Sun, 11 Jun 2000

Contestants claim beauty pageants more than meets the eye

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): If some women want to become doctors and some others prefer to do little else but write, why should the ambition of those who lust after the title of the most beautiful woman in the universe be considered lesser?

After all, beauty pageants are no longer mindless fun indulged in by youngsters as they wait for a degree or a husband. Amid cynical statements that such contests emphasize physical appearance and are an insult to women, the beauty queens of today see pageants as a great gateway to lifelong careers. They are not only looking at jobs in the glamor world of films and fashion but also in media, management and medicine.

Diane Patricia, 21, from Southeast Sulawesi, said she entered the Miss Indonesia contest, which was held on Saturday night in Jakarta, because she was impatient to broaden her knowledge about the world. She wants to meet all kinds of people from different parts of the globe, and also from all over her own country.

"We know so little about ourselves, about our world," she said. Her desire is in keeping with her subject of study, international relations, and her ambition to become the first woman foreign minister of her country.

The Miss Indonesia beauty contest attracted hundreds from all over the country in the quest for "Beauty, Brain and Behavior", and 30 women made it to the final.

Pocut Iraita, also 21, from Aceh, said she participated in the contest because she wanted to use the opportunity to tell the audience and the TV viewing public about her home province. She wants to invite people to Aceh so that they can see for themselves how kind and loving the people are, like people anywhere in the world, despite the bloody unrest.

"It's all right if I do not win the contest. I am only 18 years old. At least I have gained some experience and made new friends," smiled Nuzlia Nur'aini from Kupang who is a student of English literature.

Windy Wulandari, 21, would like to use such occasions to introduce the wonderful culture and traditions of Jakarta to as many people as possible.

"I plan to take up a career in public relations after graduation and I will do anything that teaches me to be able to communicate better with people," said the dimple-cheeked Windy.

Although she said she would not like to appear in a swimsuit, she said it was all right if Miss Universe Lara Dutta felt comfortable doing it.

Annisa Dwitia, 18, looks forward to a future as a fashion model and feels participating in the beauty contest can help her make her dream come true.

Mooryati Soedibyo, founder of jamu herbal potions and traditional cosmetics firm Mustika Ratu, added the emphasis was no longer purely on physical assets. The objective of all beauty pageants is to become much more refined and sophisticated today, she added.

"The personality and intelligence of participants play a very important role now. A beauty queen is not just a dumb blonde but goes on to play the role of the best goodwill ambassador of her country," she said.

Mooryati set up the Puteri Indonesia Foundation eight years ago with the intention of instilling better confidence among young women here. This is the fifth beauty contest held by the foundation. Due to the economic crisis, the contest was shelved after 1996 when Alya Rohali, now a television actress, was the winner.

"Just look at Lara," Mooryati said. "She is not just beautiful but has an inner smartness that is responsible for her radiant look. And her command of the English language makes her express her very worldly wise views with so much spontaneity. She is a real role model for all young women looking forward to entering the world on their own."

Her persuasive arguments are probably not enough to quiet the critics who say beauty pageants are demeaning because they objectify women. Women, they contend, should be judged by their intelligence, not by a beautiful face or curvaceous body.

Indonesia banned the participation of Indonesian women in Miss Universe in 1984, but Alya took part as an "observer" in 1996. The decision upset the then minister of women affairs, Mien Sugandhi, who said the contest contravened norms of Indonesian society through the wearing of swimsuits. There is no swimsuit section in the local contest.

Miss Universe organizers are quick to counter the accusation that the contest is merely a glorified cattle market. They say the contest has matured with the times, with winners such as last year's Mpule Kwelago of Botswana helping to highlight humanitarian issues (Kwelago traveled around the world as a representative of the charity AIDS Awareness).

Lara swept the crown with her polished reply to the question of what she would tell the contest's critics. For her year ahead, she said she was interested in working on population control in her country of one billion people. An ardent documentary filmmaker, she is also toying with the idea of running for political office.

Indians have done well in international beauty pageants for many years. The first Indian to win the Miss World title in 1966 was Reita Faria, a medical student. Indian beauties hit the international headlines in 1994 when Sushmita Sen bagged the Miss Universe title and Aishwarya Rai walked away with the Miss World crown.

Mooryati believed it was the solid educational background of Indian women that helped them impress judges. "They are not just physically beautiful but also smart," she said.