe the models and that contributes a lot to one’s chances of winning. “The slimmer you are, the higher your chances of winning, of course,” she said.

Although stereotypes that a beauty queen has to be just pretty, Joan Musumba, Miss University Kenya, 2014, believes this is not the case. 

"Pageant girls being nothing more than pretty girls with big hair is a thing of the past. The empowered, independent, self-driven pageant girls of the future are all we aim for. If one can maximise these opportunities, one can secure funding and enhance their career. It is not just the beauty but also the brains,” she said.

“This particular year, BAIP was all about body positivity and embracing all body types. During our training and boot camps, we had models of all shapes and sizes, so I would not say in entirety that this is true,” said Messry.

“We have systems in place to ensure that 60 per cent of the marks given come even before a model hits the runway. The judges only add the remaining 40 per cent therefore looks just come as a bonus.

Furthermore, we give a lot more importance to the question and the answer rounds, which more often revolve around conversations that impact society. Our girls have to be on point at all times,” said Leakey Odera, CEO of Pambazuka Entertainment, a stable that is reputed as the best in seeking and nurturing models in the region.

Weeks back Shellynax Mutinda, a beauty queen with several crowns to show for it, put an appeal for funds after she was nominated to represent Kenya in yet another continental beauty contest.

“I am supposed to represent Kenya at the Miss Africa Unite 2022 Beauty Contest in Botswana from November 21 to 26 and I am supposed to finance my flight and outfits,” she said.

Her provisional budget came to about Sh200,000.

The expenses include flight tickets, designer runway outfits, make-up kits and other requirements placed by the event’s organisers.  

“The organisers are only paying for my accommodation and registration fee so I would very much appeal to anyone out here to help,” said Shellynax.

And even though her friends have been trying to chip in, the challenge of raising even the flight ticket amount has been real. Being a private and personal commercial venture, her desire to win this crowd is no doubt a costly affair that has left her stretched to the limit, financially speaking.

It was the same gruelling task former Miss Earth 2018 crown holder Susan Kirui had to go through to represent Kenya in the Miss Earth finals in the Philippines two years ago after her sponsors withdrew their support.

To represent Kenya in the international event, Susan had to raise over Sh1 million from sponsors and friends.

Most pageant holders such as those who run Miss Kenya, Miss Earth and Miss Tourism are forced to raise funds from well-wishers as the government has no budgetary allocation for them.

Even worse off are models enrolled in pageantry competitions that are not well structured. 

Some unsuspecting models have suffered in the hands of rogue promoters in foreign countries where they even get pimped in the name of competing for the crown.   

“Yes, sometimes it becomes an expensive venture since one has to acquire their outfits, learn to catwalk as well as keep fit, but this is something I like doing for my health and not just for the catwalk,” said Messry.

Luckily for her, the organisers of 2022 BAIP had taken care of her logistics.

“We ensure that air ticket, accommodation and everything our models want is catered for, although their outfits come from their own pockets,” said Leakey Odera.

In some instances, this venture also looks like they are at the forefront of promoting classism.

The top aspirants more often than not spend quite a fortune investing in personal trainers, nutritionists, and expensive skincare routines that a normal beautifully God-gifted but ‘broke’ lass would not quite afford.

The realisation of beauty is way real now and the entire concept has changed from just beauty to beauty with brains.

“A queen has grace and poise apart from beauty, these crowns come with a huge responsibility that requires character and brains. Representing your people does not come easy bearing in mind you do this on foreign soil. Some of us experience culture shock, but most importantly your character, dressing, association with others in the boot camp and your brains play a major role,” said Ivy Marani, founder of Miss Global Vision World and pageant director.

We can argue that looking beautiful is about feeling good about oneself. But still, a lot has to be done to change the stereotypical narrative that one has to look like a typical Barbie doll.

“Far from it, beauty contests are not solely about physical beauty, but authentic beauty and embracing who you truly are. What the world may see are the glitz and glam but whatever goes into making a pageant girl is courage and determination,” said Messry.

A few months ago, some models, among them a then Fourth Year Procurement student from Masinde Muliro University, Christabel Azangalala were enrolled to compete at the Pan African Queen beauty pageant that was to take place in Ghana.

A brand new car, Sh300,000 cash prize and an international modelling deal were some of the gifts that were to be showered on the Pan African Queen upon winning the beauty contest.

The number two would get Sh200,000 while the second runners-up would take home Sh100,000, tickets for international luxury trips and movie deals.

All would-be participants from across Africa had to do was to send their full names with attached studio photos and an indication of their age to a provided mobile number.

Alongside fellow model Grace Akinyi, Azangalala was shortlisted to represent Kenya in the Accra, Ghana-hosted pageant that had supposedly shortlisted 25 top models from 15 African countries.

“In the invitation letter, there was a campaign requirement that amounted to Sh80,000 that was to be paid through Western Union bank, which I paid. We were asked to make our sashes and organise our projects to raise money for the pageant by involving sponsors,” said Azangalala.

“The event was moved to March 15, 2021. That came with each contestant flying to Ghana after paying for their flights. Here, we met Miss Zimbabwe, Gamuchirai Munyoro; Joyce Tunor from Sierra Leone and Caroline Nunu from Ghana. Together, we were put into a double cabin car and driven to a place called Kasoa, two hours away from Accra”.

“The event organisers did not care to explain why we were being moved to a remote area and this is when we suspected something was amiss. Other models were later brought in,” said Azangalala.

“Ahead of the final contest, Ghanaian contestants and I were removed from the voting chart only to be told ours would be held separately.

“This was not Accra, it was a remote place in the Central region of Ghana called Kasoa,” said two other models Kiki and Doris, participants from Ghana, who said they were forced to represent Lesotho and South Africa respectively during the D-day.

The finals took place five days later after the girls were transported to a guest house in Accra. The venue of the event was Gold Coast Lounge, Bar and Restaurant.

Gamuchirai was declared the winner, with Kenya’s Azangalala coming second, and Joyce from Sierra Leone taking third place.

To their shock, the crowns are all they still have to show for the win, to date.

“We lost so much money on this, most of which the models had to raise through their families and friends. It is a shame that we can hardly show anything for it,” said Azangalala.

“My family assisted me financially with everything and that is why they are so disappointed about the whole issue. After winning, everyone in my country congratulated me and got so excited as they waited for me to go home with goodies.

Most beauty pageants in Africa have no clear government regulations. There are also no clear legal policies that define how they are run. Most of them are organised by individuals with business interests.

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