Miss Universe: politics threaten to eclipse pageantry as Israel holds contest

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The sparkling Red Sea has some competition this weekend.

A sea of ​​80 women, competing for the glittering Miss Universe crown, invaded the resort town of Eilat in southern Israel, wearing all their stilettos and sequins.

Miss Universe pageant set to start amid controversy

O
n arrival, the place – the port of Eilat – does not seem as glamorous as the women inside. But step into the specially constructed 4,000-seat tent scene imported from Portugal, and the atmosphere changes quickly.

On the Friday before the Sunday night competition, competitors started the day with dress rehearsals, first in their sequined opening outfits, then in their swimsuits, and finally in their evening gowns. They scurry between the figure-eight stage and empty blanket-strewn seats to keep them warm between rehearsals, many holding platform shoes in one hand and a mask in the other.

Later that evening, they will participate in the preliminary ‘national costume’ event, with costumes ranging from a shiny Canadian policeman with black lace pants and high boots (‘she will make sure to keep us safe The host croons) to a lunar dragon, filled with two dragon heads.

But as the women try to capture the spotlight of the contest scene in preliminaries before Sunday’s main event, politics and the coronavirus push them under a different kind of spotlight.

A crown of the Covid era

Sunday’s competition will be the second Miss Universe of the Covid era. Initially, Israel’s borders were to be opened to immune tourists before the main event, meaning thousands of superfans around the world would have the opportunity to attend.
But as news of the Omicron variant emerged, the Israeli government quickly closed its borders to foreign nationals two weeks before the competition, adding further complications.

Miss Universe contestants arrive at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, east of Tel Aviv, on November 28, 2021. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

One candidate, Miss France, Clémence Botino, tested positive for Covid-19 when she landed in the country and was sent to quarantine at a hotel – threatening her participation. Fortunately, she got out just in time for Friday’s preliminary competition.

“This year being in Israel added new challenges as we needed to stay on top of what vaccines would be accepted, days of travel and quarantine,” said Meg Omecene, director of communications for Miss Universe.

All staff and competitors were to be fully immunized within six months of coming. They are also tested on site every 48 hours in a special tent and must wear masks at all times when not on stage.

“It’s been a pretty rigorous Covid production but we’re all here and we’re excited for Sunday,” Omecene added.

Miss USA, Elle Smith, told CNN that she found Israel’s measures against Covid to be much “more stringent here than in the United States when it comes to protocol, so I feel like we take all the necessary precautions to organize an event like this “.
American Elle Smith takes part in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, Israel, on Friday.

American Elle Smith takes part in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, Israel, on Friday. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

Politics threatens to eclipse the pageantry

As with previous international events held in Israel, such as the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, the mere fact that such an important media event is taking place in the country has drawn criticism and calls for a boycott.

The South African government withdrew its support and called on Miss South Africa, Lelela Mswane, to step down, citing Israeli treatment of Palestinians, calling it “apartheid”, a charge Israel has vehemently denied.

“On the contrary, by withdrawing, the reputation and the global position of Miss South Africa will be much more advanced in South Africa and internationally compared to a one-off event which can prove disastrous for her future and her life. public position as a young black woman, ”South Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, said in a statement last month.

<a class=People demonstrate outside Miss South Africa’s headquarters on November 19, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa.”/>

People demonstrate outside Miss South Africa’s headquarters on November 19, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Alet Pretorius / Gallo Images / Getty Images

But Mswane – with the support of the Miss South Africa organization – did not give in to the pressure, choosing to travel to Israel and compete.

“If I hadn’t come to Israel to participate in the Miss Universe pageant, I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life,” she said. told the Jerusalem Post Thursday. “Some people took me through hell and come back. It wasn’t the easiest thing to deal with… But I chose to be optimistic.”
Lalela Mswane of South Africa performs as she competes in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel on Friday, December 10, 2021.

