Behind the catwalk razzmatazz, beauty pageants back-breaking affairs

Miss World Kenya Esther Gekonge 2019 during the launch of Miss World Kenya 2021 launch at Trademark Hotel in Nairobi on July 1, 2021. [David Gichuru, Standard]

The runway is the highway of glamour and power for angels born for the spotlight. From the glittering gowns to six-inch-high heels and a dazzling smile, beauty contestants can look superhuman. However, the sash does not come cheap.

Kenya is among the Miss Earth participating countries that will be crowning their national winners next month. This comes ahead of the international ceremony set to take place later this year.

The search for reigning Miss Earth Kenya, Fridah Kariuki’s, successor started two weeks ago with hundreds of beauties attending the auditions held in Thika town.

From among the number, mostly made up of former Miss University crowd holders and models, 20 qualified for the semi-finals.

“The competition was tight and the judges had a hard time picking those who are moving to the next level. This shows the quality of models the competition has attracted, maintaining the competitive edge the Miss Earth crown comes with,” says Grace Wanene, the Miss Earth Kenya 2016 crown holder. She was part of the judging panel.

“I wish all the girls who participate in this competition the best. I have enjoyed my reign and I am ready to hand over the crown to the next queen,” says Fridah.

And today, the Rift Valley auditions will be taking place in Nakuru.

Miss Earth is an annual international environmental-themed beauty pageant competition promoting environmental awareness, conservation, and social responsibility.

It is the third-largest beauty pageant in the world in terms of the number of national-level competitions to participate in the world finals.

Newly crowned Miss Earth Kenya Fridah Kariuki. [Courtesy]

The pageant is one of the biggest beauty pageants in Kenya that have survived the test of time. The others include Miss World Kenya, Miss Tourism, Miss Universe, and Miss University.

And as Miss Earth Kenya goes on the road, the Miss World Kenya has already closed in on this year’s finalists and is set to crown the 2021 winner next month too.

Known for their glitz and glamour, beauty pageants attract hundreds of girls between 18 to 25 years; college-going beauties, who dream to get the coveted titles of ‘Miss’ with a glittering crown to show for it.

They are also a launching pad for girls wishing to join the hospitality sector, with most hoping to become runway or commercial models, air hostesses and front office secretaries.

The ones who win the titles are ushered into a dream world, where they hobnob with the greats of the world, sealing major deals in the advertising world and the fashion industry, besides clinching brand ambassadorial jobs.

However, there is a big prize to pay for both the pageant rights holders as well as the models. Behind the smiles, the catwalk, and the celebrations and sacrifice is a chorus of pain. 

“It takes a lot of financial sacrifices to host an international event like Miss World Kenya. In Kenya, what should be a national celebration supported by the government has always been the duty of the organiser, who has to help fund the process and ensure Kenya’s flag flies high at the international level,” says Terry Mungai, Miss World Kenya franchise holder.

“Over the years, I have funded the event right from the initial processes to getting tickets and accommodation for the girls when they go for the finals.

“In a few instances, the government has come in and offset some of the costs incurred but this is like I said, in very few instances,” adds Terry.

From acquiring designers, a team to handle the crown holder, air tickets, hotel rooms and also participation fees, Miss World Kenya franchise holder parts with roughly Sh15 million every year in organising the event, money that hardly comes back.

The franchise holder runs a full-time office where all activities that have to do with Miss World are coordinated from.

Sometimes, the crown holders are even forced to pay their own way as they represent Kenya in these international competitions.

According to research by the Pageant News Bureau, the pursuit of a title and a tiara has grown into a $5 billion-a-year industry.

 Miss World Kenya franchise holder Terry Mungai. [David Gichuru, Standard]

An estimated 3,000 pageants draw 250,000 entrants a year, where participants spend millions on pageants hoping to become the next supermodel or showbiz star.

While some pageants charge up to Sh10,000 for entry, training through professional coaches ahead of a competition can go up to Sh5,000 a day. 

From designers, coaches, make-up artistes, facilitators, stylists, and beauticians, a lot of people in the creative sector do make money out of pageants – except, ironically, the organisers and contestants.

“I had to put up my own costs when I travelled to the Philippines to represent Kenya in the Miss Earth finals as the franchise holder. I was forced to organise charity events to raise capital that would enable me to travel to the Philippines where I had to stay for over a week. It took family and friends for me to represent Kenya in such a coveted function,” says Susan Kirui, Miss Earth Kenya 2018.

She says that nobody accompanied her and that she had to do everything by herself, all the while seeing other representatives work with huge delegations from their countries, including government officials.

“It can really be traumatising when everyone is cheering and celebrating you as a crown holder who seems to enjoy the moment and huge support yet the reality is that you have to undergo all this by yourself,” says Susan, who spent about Sh1 million on her Miss Earth run.

“I would not really blame the organisers of these events. Having followed what they go through over the years, I am aware they suffer a lack of support from the government and relevant stakeholders.

Beauty pageants are not as lucrative as they always seem to be. It takes passion and sacrifice for the organisers to put them together. I think it is time the government comes in to save them from collapsing,” says Susan.

She says preparing a contestant for a pageant’s international finals can cost more than Sh2 million, costs that go to wardrobe consultants, physical fitness trainers, expert tailoring, speed coaches, voice coaches, photography, etiquette lessons and saloon services.

Others include talent coaches, gowns, rehearsal attires and talent costumes, with some garments such as evening gowns going for as much as Sh50,000.

Most pageants hardly get meaningful sponsors, and partners and models are forced to raise money through other ways.

Miss Tourism franchise holder Alice Kamunge recounts how she has, over the years, incurred huge costs, putting together what has always been a national event that draws county governments and the national government.

Miss Tourism franchise holder Alice Kamunge. [Courtesy]

She recalls how financial promises are broken when government bodies pull out financial assistance at the eleventh hour.

Kamunge says that due to huge bills incurred in past glamour ceremonies, she now has her team working on smaller invite-only ceremonies where the winner is announced.

The same format has been adopted by Miss World Kenya organisers, who will also have a smaller number of finalists as compared to previous years, with a few select attending the event that will be aired on a pay-TV platform.

The Miss Earth Kenya pageant is also working on a partnership plan where different episodes can be aired to TV audiences.

“We have already signed a partnership with Miss Earth Kenya and are recording the regional hits alongside the Sasini Talanta Mtaani talent search programme.

Some of the Miss Earth episodes taking place are already being aired on KTN Home, where the Talanta Mtaani show runs every Sunday afternoon,” says Maurice Okoth, CEO Talanta Mtaani.

While Miss World Kenya is the oldest national pageant in Kenya that promotes environmental conservation, culture, tourism, and goodwill, Miss Earth is an environmental-themed beauty pageant competition promoting environmental awareness, conservation, and social responsibility.

Miss Tourism aims at marketing and promoting tourism and culture, both nationally and internationally, and has been working as a pillar of boosting local beauty.  

Leakey Odera, Managing Director Pambazuka Entertainment, says the stable that runs Miss University Kenya and also has a hold on Miss Universe beauty pageants plays a major role in the entertainment and hospitality sectors and should be supported by all stakeholders. 

He commends former crown holders such as Debra Senaipei (Miss Tourism Kenya, 2001) and Cecilia Mwangi (Miss World Kenya, 2005), who went ahead to become officeholders in influential appointments.