Sushmita Sen of India, with thick, black hair and a movie star smile, was there; so was Dayanara Torres of Puerto Rico and Leila Lopes of Angola. If this were sports it would be like judging with Peyton Manning, LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
Everywhere we went mobs of fans screamed and hysterically begged for selfies. The Filipinos are considered some of the most die-hard, hard-core pageant addicts in the world. They turn out in droves when contestants make appearances, and often dress up in their own homemade crowns and sashes. But Miss Universe is a global phenomenon. Many of India’s biggest female superstars, for example, started as pageant winners.
After it was announced I was going to be a judge, my Instagram feed was flooded with comments and direct messages from all over the world. I had hundreds of messages clamoring that I vote for Miss Colombia, or beseeching me to show love for Venezuela, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Curaçao and Sierra Leone. Photos were sent to my Facebook inbox purporting to reveal the true look of two South American contestants before extensive cosmetic surgery. I even received messages on Grindr, the gay dating app, asking if I had met the contestants yet and who my favorites were.
As I sat perched at my judges podium, nibbling on a breath mint that had kindly been provided along with tissues, water, dental floss and a pen, I looked around at crowd. There were fans from all over the world cheering for their hometown girls. I saw flags and signs for Brazil, Israel, Mexico and Thailand. There were casually dressed older adults, and young gay men and girls in party looks singing along to Boyz II Men, which serenaded the three finalists on their last strut across the stage. And, of course, there were women of all ages decked out in sequined gowns, some chic, some truly over the top, and all fabulous.
As for the judges, we had all gotten the (unwritten) memo to wear sparkle. Ms. Sen was in a gold gown, Ms. Lopes in silver, Ms. Bailey in a purple encrusted with beige, Ms. LeFrak in navy and Ms. Torres in a strapless and backless pink feathered number. I chose my black Ashish sparkle track suit and sequined leopard top, and fit right in.
Miss Colombia, who reminded me of Jessica Alba complete with big dark eyes and knockout figure, was the favorite going in because last year (as anyone who’s ever on social media may remember), the host Steve Harvey mistakenly announced Miss Colombia as the winner before realizing she was actually the first runner-up. Miss Philippines was, in fact, the Queen. This year’s representative from Colombia made it to the final three — along with Miss Haiti and Miss France, all in form-fitting gold-sequined gowns.
But in the end, the winner was Miss France, a dental student named Iris Mittenaere who told Mr. Harvey she makes the best boeuf bourguignon (Mr. Harvey said his wife wouldn’t let him come over to taste it). It was the question-and-answer portion that put her over the top. While the other contestants didn’t seem to actually answer the question about a mistake they had made in life and what they had learned from it, she was poised and well spoken. Her response: Even though she thought she had failed her first year of medical school, she got her books and kept studying.
The crowd exploded with excitement when the crown was placed on her head.
I’m a feminist, and I know that pageants can be seen as a sexist relic of bygone days. But I could see these women’s joy and satisfaction at being given a global platform to show off not only their legs but also their intelligence and accomplishments.
The fact is, after “Brexit,” the chaos of the Trump administration’s first week, and global discussions of walls and isolationism, the Miss Universe 2017 pageant felt uplifting and empowering place by contrast. I can’t think of any other experience where I’ve felt that inspired while being that overdressed.
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