Miss Angola 2011, Leila Lopes, was crowned Miss Universe Monday night
She was asked what physical characteristic she'd change about herself
Her answer, one heartily applauded, was that she wouldn't change a thing
But who decided this was a question worth asking?
First things first: I didn’t watch Monday night’s Miss Universe Pageant. I did not even know it was on.
The last time I might have tuned into such a program was in middle school, the height of insecurity. I was short, scrawny and getting used to my first pair of oversized glasses. My thick dark hair wouldn’t lay flat like the blondes with their perfect wispy bangs. Not yet “developed” like many of my peers, I’m sure watching glamorous half-naked models parade around on stage was just what my young psyche needed.
When I came into work Tuesday morning, I was greeted with an e-mail that made me think about the pageant for the first time in decades. It contained the final question posed to finalist Leila Lopes of Angola, now our universe’s newly crowned Miss Universe.
“If you could change one of your physical characteristics,” the designated judge asked her, “which one would it be and why?”
Are you (insert profanity) kidding me?
After standing under the magnifying glass of millions, this 25-year-old, 5-foot-10 ½-inch knockout had to publicly contemplate if she was physically good enough.
Her response was quick: “Thank God I am very-well satisfied with the way God created me, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I consider myself a woman endowed with inner beauty. … I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family, and I plan to follow these through the rest of my life. And now I would like to give all of you a piece of advice: Respect one another.”
Her answer was applauded. Lopes’ win, the first for Angola, was announced soon after.
Maybe it’s absurd to be dismayed that a question like this would be posed at a beauty pageant. In my worldview, the mere fact that pageants exist is absurd. And I’m not alone.
“It fits into the narrative du jour for women – my body is infinitely malleable,” said Courtney Martin, editor of Feministing.com and author of titles including “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection Is Harming Young Women.”
“If I have enough willpower and money, I can look like anyone,” she said. “This invisibilizes physiology and metabolism and leads women to internalize shame when so much is simply not in their control.”
We live in a world where in the United States alone $10.1 billion was spent on cosmetic procedures in 2010, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. And Miss Universe has got to be the apex of all pageants – the ultimate aspiration for all those fake-tanned toddlers running around in tiaras, between tantrums, on reality-TV.
But, seriously, who came up with this question?
Each of the five finalists was asked something different. One judge asked Miss China about nudity on beaches. Another asked Miss Brazil about her stance on war. Miss Philippines had to contemplate if she’d change her religious beliefs in order to marry, and Miss Ukraine was invited to ponder whom in history she’d trade her life with if she had the chance.
Lopes drew from a bowl the name of the judge who would ask her a question. Lea Salonga, an award-winning Filipina singer and actress who made a name for herself on Broadway, was the voice behind the question. She looked down at a card and read.
But it turns out the question wasn’t Salonga’s. On Twitter, her fans wanted to know why she asked such a thing.
Salonga tweeted that she did not write the question. “All our questions are pre-written and each judge is assigned one. Luck of the draw,” Salonga tweeted.
The questions were “written by the guys at Miss Universe” she said in a response to one fan. “We had no say” in what the questions would be, she said in another.
Follower @sassy_dimple wanted more.
“I am surprised they have that (question) on their list,” she said. “But if you are given the chance to ask a question to any of the candidates, what would it be and why?”
“It would have been on feminism and pageants, gay marriage, or separation bet. church and state,” Salonga responded. “Something like that.”
Salonga reiterated Tuesday afternoon in a written statement to CNN that she and the other judges had no say when it came to the questions.
“As for the quality of the actual question, I don’t have much of an opinion on that (truth be told, it’s a standard beauty contest query… I would have asked about something more controversial…),” she wrote. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t so much the question asked but the manner in which it was answered.”
I reached out to the “guys at Miss Universe” to ask them about their line of questioning. My calls and e-mails went unreturned.
So I turned to THE guy, Donald Trump, owner of the Miss Universe Organization and, oh yeah, one-time potential candidate for U.S. president. I asked him to explain why this was a question worth asking. I also tossed the query back to him.
Mr. Trump, if you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?
I’m still waiting for his answer.