Yet, there I was, alone with the stunning Miss Ghana 2014, as we eyeballed each other's outfits head to toe.
Abena Akuaba Appiah
, who will battle for the planet's most prestigious tiara this weekend at the 63rd annual Miss Universe Pageant
, was wearing a form-fitting ivory mini dress with black leather go-go boots. I was wearing a sleeveless purple satin V-neck dress with neon yellow Reeboks.
"I like your dress," she said, without the slightest trace of irony.
Pretending to be used to such compliments, I replied, "Right back at ya!" before awkwardly turning the conversation to Ghana's geography, of which I knew nothing. (Note to self: The next time I hang out with Miss Ghana, remember that her home city of Accra is the capital.)
The "runway" we shared last fall was one mile of pavement along the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. We were fellow participants in the "Runaway Bridesmaids"
charity race for Airline Ambassadors International,
an organization that trains airport employees to spot and report human trafficking. Dozens of women and men stampeded in formal gowns and party dresses for the fundraiser, prompting Ms. Appiah to switch out her high-heeled boots for sneakers.
Before the race, as Miss Ghana's bodyguard snapped pics of us with her mobile phone, I imagined what she might be texting her friends and family back home: "Dear Mom and Dad: If this contestant in the purple dress is a preview of my competition, this pageant will be a breeze!" Her real Instagram feed was much kinder, praising me and another male bridesmaid
for our "courage."
For the same reasons I love the "It's a Small World" ride at Disney, I always look forward to watching the Miss Universe contest. It's a kitschy, utopian universe where countries are supposed to set aside their petty rivalries and hatreds and pretend to be BFFs. Critics can dismiss it as a sexualized hybrid of the United Nations and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. But for the three hours the contestants stand on stage, it doesn't matter how big their country's army is, the size of the nation's gross national product, or whether it has nuclear weapons.
It's fascinating to see if that façade can even last three hours. This week Miss Lebanon Saly Greige weathered a PR crisis at home
for posing in a selfie taken by Miss Israel Doron Matalon along with Miss Slovenia and Miss Japan. It is against Lebanese law to make contact with Israelis. Although she is smiling in the picture, Miss Lebanon accused Miss Israel of "photobombing" her, and it's understandable
why she's running scared. In 1993,
Miss Lebanon Ghada Turk was stripped of her title when she posed with the then-Miss Israel.
The Miss Universe Facebook page is filled with fun-spirited group pics like this: Random contestants frolicking on the beach, strutting on the golf course, hugging local children and taking Zumba dance classes. I kid you not, Miss Italy and Miss Turkey even had a "roomie-pajama party" wearing matching socks
! (Exclamation point is the pageant's, not mine.)
What will happen if Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon both make the Top 5 on Sunday night? How about Miss Russia and Miss Ukraine? Will contestants from any of the former Soviet bloc countries -- Miss Poland, Miss Hungary, Miss Czech Republic -- give Miss Russia the stink eye?
Just like the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Miss Universe pageant encourages people (on stage and at home) to momentarily be classy and see each other as individuals versus national or ethnic stereotypes. Not that any of the millions of viewers around the globe will be asking for a geography lesson, but the competition also forces people to wonder: "So where exactly IS Trinidad and Tobago?" and "How cool is it to have an ampersand in your country's name?"
Back to my personal competition with Miss Ghana, I surprised myself by crossing the finish line a few minutes ahead of her. For unknown reasons, she chose to walk (well, glide) through the race course and coolly acted as if winning were unimportant. However, Ms. Appiah could soundly defeat me in a burping contest.
According to her official Miss Universe bio,
Miss Ghana can burp "more than 50 times in a row." All those curves must do wonders for the acoustics. I'll definitely be rooting for her to win it all.
How could I not? She liked my dress.