When politics and beauty pageants collide: A 'diplomatic' dance

Story highlights

  • Miss Universe contestants from Lebanon and Israel appear in pageant after photo flap
  • Observers say incident is a reminder that pageants embody global politics
  • Former Miss Lebanon: "Everything is political when it comes to your country's sovereignty"

(CNN)It was an innocent mistake, one that was easy to correct -- before the social media age.

Miss Lebanon and Miss Israel were at an event in Los Angeles with fellow 2006 Miss Universe contestants as part of the whirlwind of photo opps leading up the annual beauty contest. It was in the middle of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, and a picture of the two women together landed on the Miss Universe press page, stirring panic among the women and their handlers.
The incident came to mind last weekend when a photo on Instagram of the current Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon together stirred controversy online anew, Miss Universe Organization President Paula M. Shugart said.
    In 2006, the organization was able to remove the photo before anyone noticed, Shugart said. Now, thanks to social media, we're in a "whole new ballgame."
    Slips in decorum that previously might have gone unnoticed now have the potential to be amplified beyond anyone's control. In this case, the backlash prompted Miss Lebanon Saly Greige to issue a statement distancing herself from the photo.
    Many in the West dismissed the controversy as a trifling matter. Greige and Miss Israel Doron Matalon weathered the controversy and went on to represent their countries in the pageant, which aired Sunday night on NBC. Miss Colombia Paulina Vega won the crown.
    But pageant observers say the incident is a reminder that beauty pageants embody global politics, with contestants expected to model the cultural sensibilities of their nations.
    "They are cast with representing their country and as such they are expected to behave much like ambassadors," said Jessica Trisko Darden, an assistant professor with the School of International Service at American University and the 2007 Miss Earth pageant winner representing Canada.
    'A delicate diplomatic dance'
    The Instagram controversy is the latest example showing that pageants occur "in a broader international context," Trisko Darden said in a Guardian column last week.
    Russia came under fire as Miss Universe host country in 2013 for not granting visas to contestants from countries it did not recognize, including Kosovo, Shugart said. Contestants threatened to boycott the 2002 Miss World pageant scheduled in Nigeria after a mother was sentenced to death for having sex outside marriage. Organizers moved the pageant to London.
    Miss Israel 2002 Yamit Har-Noy stoked controversy at the Miss Universe competition with a dress reportedly displaying the Israeli state that included disputed territories of West Bank and Gaza.
    "With so many nations and so much politics, planners must choreograph a delicate diplomatic dance," said Louise Gourlaouen, creator of pageant-watch website MissUniversUsa.com, which shares information on international pageants and beauty queens.
    Geopolitical affairs affect various aspects of pageant planning, Shugart said. For example, geographic neighbors Russia and Ukraine are traditionally assigned as roommates -- but not this year.
    Behind the scenes, Miss Universe contestants tend to get along, or, at the very least, are civil and courteous, Shugart said. After all, each woman is representing her country on a global stage. For many, it's the first time they ever leave their country.
    "As people, they genuinely like each other but they need to be cognizant that they are wearing a sash representing their country," she said. "Obviously, certain countries have inherent hostilities, and I encourage contestants to talk to each other but I do not have them room together."
    It's easy for Americans to brush aside the Instagram controversy, said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington. But with regular cross-border hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, it's not surprising that the appearance of "normalized relations" between representatives of those countries might offend some in the region.
    "Politics enters into things like this, unfortunately. It shouldn't be this way but when conditions are so bad and you have two countries at war with each other, everything becomes political," she said.
    If not for social media, however, the incident probably would not have made international headlines, she said.
    "That's what happens with social media; it's the tendency of a hashtag to be more meaningful than substance of what actually took place," she said. "It's significant burden to place on women in their 20s."
    'Everything is political'
    Miss Lebanon 2002 Christina Sawaya has experienced that burden firsthand. Her country decided to skip the Miss Universe 2002 after Israeli troops swept through a refugee camp in Jenin, leading to allegations from Palestinian officials of a massacre. A Human Rights Watch report found evidence of possible war crimes, but the group's investigators found no evidence that Israeli troops massacred Palestinian civilians.
    Meanwhile, Yamit Har-Noy, Israel's 2002 Miss Universe delegate, stoked controversy at the competition with a dress displaying the Israeli state that included the disputed territories of West Bank and Gaza, according to multiple news reports from the time.
    In an email to CNN on Friday through her publicist, Sawaya said she "felt bad" about missing the 2002 competition. But, as a representative of her country, she understood and respected the official decision.
    "I think that beauty queens have a message of culture and peace to deliver and this is where real beauty is," she said. "But, unfortunately, we live in a world full of atrocities, wars, injustice, and occupation and seen under that perspective, a beauty queen has to understand and respect her country's laws and political positions."
    Sawaya represented her country in other pageants. They were different settings, but the expectations were the same: treat your competitors with respect, but always be on guard against situations "that might put you in a difficult position."
    "While it is easy to say forget politics, it is just beauty, it is just a pageant; unfortunately we who live here know that everything is political when it comes to your country's sovereignty and borders."