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Inside the Egyptian Beauty Pageant Industry

Dina Khadr speaks to industry experts to reveal how beauty contests are run in Egypt.

In Egypt as well as globally, the idea of beauty pageants is put under a critical lens especially with the recent wave of body image awareness and the scrutinising of certain practices in whether they actually feed into self-criticism or whether they promote healthy physiques and a general form of self-love. With beauty pageants putting such an emphasis on looks, the question begs to be asked, are these beauty contests encouraging women to measure their worth and value based on their outer appearance? Are the contestants and little girls in Egypt being subjected to unrealistic standards of beauty? Are they being held under a magnifying glass and subconsciously made to believe that perfection is what is required of them? Or is there more to it than just a pretty face? And is it enough to cancel out the negative aspects of a competition that values women in terms of their physical appearance?

In Egypt, beauty pageants have been around since the 50s with Miss Egypt 1953 being an Egyptian with Greek roots, Antigone Constanda. Constanda went on to become the first Miss Egypt contestant to win Miss World. In 1998, Youssef Saphi, took over Miss Egypt and has been pushing to raise the standards ever since. Emphasising that the women in the competition need to be more than just a pretty face, the contest requires more than good looks. It promotes hard work, discipline, beauty and brains. "The winners aren't selected based purely on looks. Of course, figure is important, but the contestant needs to be proportionate rather than having a minimum height or weight requirements. We look for contestants who are educated, confident, poised and well-informed about their country. Being fluent in different languages isn't a must but it's definitely a bonus," explains Saphi.

"We're not looking for a girl who's after fame or a magazine cover. It's so much more than that. The winner is someone who's smart, confident and pretty. In the international competitions, you're interviewed about history, politics and a variety of other topics so it needs to be someone who can represent Egypt well." 

Saphi who went on hiatus a few years back returned to the scene recently and is working towards promoting a competition of a certain calibre, one that is about quality and not merely physical appearance. While recently there has been a rise in the number of beauty pageants in Egypt, many of these competitions aren’t qualified to send their winners to international contests.

A lot of the winners in international pageants won because they're the most articulate, not because they were the most beautiful

“It’s not the same standard as it used to be. I lived in Italy for a while and during my time there, I’d help organize fashion shows, beauty pageants and all kinds of events. When I moved back, I tried to bring back some of that [quality] back with me,” says Saphi. “And that’s still what I want to do. I didn’t do an event for the Miss Egypt competition this year though because there's been so many supposed 'Miss Egypts' coming up recently and they don't necessarily  stay true to the essence.”

Saphi instead sent over 12 cvs of the Miss Egypt contestants to the Miss World competition, after which one winner was selected to be sent to the international event. The former Miss Universe organiser, will be announcing the winner soon.  

“What's most important is confidence. A lot of the winners in international pageants won because they were the most articulate, not because they were the most beautiful. They were pretty but not gorgeous and what won them the competition was how they held themselves.”

Formerly one of the Miss World Egypt top 5 in 2017, and Miss Tourism Queen of the Year, Hadeer Khalel, only started getting involved in beauty pageants recently. While the beauty queen shares that its brought her confidence, she clarifies that there is still room for improvement in Egypt's competitions. With several of these pageants not having an accurate scoring system set in place, Khalel hopes for development in that area.

"In Egypt, we don't have the same culture of beauty pageants as abroad. The judges or the system doesn't focus on how they pick the girl. It's not organised the way it is in Lebanon for example, where the contestant knows based on what she's lost points or what categories she won points in. Back in the day, there was better know how."

Each one of the international and national beauty pageants have their own identity, with Miss Universe and Miss World being at the top. Miss Universe's identity put an emphasis on beauty with their slogan being Beyond Beauty whereas Miss World balances it between beauty and character with their slogan being beauty with a purpose. Khalel, who went to China to compete in Miss Tourism, was told she was wasting her time when requesting a leave from work to make it to the competition.

I didn't grow up finding myself prettier than other girls, nor do I find myself prettier than them now.

"You learn so much and it opens up so many doors for you, whether its modeling, acting, or charity work. It's not 100 percent based on the looks. A girl could be very pretty but have no character. It's in the attitude as well," explains Khalel. "For Miss Tourism International for example, I learnt and did so much outside of the scope of physical beauty. Miss Tourism was about celebrating different cultures and encouraging people to travel. In Egypt, we have Miss Eco, where applicants need to make a dress out of sustainable material as a pre-requisite." 

Before getting into the world of pageantry, Khalel had been going through a rough patch having just gotten out of a relationship. She decided to give it a shot though as it was always a thought in the back of her mind growing up. While she may have been met with criticism at certain points, as a whole, she counts it as an accomplishment she's proud of. "I'd been feeling down so thought I'd give it a shot. I did and it opened me up to a lot of things and it gave me such a boost of confidence. I was happy," says Khalel. "That doesn't mean though, that I didn't get people saying they couldn't believe that I'm the one who was chose for Miss Egypt after seeing me in an interview. But I didn't get upset because you can't please everyone." 

Khalel actually stands by a natural form of beauty where women are encouraged to achieve the best versions of themselves and be happy with their physical appearance.  

"I didn't grow up finding myself prettier than other girls, nor do I find myself prettier than them now. I think you need to love who you are. I have dark hair and I'm the typical Egyptian girl," says Khalel. "I'm happy with my looks. When a sponsor suggest I change my hair colour or wear lenses, I refuse. I'm not into the typical plastic surgery look with the puffed lips. Sure it's a beauty pageant but you need to have your own character, to stand out." 

As a kid, Khalel would be entranced by the women she’d see competing in beauty competitions. But for her, it was more about being symmetrical and being able to be the best possible version of yourself.

“When I was a kid, I used to watch beauty pageants and I wanted to be a part of it, not just because of how beautiful the women were but for how symmetrical they were, their attitude, they were the whole package. And they would be involved with charity. Back in the day, it was different, they had better know-how. Lately in Egypt, it hasn’t been like that. They’re no clear on how they’re scoring or how they’re picking the women.” 

The Miss America is said to have recently banned the bikini section of the competition after being critisised for objectifying women. In Egypt, contestants still need to train and have gym sessions scheduled for them, whether or not there's a bikini contest. A diet is set in place but its up to the women to choose whether or not they'd like to follow it. 

“Some girls need to follow it, others don’t. For me personally, if I know I have a fashion show coming up, I won’t eat anything heavy or fatty two days prior. Maybe I’ll just have spinach and maybe not really eat the day right before because you need your stomach to be completely flat. I don’t want to feel the weight of the food as I’m walking the runway. My tummy needs to be stuck to my back."