The evening began three and a half hours late as organizers scrambled to get the hall ready and begin the competition. Attendants milled around the entrance in those hours, patiently waiting for the pageant to begin.
Ethiopian Beauty Queens, a private company authorized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to organize and host beauty pageants held the Miss World Ethiopia, Miss Intercontinental Ethiopia, Miss Grand International Ethiopia and Miss International Ethiopia competitions on September 13 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addis Ababa. These four contests are one of the largest international beauty pageants in the world.
Forty female contestants that had undergone six weeks of training prior to the competition were judged based on physical appearance (30 percent), catwalk (20 percent), confidence (10 percent), and swimsuit as well as evening gown presentations.
Beauty pageants celebrate not just physical beauty but also femininity and poise. From the first installment of the competition in Ethiopian history during the reign of Haile Selassie with the selection of Miss Addis Ababa, pageants have enjoyed a popular status. Crowned winners are akin to athletes that win international sports competitions, introducing Ethiopian strength and flexibility worldwide.
On the other hand, as women are paraded in front of an audience to be judged and answer questions in an innocuous manner with a permanent smile plastered on their faces as proof of enduring happiness, it begs to question if these pageants have become antiquated. Competitors are referred to by number, all their names prattled off in a row. Individuation is rarely possible unless a contestant makes a conscious effort to be remembered.
In the first round of the competition, contestants walked on stage in gold skirts and danced to different Ethiopian tunes. They appeared to lack energy and were having difficulty synchronizing their moves. They followed their performance with personal introductions. Most were from Addis Ababa city and between the ages of 18 to 25. Twenty contestants were selected to move on to the next round.
The second round of the competition had contestants in yellow swimsuits that seemed to compromise to fulfill the national need for modesty. This round, as famed feminist and social political activist Gloria Steinem says, “the swimsuit competition is probably the most honest part of the competition because it really is about bodies; it is about looking at women as objects.”
This was followed by evening gowns, as models slowly sashayed down the runway, with permanent smiles plastered on their faces. Some contestants seemed to be crowd favorites, gaining howls and screams from the sparse audience. 10 contestants were then selected to pass to the next round.
The selected contestants introduced themselves at greater length, revealing themselves to be in college or having just graduated. They expressed how they would introduce Ethiopia if they were to win the crown. They passed to the question and answer round. Most mentioned the un-colonized status of Ethiopia and the diversity of its people while few insisted on changing the global image of the country as impoverished and conflict-ridden.
The talent section, which is usually a staple of beauty pageants, was unfortunately not part of the competition.
International beauty pageants, despite claiming to celebrate beauty and empower women have largely been controversial worldwide. The 1996 Miss Universe winner Miss Venesuela Alicia Machado was reportedly going to lose her title for gaining too much weight. Donald Trump, owner of the pageant at the time, called her ‘an eating machine.’ Contests are judged on strict bodily measurements before entering into the competition and undergo rigorous scrutiny on their physical appearance.
American author Roxane Gay in her essay that looked by on the 1968 protests against the Miss America pageant and the beginning of second wave feminism says of the protestors, “they rejected the double standard that contestants were forced to be ‘both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.’ The pageant represented the elevation of mediocrity – American women were encouraged to be ‘unoffensive, bland, apolitical’ – and instilled this impoverished ambition in young girls.”
The evening’s crowned winners were Soliyana Abayneh for Miss World Ethiopia, Samrawit Azmeraw as Miss Grand International Ethiopia, Firezewd Solomon as Miss International Ethiopia and Bella Lera as Miss Intercontinental Ethiopia. The winners will represent Ethiopia in China, Myanmar, Japan and Philippines for the four competitions.
There is little protest or even question as to how these beauty pageants are playing a role in the representations of women in Ethiopia. Pageants play a role as a source of empowerment for women but also of degradation. National standards of physical beauty and perfection are different in every region, which allows for more diversity of women in these competitions. Even though this week’s pageant had 200 selected applicants from all of the country, it was only one woman from outside of Addis Ababa that was able to enter the top 10 rank.
Pageant winners from the recent past have descended into pop culture obsolescence. But Genet Tsegaye, 2016 Miss Grand International Ethiopia winner has found a stainable means of using her fame and connections by establishing and managing Ethiopian Beauty Queens. Perhaps it is time to question the value of these competitions and the benefits contestants gain from participating, especially when they do not move on to the international stage.