With crimes against women once again in focus, a lot is being said about the derogatory potrayal of women in popular culture. The ones most villified are always organisers of beauty pageants. Even hardline Islamic leaders have not spared pageants, criticising the participation of Muslim women.
However this year, the Miss World pageant is being held in Indonesia, a country where Muslims are in the majority. Julia Morley, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Miss World Organisation, says her pageant is all about respecting the beliefs of the host country and adds that her beauty pageant should not lumped with others as it is not only about physical beauty - it is about ‘beauty with a purpose’.
When she visited Mumbai, along with Miss World 2012 Yu Wenxia, Julia spoke about how women should feel that they are equal to men, adding that education is the tool for realisation. “You (women) can feel encouraged by the fact that you have got your wings now. You don’t need to fly away, but you need to be able to feel ‘I can do it’.” While championing the cause of women empowerment, she also debunked the misconceptions associated with Miss World.
Miss World may be about beauty with a purpose, but the emphasis is still on beauty.
No. It means the individual, however beautiful superficially, has to have an in-depth beauty. That’s the major part. There are many beautiful women, but (they have) to have the power to use their wisdom, their ability to study and their ability to put that across. Like Yu Wenxia (the current Miss World). She has completed her studies as an opera singer, but she’ll come and help me and in the future, when she is famous with her singing, she’ll still come back to help, like the others.
That’s the important thing. Please don’t lump me with other contests. Mine is different. The girls are given great respect and it is a great learning programme. They are not asked to gyrate in bikinis on stage. They also come to learn about the place they are in. The people from the country they are in really enjoy meeting the people from all over the world. It is a two-way thing and sometimes, we are inclined to bunch everything together, it is human nature. A beauty contest as a thing on its own, is a waste of time. Have a proper run show, with a beauty with a purpose programme, that’s the purpose I look at.
But isn’t beauty with a purpose only one segment of the contest?
It is not one segment, it is a whole segment. Which is very important. The Miss World who wears the crown, what she does the whole year, she goes to all the countries, visiting the projects. If someone is a good model, they can go off modeling. Miss World wears the crown only for children and special fundraising occasions. That’s my work for the year… We have a long schedule ahead. Look at everyone of those schedules and they are all to do about fundraising and helping kids in various countries. That’s very important to understand.
Despite all the good work Miss Worlds do, the view still persists that the pageant’s format objectifies women by making them parade in front of men.
Miss World does not parade in front of men. The suggestion is not a fair one for anyone to claim about us. Ours is a very much family-orientated programme. Also we have a very interesting forum which is run for the women present so we can learn from each other about particular causes such as the Muktangan school (an NGO in Mumbai). Many beauty contests are insensitive to the needs of women, but we are not like that.
Hardline Muslim organisations have protested the participation of women from Muslim countries and of Muslim women from other countries. Miss World 2013 will be held in Indonesia, a country whose majority population is Muslim. Did you have any doubts before deciding on the venue?
The most important thing for me is that each woman is treated with respect and each country is respected for their religious beliefs. We therefore have a clear aim to behave accordingly. So women are not obliged to enter all the sections, particularly if it means beachwear. However, I do point out that women can and do have wraps and covers which they can wear if they so choose. We do not have a beachwear/bikini round on stage, this we changed many years ago. I feel it is very important to make a woman feel comfortable. She, her family and her country should not be offended by anything we do.
What would you like to say to all those filmmakers and television show makers who crack jokes at beauty pageant participants claiming, ‘My role model is Mother Teresa’ and ‘I want world peace’?
They don’t say that about us when they know what we do. It is people like you who can help us remove this cynicism for Miss World, although to be fair I have found film makers, television (show makers) and journalists very reasonable when they know us better. Miss World is not like any other contest; it is unique, it is caring, it is true, but I cannot say the same for other contests.
Unlike the early years, Miss World is now being won by contestants from all over the world, with Yu Wenxia being the second Chinese winner. Would you say that over the years, the definition of beauty has changed?
Certainly. For me beauty is defined very much by the inner beauty of the person. We have very lengthy interviews with each individual.
Is it true that if a Miss World gains weight during her tenure, she loses her crown?
Absolutely not true. Also it is a myth to suggest that Miss World is looking for women to be of a certain height. Women can be of any height and be encouraged to live a healthy lifestyle and please note that for us, our Beauty with a Purpose and Interview holds the majority of marks to discover who is Miss World.
Is the contest open to lesbians?
It is not my practice to question the personal sexual details of anybody let alone young women. It is nothing to do with anyone else what their sexual preference is. It is not relevant.
Considering the protests that occurred in 1996, would you ever agree to India hosting the Miss World pageant?
Let’s get the record right. The people showed us great respect and kindness in India but you know as well as I do that you will always get ill-informed people who wish to use us to get attention. It is a great pity but it is part of life. I would love people who do this to first learn about us. If they are genuine they would welcome us. We already have in place our next five-six year plans to hold Miss World in other countries. But after those years have passed if India wishes to host, of course I would be pleased.
It’s been more than 60 years since the Miss World pageant began. How long do you think the pageant can sustain interest in itself?
Miss World has grown from strength to strength. We are very much a contest that promotes tourism and this is our greatest success. Our work in the Beauty with a Purpose programme is also going strong.
Vanya Misra showcased Indian NGO Muktangan in the Beauty with a Purpose subsection of Miss World 2012 and won the round. As promised, your organisation donated the prize money to the NGO. Did you recommend that India’s representative at the pageant should showcase Muktangan?
What I recommended, and I do it to every country, is that I don’t want lip service paid to the Beauty with a Purpose. I need the girl who comes to know and understand what she is representing. I need to know that people do understand the project and when I saw this project, I knew that this was something they believed in. I wasn’t sure that Miss India had a true understanding of it. So I requested that she learned the situation like I did. To their credit, they did that, and they realised more about the project themselves. It is necessary to have full knowledge about something. The projects (at the pageant) were viewed by independent groups and they came to me with their replies.
Many organisations, after a certain time, move away from the original objective. Is there something like that you think the 10-year-old Muktangan should watch out for within themselves?
I knew a wonderful lady from an African nation who did amazing things while she was there. When she left, it all went downhill. I suppose that’s one of the biggest problems, making sure that you have a strong team, and you don’t have one person holding the reigns. You have to make sure that if anything happens to you, it could be carried on with very careful observation to the rules.
Being a successful businesswoman, what advice would you give women who wish to start their own ventures?
I feel that anybody wishing to make a success of their lives should do so with conviction, a belief in themselves and a genuine passion for what they are doing. It’s a way of life more than a job.
Not boyish at all
‘Men will be men’ isn’t enough of an excuse for American feminists who have slammed the men’s magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) for including race-specific categories in its list of 100 Sexiest Women of the 21st Century. The categories were: Sexiest Chinese Chick (won by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi), Sexiest Indian Chick (won by Freida Pinto) and Sexiest Pregnant Sri Lankan (won by rapper MIA).
Beyonce won the Miss Millennium poll. Other women mentioned included Mila Kunis and Kim Kardashian. However, their was no mention of Beyonce’s African-American, Kunis’ Ukranian or Kardashian's Armenian roots. This has irked women scholars who claim that the list discriminates among the women by implying that a few women are universally beautiful while others can be considered beautiful only within their ethnic spheres.