Rupert Hawksley reports from the sidelines of Miss Lebanon Emigrant, where smart young women from around the world battle it out for the crown while also learning ‘what it means to be Lebanese’
The beauty pageant where all the contestants miss Lebanon
In the corner of a brightly-lit conference room at the Mytt Beach Hotel in Pattaya, Thailand, the 11 finalists of “Miss Lebanon Emigrant” 2018 are getting ready behind a large navy curtain. It’s less than an hour before the opening group dance, and the improvised dressing room is a mess of trestle tables, chairs, clothes-racks and bodies.
Squeezed-out tubes of concealer jostle for space alongside smudgy sponges. Tubs, pots and jars budge up against each other. Nothing seems to have a lid on it. “Look this way for me,” a make-up artist tells one girl, jabbing an index finger into her chin.
Tonight is the culmination of a long journey for the 11 finalists, who have come through various preliminary competitions, and have travelled from all over the world to be here.
“Miss Lebanon Emigrant”, which has been going for more than 50 years, is open to anyone, aged 18 to 26, with Lebanese heritage.
This year, there are representatives from Australia, Senegal, the United States and Argentina, among others. The winner will go on to compete for the crown of “Miss International” in Japan next month .
The atmosphere backstage – I use the term loosely – is tense and excitable. The finalists have been rehearsing in Thailand – the competition is held in a different country each year – for a week and the contestants are clearly feeling the pressure.
“I was so nervous this morning, I couldn’t really eat anything,” Miss Lebanon-Kuwait says .
A cloud of hairspray catches me in the back of the throat. I try and stay out of the way and promptly sit on someone’s dress. Miss Lebanon-Ivory Coast rushes over, tuts something in French, and rescues the crumpled garment from my vicinity. “Vous êtes happy être ici?” I stammer and am, quite rightly, ignored.
The idea of a beauty pageant, where contestants in silk sashes are paraded in a variety of outfits, including swimsuits, feels strangely old-fashioned. The first modern beauty pageant is thought to have been staged in 1854 by American circus owner P.T. Barnum (the subject of recent blockbuster, The Greatest Showman, starring Australian actor Hugh Jackman). It was not a great success, however, and following widespread protests, the following year's installment was cancelled.
Then in 1921, “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest” was held. This time, the event proved popular and the “Miss America” competition was born. With the exception of a five-year hiatus between 1928 and 1932, there has been a “Miss America” competition every year since. It has shrugged off regular protests, which were particularly noisy during the 1960s, as well as a recent decline in television ratings, and has spawned myriad other beauty pageants including “Miss World” and “Miss Universe”. The beauty pageant, then, has proven remarkably durable.
Still, I can’t help wondering what we’re doing – in 2018 – judging people on the way they look. Why have these young women, many of whom already have successful careers, agreed to take part?
“I’m very insecure in public,” says Rana Khankan, a 25-year-old pilot from Denmark. “I thought, ‘Okay, maybe if I do this and have to be on stage, it will help me'.” And has it? “I have learnt so much about myself,” she admits. “You have to talk to the other girls and not be shy. It has been a great experience, which I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Eighteen-year-old Tamara Saleh, who is from Sweden and is applying to medical school, agrees. “It’s important to be confident, to believe in yourself,” she says. “Then you will go far, even if you don’t win the competition.”
These sentiments, which are echoed by almost all of the other contestants, surprise me. For those taking part, “Miss Lebanon Emigrant” seems to be as much about overcoming their own fears and insecurities, as it does about looking good in a swimsuit.
“I was hesitant about coming here right until the last minute,” says Kuwait’s Alice El Habr, 25, who is starting a job with the United Nations in September. “I could have stayed at home, there is no contract. It was my choice but I’m really glad I came because it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had. We’re like one big family all us girls.”
Back in the conference room, about 100 guests, nearly all family and friends of the contestants, sip their drinks anxiously, pick at baskets of chicken and chips, and await the arrival on stage of the finalists. I ask the brother of Miss Lebanon Toronto-Canada if his sister is going to win. “Of course,” he says with a smile.
At last, the judges – among them, Miss Lebanon 2009, the president of the Miss Lebanon Emigrant Committee, and a seemingly random mix of Thai tourism officials – take their seats.
It’s hard to identify exactly what qualifications the managing director of a hotel in Pattaya has for this task but he seems happy enough to be here.
What unfolds over the next couple of hours is one of the strangest – but ultimately rather charming – things I've seen. The ceremony is a curious cocktail of big smiles, bigger hair, shaky dance routines and feeble fashion rounds, including “evening gowns” and “national dress” (think Miss Lebanon Denmark in a plastic Viking hat). There is an amateurish, village-fete feel to the whole occasion and near constant flirtation with serious mishap.
The presenters keep taking cues from the wings. At one point, we’re all told to cheer a bit louder. During a James Bond-themed group dance, the spotlight always seems to settle just a bit to the left or right of each contestant. Strangest of all is the “swimsuit” round, where each of the contestants is required to stand completely still at the front of the stage for 35 seconds. I can’t vouch for this but it strikes me as an extraordinarily long time to pose swimwear clad in a hotel conference room.
Somehow, though, the whole thing just about comes off. The 11 finalists are whittled down to five. Consolation prizes – “Miss Friendship”; “Miss Elegance”; “Miss Photogenic” – are handed out; then we applaud the runners-up, Miss Lebanon Toronto-Canada and Miss Lebanon Texas-USA.
Finally, the winner is announced and Miss Lebanon Australia, 22-year-old Rachel Younan, who seemed to impress the judges by naming Amal Clooney as her idol during the Q&A session, steps forward to receive the crown from last year’s winner, Dima Safi. Except she can’t because it has become tangled up in Safi’s hair and won’t come off.
I find Younan’s mother in floods of tears by the stage. “I’m very proud, still shaking,” she says. “My work has paid off because when she was little, I used to drive her to public speaking competitions, which built her confidence. It’s about having control when such a big audience is watching you.”
Younan, who works at Sydney University, is more composed and tells me she hopes to inspire other young people around the world with Lebanese heritage to register as citizens of the country. “It’s a really good thing for Lebanon – in politics and in society – if the number of Lebanese people accounted for around the world is accurate,” she says. “I’m lucky enough that my parents applied for me and it means that I feel more a part of the country that I come from.” First things first, though, she just really wants to take her shoes off.
It is easy to be dismissive of beauty pageants such as Miss Lebanon Emigrant and I certainly arrived in Thailand filled with preconceptions. But having spent time with the contestants, I realised there is a lot more going on here than a simple beauty pageant.
For some, it has been about meeting new people and experiencing unfamiliar cultures. “I have met a lot of great friends from around the world,” says Tamara Saleh from Sweden. For others, it has been about connecting or re-connecting with their Lebanese ancestry. Prior to arriving in Thailand, all the contestants were flown to Lebanon. Younan, who grew up in Western Australia, tells me that this trip has helped her to appreciate Lebanon “like you wouldn’t believe”.
“You feel a really deep connection to the landscape, to the people, to the culture,” she says. “You understand more what it means to be Lebanese.”
Eighteen-year-old Najle Bader from Argentina adds: “It is a very good idea because my great-great grandfather is from Lebanon but I have never had any contact with my Lebanese family. I wanted to know my family in Lebanon and this competition gave me that possibility.”
I have to admit that, when I was sent to Thailand to cover a beauty pageant, I didn’t expect it to be those words that stayed with me.