When the telephone rang in August and a voice asked me to be a judge in the Miss World Canada Pageant, my heart quivered. Among my many intellectual lapses is a weakness for watching beauty contests. There is for me a musical quality about the entire proceeding—the melody of whispering voices hesitantly giving audiences little thoughts about world peace from lip-glossed mouths perched on glowing bodies, all sunstreaked and swaying. It’s so deliciously vulgar. Still, the contest presented problems since it required a two-day stay in Ottawa.
The voice on the phone purred: “We need you for so long because we want you to receive a Distinguished Canadian Award on our televised pageant.”
I was modest. It was, I said, unnecessary to give me an award but I would be a judge. Modesty undid me. Distinguished Canadian Awards are here today, gone tomorrow. By the time I showed up in Ottawa mine had gone, never to be mentioned again.
During the contest, many things were here today, gone tomorrow. Actor Leslie Nielsen, who was getting a Distinguished Canadian Award, was supposed to be a judge until he looked at the printed programs and discovered he was a substitute for Christopher Plummer who couldn’t make it. Nielsen’s opinion of this bit of understudying was revealed in his subsequent use of a device from Los Angeles which, when squeezed, imitates the sound of that alimentary canal process known colloquially as “breaking wind.” Madame Benoit was also down in the program along with ex-ambassador Ken Taylor. Madame B. was nowhere to be seen, and Taylor decided not to be a judge but only to accept his (my) DCA. When I looked at the program I discovered that I was a last-minute substitution for Toronto fashion designer Linda Lundstrom who was edged out because Ottawa haute couturier Richard Robinson had simply screamed when he heard
there was another designer on the rostrum. I didn’t mind being a sub for the talented Miss Lundstrom, but all things considered I would have preferred to be a substitute for Madame Benoit. Or even Christopher Plummer.
At the judges’ briefing we were told not to concentrate on beauty. True, there was a bathing suit competition, but we should restrain ourselves from judging on “generosity of figure” and look instead for “intelligence and warmth.” This struck fellow judge and
pentathlon whiz (and Distinguished Canadian) Diane Jones Konihowski as plain foolish. Jones was most concerned by the shortage of bosoms among our nubile contestants. “We can’t send someone who is flat to represent Canada,” she said, horror-stricken. On the other hand, she could not vote for one amply endowed contestant. “Gravity problems,” she explained. I understood her to mean the problem of balancing while walking or pole-vaulting.
Beauty having been dismissed, the organizers urged the judges to consider the “communicative abilities” of contestants. The most beautiful girl in the contest came a cropper in her interview which was a Rorschach of all the ills encountered when communicative abilities are emphasized among beauty contestants. Certain themes emerged. “What would you do to improve Canada?” was a popular question. “Make swimming pools accessible to the handicapped,” was a consensus opinion. Put in Hollywood terms, the handicapped
“have legs.” “How would you describe Canadians to the world?” we asked her. She struggled: “I would describe Canadians to the world in that beauty is not just how you look but how you feel inside, and helping others like the handicapped is something that I feel really deeply about because Canadians are friendly and warm and the weather is not too hot or cold here but just really nice. Thank you very much.”
Since points allotted to interviews far outweighed bathing suit points, those lucky contestants who made it to the evening gown semifinals tended to be the verbally most, but physically least, attractive. When skater Toller Cranston arrived to receive his DCA, dressed in black leather Valentino trousers, velvet blazer and lizard belt, he was clearly the winner of the evening dress contest, as well as being the most effective verbal communicator around. For a moment I considered whether our human rights commissioners would support his right to be Miss World Canada.
The final decision on the winner was made on the basis of an impromptu question. Host Al Waxman struggled with his French to read it to Miss World Quebec City, who spoke virtually no English. There was no translator available to decipher her answer. Lucky Miss World Quebec City won.
On reflection there was one small lesson to be learned. Beauty contests have been with us forever. Male bodybuilders train for years to win the Mr. Europe title, fasting for days before the competition to enhance the cut of their muscles. Those who might not excel in the study of theoretical sciences can at least shine in the development of pectorals. Though it is true that intelligence can animate beauty, it still takes the idiocy of our modern sensibilities to relegate looks to the least important factor in a beauty contest. Besides, we only handicap our winners. In a recent issue of Playboy, a former Miss World was shown in poses that made one thing clear: she could not have pole-vaulted.
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