Beauty pageants once rewarded good looks, and maybe some talent on the side. But the events are no longer just a showcase for perfect hair and swimsuits. Innovative pageants around the world celebrate differences and advocate for people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ communities.
Gina Rühl might soon make history as the first Miss Germany with only one arm, an injury she sustained after a life-threatening motorcycle accident. Rühl now uses her platform to advocate for others with disabilities. She told German newspaper Die Welt that she decided to compete in Miss Germany because “I knew that this competition is no longer just about the outer shell, but about who you are and what message you want to convey to people.”
This is an increasingly common sentiment among beauty pageant contestants, a genre of competition that originally awarded good looks, and maybe some talent on the side. No longer just a showcase for beauty queens, both conventional and more inventive pageants around the world are embracing a more diverse range of contests.
Whether advocating for disability rights like Rühl or for other social issues like LGBTQ+ representation, for many contestants, a win is just as much about the crown as providing a role model for their communities.
Some countries such as Cameroon organize pageants centered around contestants with disabilities
Raising awareness of communities with disabilities
In Moscow, Russia, the “Miss Independence” competition was created in 2009 to raise awareness of the more than 13 million people in the country living with disabilities. Many face challenges integrating into society and finding success in the workplace. All Miss Independence contestants are in wheelchairs, representing the approximately 600,000 people in Russia who rely on this mobility device.
The event includes choreographed dances with male partners as well as a talent competition, with competitors over the years singing, fencing and reciting poetry. Elizaveta Ustinova, who won Miss Independence in 2014, said in an RT documentary that the competition helped her discover her inner drive and desire to travel the world.
All girls with disabilities like me will finally have the courage and the strength to come forward.
Côte D'Ivoire is another country with a pageant centered around contestants with disabilities. Miss Handicap organizers hope to raise awareness of the lack of government funds for the disabled and provide “a new perspective on people with disability and another definition of beauty.” In particular, women with disabilities face a double challenge of discrimination based on their disability and their gender, often limiting their educational and professional opportunities.
Côte d’Ivoire is the second African country to organize a pageant of this type after Cameroon. 2018 Miss Handicap winner Loukou Getheme told France 24 that "Through this contest, all girls with disabilities like me who have always just stayed in their own corner and who haven't dared show themselves... will finally have the courage and the strength to come forward.”Participants have also called for a Miss Handicap Africa to address these issues and raise awareness across the continent. In fact, Miss Wheelchair World has already brought together contestants from around the world, supported by the Polish the Only One Foundation that aims to break down barriers for people with disabilities.
In 2019, Swe Zin Htet was the first openly lesbian contestant in the Miss Universe pageant
Letting queer contestants shine
While beauty pageants were first created to highlight eligible bachelorettes (with some categories for Mrs. contestants), queer people are increasingly using the model to express their identity. Mr. Gay International (now Mr. Gay World) has been a pioneering opportunity for gay men since 2009, with the goal of creating ambassadors for LGBTQ+ and human rights.
The two current Mr. Gay Worlds are from the Philippines, a country whose queer community has found a particular home in the world of pageants. In the majority Catholic archipelago where same-sex marriage is still illegal, the pageants have an overtly political aim.
As Ryan Soto, a Filipino advocate for gay rights who is involved in pageant organization told CNN Philippines, “We’re trying to break the stereotypes. Through this, we reintroduce and redefine the image of gay men. There are gay men who are in the armed forces and other professional fields.” Soto explains this includes introducing gay men from different conservative sectors, such as the Muslim community and the Filipino-Chinese community.
My goal is to make them look at me and others that are like me just the same.
One of the main stigmas queer pageants attempt to fight against is around HIV/AIDS, with many candidates being open about their status. And in Uganda, the Mr and Mrs Y+ pageant stands out as being exclusively for those who are HIV positive. The Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV created the event after a young woman was rejected from attending a beauty contest due to her HIV status. The aim of the Y+ pageant is to increase awareness around HIV; the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” serve as role models and advocates for others with the disease.
While Uganda has been a success in curbing HIV/AIDs since the height of the epidemic, some 1.4 million people still live with HIV and it disproportionately impacts women, particularly young women. The 2021 pageant held last November was organized around the theme of “Opening Opportunities,” highlighting that young people are the least likely to know their HIV status and take potentially life-saving antiretroviral medication.This increased acceptance is also working its way into the traditional pageant world. In 2019, Swe Zin Htet stood out in the Miss Universe pageant as the first openly lesbian contestant. While she didn’t win for her home country of Myanmar, she told Glamour that she hoped her win would shift attitudes toward queer relationships: “A majority of people in Myanmar are not accepting of this. But my goal is to make them look at me and others that are like me just the same.”