Lalela Mswane of South Africa performs as she competes in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel on Friday, December 10, 2021. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

Others appeared to be using the event for political ends. Rafaela Plastira, a Greek model and former beauty pageant winner had posted on Instagram that she was “pulling out” of Miss Universe because she couldn’t “get on this stage and act like nothing had happened”, adding in a later post: “I may not live in Palestine but Palestine lives in my heart forever ”. His statement garnered praise from pro-Palestinian activists.
But the official Miss Greece organization quickly made it clear that Plastira was not even Greece’s official Miss Universe candidate, claiming in a report the real Miss Greece is Sofia Arapogianni, who later posed for photos holding both Greek and Israeli flags.

Wearing a sparkling white gown between Friday’s dress rehearsals, Miss Israel Noa Cochva echoed a common refrain heard by Miss Universe organizers and contestants: Miss Universe shouldn’t be talking about politics.

“It’s about us as humans, as strong women,” Cochva told CNN between rehearsals.

Regardless of that desire, Cochva admitted that she faces the double pressure of competing in her home country, while also having to be essentially Israel’s ambassador – and advocate – for the other 79 contestants.

Joking that her roommate, Miss USA, called her the “best tour guide,” Cochva said she had sought to show fellow candidates a different image of Israel “than what you see on social media.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the new political reality of candidates from countries like Bahrain and Morocco strutting across an Israeli stage, which might have been unimaginable just a few years ago. The two countries were among four Arab nations that signed historic normalization agreements with Israel last year, paving the way for a wave of diplomatic, commercial and cultural activity.
Greece's Sofia Arapogianni performs as she competes in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel, on Friday.

Greece’s Sofia Arapogianni performs as she competes in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant, in Eilat, Israel, on Friday. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

Hoping for a tourist boost

With 80 contestants accompanied by legions of social media followers as they roam the country ahead of the competition on Sunday, Israeli tourism officials hope such publicity will help give a much-needed boost to the country’s reopening.

Sara Salansky, spokesperson for Israel’s Tourism Ministry, told CNN they were approached in May to organize the December competition. The demand came as Israel hit a high vaccination rate and appeared poised to reopen, rolling out vaccines faster than most other countries.

“It’s a very good return on investment for the tourism ministry,” said Salansky. “It’s not something that happens every day; when you have an opportunity you have to take it and that’s what we did.”

Contestants take part in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant Friday in Eilat, Israel.

Contestants take part in the national costume portion of the Miss Universe pageant Friday in Eilat, Israel. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

Contributing around 3% a year to Israel’s GDP, the number of tourists before the pandemic was at record levels, Salansky said. About 5 million visitors were expected in 2020 before the pandemic struck, she added.

And even though Israel’s borders are still temporarily closed to foreign nationals for fear of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Salansky said the opportunity to present Israel as a tourist destination to the expected 600 million viewers worldwide would have an impact. long-term.

“A lot of people are skeptical about this type of event, but when we look at it there’s a lot of media out there and people are talking about it,” Salansky said. “So we are looking at the positive, to use this event to show the positive of Israel.”

It involved guiding the 80 competitors across the country, from touring the Old City of Jerusalem to riding ATVs in the desert. Some activities, such as a “Bedouin experience” day, have been criticized by Palestinian activists.

“They do not boycott apartheid, do not participate in competition and then shamelessly appropriate Palestinian culture and symbols of resistance. It is despicable ”, tweeted activist Salem Barahmeh in response to Miss Philippines photos of herself and other contestants in traditional Bedouin costume.
Despite the complications created by Covid-19, the pressures of politics and, of course, the questions surrounding the validity of such contests these days, Smith, the American candidate, and Cochva were convinced that Miss Universe had a positive role to play. .

“We are here to empower ourselves as women,” Smith said. “We’re just enjoying our time together and I think it really shows the power of women as a whole and that’s what we’re trying to show on December 12th.”



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