Australia

A new generation of Australian beauty pageants are being driven by migrant communities

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Beauty pageants continue to be popular worldwide, including in Australia, where smaller pageants are taking place in various communities.

The dynamics of Australia's beauty pageants are changing with the line-up of contestants in some of the big competitions more reflective of the country's multiculturalism.

Australia recently crowned its first Indian-born Miss Universe Australia, Priya Serrao, a government policy adviser from Victoria, who described her win as a step forward for diversity in Australia.

Priya Serrao says she will use her pageant win to raise awareness about diversity and multiculturalism.
Priya Serrao says she will use her pageant win to raise awareness about diversity and multiculturalism.
Supplied

"I think there should be more people of colour in media, business, politics, you name it," she told SBS News.

"I think I recently read that one in four people are born overseas. One in four is a huge number, and you don't see that online. You don't see that in media, and in politics, absolutely not in politics or business and I would love for that to change."

Global connections

Beauty pageants are also popular in many of Australia's minority communities.

One of the most prominent, Miss Lebanon Emigrant Australia, is part of a global competition that sees women from the Lebanese diaspora come together to compete in an annual event. Country winners then compete in the annual global Miss Lebanon Emigrant competition.

Monie Gabriel, the event's head of beauty and management, said the appeal of pageants in Lebanon and in the Lebanese-Australian community reflected the pride Lebanese women take in their appearance. 

"The Lebanese ladies are known to be very glamorous," she told SBS News.

"They are always following the trends. They always love to do their hair and make-up and looking after themselves. So when a pageant like that happens they love to be part of it and encourage the girls"

Ms Gabriel said there are high expectations put on contestants, with looks playing only one part in picking a winner. 

Many contestants, she said, have high education levels, do charity work and also attend Arabic lessons to improve their chances of winning.

A step to success

Daniella Rahme was the 2009 Australian winner and took out the Miss Lebanon Emigrant title in 2010, launching a career as an actor and television host in Lebanon.

Ms Gabriel said a win can be a stepping stone to other opportunities.

"So she got in Dancing with the Stars Middle East and she won. She got into acting and she acted among big names and her shows are on Netflix as well.

"She also became the ambassador for Loreal Paris Middle East."

Australia's Assyrian community also runs a beauty pageant. Many in the community have been affected by conflict in the Middle East, with the majority of Assyrian Australians having immigrated from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Jordan.

Basim Rasho, the organiser of the Miss Assyria-Australia competition, said the competition is one way the community embraced the freedom it has in Australia.

"We want to give our young men and women confidence to feel that they can participate in these activities to demonstrate they are on the same level as Australian young men and women and other nationalities," he told SBS News.

"They feel empowered and confident after having gained a new life now, that they have reached Australia, this land of opportunities and freedom to do things which they may not have been able to do back home."

Criticism of pageants

Beauty pageants have in the past been the focus of protests that drew worldwide attention, with women's liberationists criticising the focus on women's looks inherent in the events.

Hannah McCann, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, said one of the key moments in the so-called second wave of feminism was a protest held in the United States in 1968 at the Miss America pageant.

Miss America protest
Demonstrators protest the Miss America 1968 beauty pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

But more than 50 years on, changing definitions of feminism have also spawned different reactions to pageants, even among people who call themselves feminists. 

"Not all feminists would agree that we should protest about pageants and that makes it kind of difficult," Ms McCann told SBS News.

"There might be some people who protest pageants and then there might be other people who write in defence of pageants or in defence of women having enough agency to make decisions about partaking in them and it's a bit more convoluted than that original moment."

Helen Barcham, a sociologist and final year PhD candidate at Western Sydney University whose research is in beauty politics and gender, said beauty pageants can offer opportunities for women to move forward professionally and socially that may not be otherwise available.

"There are so few of those opportunities, I believe, offered to women. A lot of them are probably doing it to advance their professional networks. And I guess broadly it's a reflection that maybe socially it's time we think of the opportunities that we give or are on offer for women and if there are enough out there for them."

Andrea Jaca-Smith was the first Filipino-Australian to represent Australia at the Miss Trans Star International pageant in 2016 and runs a school called Andrea's House of Beauty which helps train aspiring pageant participants in Melbourne. 

Ms Jaca-Smith has fond memories of pageants while growing up in the Philippines where the tradition remains very popular with female, transgender and increasingly male pageants all part of the tradition.

Andrea Jaca-Smith
Andrea Jaca-Smith represented Australia at the Miss Trans Star International pageant.
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For her entering and winning several pageants a year provided a steady source of much-needed income when she was living in the Philippines.

"With my case also, since I was a teenager, I used to service my monetary purposes, like studying and to have some income, because in every competition or pageant in the Philippines there is some prize money, so whenever you win you get a prize ... that is one of the reasons it's been popular in general."

As for the emphasis pageants place on looks, Ms Jaca-Smith said there's more to winning one than simply looking a certain way.

"For me it's the total package. If you don't have the passion and the soul in it, then it does not work. To be in a pageant, you need to be determined, disciplined and at the same time, you have to have the passion to do it, because you are not there just to compete. You are not there just to show yourself, you are there with a purpose and a mission."

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