x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Miss Lebanon USA pageant is about more than beauty

The pageant, an annual event that began in the early 1950s, connects the large and widely dispersed Lebanese diaspora with each other and their country.

Pascal Abi-Samra, 24, of Pennsylvania, walks the stage after being crowned Miss Lebanon Emigrants USA 2012 in Dearborn, Michigan on Thursday.
Pascal Abi-Samra, 24, of Pennsylvania, walks the stage after being crowned Miss Lebanon Emigrants USA 2012 in Dearborn, Michigan on Thursday.

DEARBORN, MICHIGAN // When it finally came, the coronation of Miss Lebanon Emigrants USA, 2012, was greeted with applause that bordered on relief.

Pascal Abi-Samra, a 24-year-old Pennsylvanian, had certainly been made to wait. The result was not announced until after midnight. The pageant last week had started a very fashionable hour-and-a-half late, perhaps unavoidable for an event that featured a former Miss Universe, a Lebanese cabinet minister and a man called Fifi.

But then the pageant was always about far more than just beauty. A portion of the US$150-a-head (Dh551) ticket sales will go to The Children's Cancer Centre in Beirut, an affiliate of the St Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

It also provided an opportunity for the community to network.

Overwhelmingly that meant the local expatriate Lebanese community, which makes up the bulk of Dearborn's large Arab population. But it was by no means confined to it. A measure of the political importance of the Arab population in Michigan was the attendance of two of three Democratic judges running for seats on the state's Supreme Court in November.

The pageant, an annual event that began in the early 1950s, connects the large and widely dispersed Lebanese diaspora with each other and their country, something the pageant is very proud of, according to Joumana Kayrouz, the president of this year's US leg of the Miss Lebanon Emigrants competition.

Sponsored in part by Lebanon's ministry of tourism, the Miss Lebanon Emigrants contest brings together young Lebanese expatriate women from 36 countries for a final competition in Dhour Shweir, in central Lebanon.

"This is an excellent opportunity for the girls to connect with their Lebanese heritage," said Ms Kayrouz.

A personal injury lawyer and a local celebrity due in part to her ubiquitous presence on billboards across the Detroit area, Ms Kayrouz said one of the key challenges emigrants faced was finding a balance between their heritage and the identity of their new homelands.

She came to the United States 24 years ago and said that balance was rarely struck in Dearborn, where people tended either "to live back home in their minds", or "reject" their heritage completely.

A beauty pageant, she said in an interview before the event, was just one way to assert an identity that can straddle both home and exile.

Fady Abboud, Lebanon's minister of tourism, placed the crown on Ms Abi-Samra's head. In a short speech, he was careful to emphasise that "Lebanon is for all people and all religions. It is above all a beautiful country and safe for tourists."

There was no mention of the recent troubles in Lebanon, where nine people were killed this month in sectarian violence that appeared to have spilt over from Syria. None of the 14 contestants from six US states was asked about Lebanon's political situation in the question segment of the competition, the "toughest part", according to the master of ceremonies, Ali Faris.

Ms Abi-Samra was asked what she thought was the biggest challenge facing today's youth. She said: "I think it is working really hard and succeeding in whatever you want to do."

It was enough to impress the judges, who included Georgina Rizk, Lebanon's first Miss Universe. Ms Abi-Samra can now look forward to a year of adventure in Lebanon, where she will compete for the global crown, as well as spend a fully paid semester at one of the universities in Beirut.

She may hope for more glory. Former contestants have gone on to find wider fame. Rima Fakih of Dearborn won the Miss Lebanon Emigrants title in 2008. She became Miss USA in 2010, causing controversy in a Shiite community that objected to her appearing in a bikini on stage.

The girls here also appeared in bikinis, though they appeared undaunted by any potential controversy. Tiffany Shebli, 19, a University of Michigan at Dearborn student, who was named that evening's Miss Personality, said some of her colleagues at the Arab Students' Union had suggested it might be "aib" - shameful - to appear in a bikini on stage.

"Come on. It's 2012. In Lebanon, there are girls wearing bikinis walking down the street," she said before the competition and ahead of being prepared by the New York-based Lebanese make-up artist, Fifi.

okarmi@thenational.ae