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Beauty pageantry and lost glamour

By | March 27th 2009

By stevens Muendo

Ajuma Naisenyana had just landed her track scholarship to join elites after winning 400 and 800 metres Kenya Junior Championships in 2002. But her track dreams were never to be as Miss Tourism scouts spotted her in dusty town of Lodwar. And soon the running career was shelved for a more glamorous career in modelling. Now Ajuma as Pulse predicted in 2003 is one of the world’s top African models.

Christopher Kirwa still recalls 2001 with nostalgia. In the depths of the Rift Valley with fellow scouts, they camped in Narok town for three days moving from house to house recruiting girls for the Miss Tourism Kenya.

"We took two extra days with the recruits at Keekorock and organised a boot camp training on catwalk and etiquette. On the competition day, the show was successfully. And Sanaipei Ntimama, one of the most successful models emerged top after many competitions in Rift Valley," Kirwa recalls.

Back then, the Miss Tourism pageantry panel consisted of old hands Alice Kamunge, Terry Mungai, Leakey Odera, Kevin Ombajo, Joy Mboya, Jimmy Gathu and Kirwa who engaged in a province-to-province model search which was to see finalists battle it out in the national heats at Safari Park Hotel.

For two months, the team criss-crossed the country searching for the fairest and interviewed hundres of girls from every corner of the nation.

The finals were glamorous and received government support, attracting seven ministers and assistant ministers. Eventually, Sanaipei Ntimama was crowned the winner. And many agreed that she was the best in a competiton which still remains one of the stiffest. Carrying the Kenyan flag high, Sanaipei headed to Greece where she performed well and scooped the Miss Tourism Africa title.

And during her reign, Sanaipei’s charismatic presence could be felt by all. Doors opened wherever she knocked. She rubbed shoulders with high and the mighty.

"Sanaipei could carry three pairs of clothes in her car. She could change three times a day. She knew what it meant to be a beauty queen and she kept a strict diet of cabbages and water. Her sister Linda, who was her personal assistant was always by her side," reveals Kirwa.

Province-to-province search

In fact, the closest Kenya has come close to winning an international beauty competition was in 2000 when Yolanda Masinde was crowned the sixth best overall in Miss World bringing home the African title which for years had been a South African and Nigerian affair.

Critics still argue that the elegant Yolanda would have brought the crown home if she had not goofed during the question and answer session.

"Those were the days. Beauty pageants were taken seriously and holders of the international franchise knew that they had to deliver a good girl. Pageants were not being used as mere money generating businesses like they are being used today," argues Leakey of Pambazuka Entertainment. Leakey is back to transform the industry.

The Kenyan beauty peagant franchise story started with Miss Kenya (World) a franchise bought by Doctor John Nyamu in 1995. He introduced the province-to-province search. It was in those good old days when top notch beauties such as Esther Muthee emerged. The incentives were inviting and sponsorship came in handy. Esther still drives the Fiat she was presented with after being crowned at Carnivore in 1999.

But hell seemed to have broken loose after 2002 when the main players went separate ways and seemingly started outdoing each other with their own pageants. From Miss World, Miss Tourism, Miss Global to Miss India. Beauty pageantry was turned into an Tom, Dick and Harry affair of every and was watered down to Miss Kawangware and Miss Condoms.

"Recruiting right from the village ensured that real raw talent was being tapped. Recruiting and grooming model towards the big day was a serious affair. The winners were being looked upon as Kenyan ambassadors internationally and the government was in support of this. This is no longer the case," argues Kirwa.

"Just like any other showbiz event, beauty pageants can only succeed with good funding and competence by organisers in terms of experience and professionalism. People should stop copying each other’s concept in the name of another beauty pageant," notes Kirwa.

Leakey places the blame on compromised professionalism and personal wars among the key players.

Hiring choreographers

"There are international requirements for catwalk models. From height, waist size, burst and age among other things. These are rules, which local industry has continued to break through the years. How do you expect us to win in an international event after flouting the ABCs of beauty pageantry?" he wonders.

But besides the pageantry wars, which the press has highlighted from time to time, critics now claim that lack of proper investment in the beauty industry is our biggest undoing.

A country like India, which has won the international pageant a couple of times, has etiquette training. The ladies are groomed well in advance of the competition before being unleashed onto the platform.

Nigeria has also adopted this formula by hiring international choreographers and trainers. This dedication saw Miss Nigeria Agbani Darego win the Miss World title in 2001. She was the first black African winner to hold the title.

In Kenya the scenario is quite different. A girl will simply complete her Form Four exams and in between her results and the search for a college will opt to try out a beauty pageant.

"How easy is it for a Form Four leaver to compete with a degree holder who is more exposed to diverse issues. We need to invest in and groom girls early so as to raise them to international heights," adds Kirwa.

Beauty galore

"I also believe that models should have passion and a personal drive if they have to get a return for their beauty. How do you win a title and sit down there hoping that somehow someone will come around and help you. We should get ambitious, make creative proposals, stand tall and be counted. Sometimes, we are to be blamed for acheiving something," says Cecilia Mwangi, who is now the face behind the national anti-jiggers campaign.

"We have been doing our best. I believe the government should come out and complement these efforts as the girls go out there as Kenyan ambassadors," argues Alice Kamunge who now runs Miss Tourism Kenya once arguied. Although we could not reach Alice Kamunge by the time we went to press, her close confidant argued close cut budgets forced the organisers of Miss World, Kenya to abandon the initial provincial search criteria, a fact that compromised the event’s strength.

"Putting together Miss World, Kenya, Miss Global and Miss Teens as a one night show is a cost cutting affair. This might not be the right way to go, but due to financial challenges, the franchise holder is left with no choice but go this route," argues the source.

"I like the direction Leakey has taken. I would pray that all the models groomed in all these Miss University events be groomed towards greater beauty pageants. And I can bet, at this rate, we will be going back to where we started from," quips Kirwa.

Miss India Kenya is now said to be the most competitive beauty competition in the country, no wonder it has been attracting a lot sponsorship in the last years as well as growing in popularity.

In a month or two, the major beauty pageants will begin registering for this year. The alarm has gone off, let’s get the pageantry back on track.

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