In a nondescript community hall in western Sydney, a handful of young women are being taught to walk and talk all over again. Guided by a crack team of experts, these beauty pageant hopefuls are put through their paces in an intensive boot camp aimed at getting them "stage ready".
If they were under any illusion it was going to be all fun and games, they’re in for a major wake-up call, courtesy of the pageant professionals – who do not mince words. “Don’t walk like a pregnant woman,” one girl is told. Others have their personal appearance debated by mentors like pageant stylist Zooka Alameddine, for whom dropping truth bombs is as effortless as breathing.
It all plays out in Lebanese Beauty Queens, the first instalment of the latest season of Untold Australia on SBS this Wednesday. Ahead of the show, Alameddine answered a few questions about her role and why the Miss Lebanon Australia pageant is such a huge, controversial event.
Why are beauty pageants such a "big deal" (according to former Miss Lebanon Australia Cynthia Farah) to the Lebanese community?
Zooka Alameddine: Lebanese beauty queens have been embedded into us since we were children. We have always been told that “Lebanese women are the exotic ones”. We take a lot of pride in the way we look, and we have big egos and love to show off. We are a community that supports each other but also competes with each other, and what better platform than this?
How do Lebanese beauty queens differ from other beauty queens?
What I've realised from styling both Lebanese and Australian pageants is that the Lebanese pageant girls get a lot more support from the community. It saddens me to see that Australia never knows who their winner is unless she wins Miss Universe, whereas everyone in our community knows who our winner is and supports them.
What about the Lebanese Muslim community - aren't the two things completely at odds?
Absolutely. As a Muslim, your body is for you and God, not for display.
We see a young Muslim girl attending the boot camp. How great is the pressure on girls like her not to become involved?
The pressure is immense. Muslim contestants have to deal with the criticism of the Muslim community and what they think. For most girls, they don’t get support, especially due to the fact that they have to wear a swimsuit. That is the greatest burden, as the community is not supportive of girls being half-naked on stage. These are the things that go through a young Muslim girl’s mind at every training session. There is a lot of self-doubt and fear of repercussions, and this can take a toll. You need a lot of strength and family support to go ahead with it.
What are the biggest mistakes pageant contestants make?
Getting fillers and Botox just before pageant night, which results in bruised and swollen lips, or what I like to call the "Donald Duck" look. We like our pageant contestants to have natural beauty. Another mistake is when contestants mention family during the question and answer segment. This means the audience and judges can’t relate. I always advise they use a figure people know, so everyone can relate and understand why you have decided to talk about them. Don’t bring up your brother or your mother. Seriously, who’s your mother compared to the selfless Mother Teresa?
Can you teach any pretty girl to be a beauty queen?
You're very matter-of-fact in the way you speak to contestants. Ever made a contestant cry?
Yes, and my care factor is zero. I come from the real world and I don’t butter things up. I tell it how it is – and it isn’t an opinion, it’s fact, so deal with it!
Not everyone can take such blunt criticism of their appearance. If you realise someone doesn't have a thick enough skin, do you try to talk them out of doing pageants?
No, I don’t talk them out of it; I teach the girls how to deal with criticism. That’s why I don’t sugar-coat things – they need to be prepared for the real world. I also teach them how to disguise their insecurities so they have a fighting chance. No-one is perfect – you don’t need surgery, you need to learn how to hide your flaws and allow your inner beauty to come out.
What is your response to people who suggest pageants are superficial or perpetuate an out-of-date view of women?
Darling, most of these girls come with degrees, are studying or are entrepreneurs. What is your response to that, haters?
What’s your take on all the rigging rumours?
Unfortunately, it has become the norm that when a girl wins the crown, there’s always someone spreading a rumour that they paid their way to get it. Just like in sports, when parents yell out at the TV that it’s rigged, or when a person achieves success and people want to undermine their achievement.
What will it take to make the rumours go away, or will they always plague the pageant?
The best way we can make the rumours go away is by highlighting the reasons someone won – that it was on their own merit and not because of their family.
What is your favourite thing about being involved in pageants?
Having my name in the spotlight, of course! Also, knowing that it’s because of my doing that the pageant is such a success on the night.
Watch Lebanese Beauty Queens at SBS On Demand: