Officially, the big winner of the 70th Miss Universe contest was Miss India, Harnaaz Sandhu.
She overcame the embarrassment of being asked on air by host Steve Harvey to perform animal imitations, going on to give an inspirational declaration exhorting young women to “speak for themselves” before excitedly donning her rhinestone crown.
But Sandhu wasn’t the only one to triumph over a challenge at the December 12 competition held in Eilat. The host country, Israel, and the local organizers of the event managed to eke out a significant public relations victory in the face of multiple obstacles, each with the potential to sabotage the glitzy event.
First and foremost, there was the sudden emergence of the omicron variant of COVID-19, which nearly led to the event being canceled and wreaked havoc on its scheduling and logistics. Then there was a significant effort by the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement to cast a political shadow on the event.
And finally, the organizers faced a chorus of domestic criticism regarding the significant government outlay on what many consider an antiquated and sexist remnant in an age where women have fought to be recognized for their intellect and achievements, not the way they look in an sequined evening gown or a skimpy bathing suit.
It was hard to argue with the bottom line, beginning with Harvey’s greeting of “Shalom! We are in the beautiful country of Israel”: An estimated 600 million viewers in 172 countries were deluged with images of Israel not seen on the evening news.
The broadcast included a montage of the 80 smiling international beauty queens touring the country, from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and the desert, exclaiming how they were “living history” and “felt at home,” gushing ecstatically about the food.
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To these millions of potential tourists, Israel was portrayed as a place to have fun, not dodge rockets. The image boost wasn’t a one-night-only affair: each of the 80 contestants’ social media feeds featured their exploits and positive impressions of the country.
In an ideal world, the contest would have had a bigger short-term payoff. When Israel opened its doors to fully immunized foreign tourists on November 1, after they had been closed since the pandemic began in March 2020, it was expected that Miss Universe would be the catalyst for the return of large-scale tourism – a financial boost that would have clearly justified the 30 million shekel ($9.6 million) expenditure on subsidizing the contest.
The show must go on
Each contestant was supposed to arrive with their full entourage, and the hotels in Eilat had been excitedly braced to host thousands of the contestants’ friends, family and well-wishers, along with fans of the competition, as they did when Israel hosted Eurovision in Tel Aviv two years ago.
But the omicron variant upended those plans. On November 29, with some contestants already in Israel, but many still packing their bags, Israel announced that it was closing its doors to all noncitizens and requiring a 72-hour quarantine for those who were permitted to enter.
For a moment, it seemed that the production might be in jeopardy. But in the end, it was decided that the contestants would be welcomed, even from the countries that were declared to be “red” – with all being required to abide by quarantine and masking rules and tested for COVID-19 every 48 hours. Only one contestant tested positive for the virus upon her arrival; she was able to complete a full quarantine before being permitted to join the contest.
Even with omicron, the organizers are adamant that it was a worthwhile investment.
“The event was broadcast live to hundreds of millions of homes around the world, with millions more watching on YouTube and following the contestants on social media, in addition to the media coverage around the competition and news coverage of their visits to Jerusalem, Eilat, and sites across Israel,” said Ron Granot, who managed media for the event.
“The media value alone is surely close to $100 million – which is not only helping promote Israel as a tourist destination, but has done so much to offer millions a look at the beautiful face of Israel.”
Skirting the landmines
COVID wasn’t the only potential landmine that could have undermined the contest. The BDS movement called for a boycott of the event, and worked to convince the international contestants and their countries to skip the event in order to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause and protest Israeli policies toward them.
Initially, their efforts scored points. The South African government withdrew its support for the participation of Lalela Mswane, the reigning Miss South Africa, saying that it couldn’t “in good conscience” associate itself with “the atrocities committed by Israel.”
Mswane defied the haters, competing in the contest anyway, pointedly dressing as the “Dove of Peace” in the national costume competition and declaring in an interview that if she had not come, she “would have regretted it for the rest of my life.” She declared Israelis to be among the “friendliest people on Earth,” and finished third in the contest.
In the end, not even one country openly declared that they were boycotting the contest because of Israel. The two Muslim-majority countries that stayed away – Malaysia and Indonesia – cited pandemic concerns, not politics, as the reason.
Their absence was balanced by the highly-publicized participation of Bahrain and Morocco – two countries that officially established relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords.
Still, pro-Palestinian activists targeted individual contestants on social media, reacting particularly angrily on the day they were taken to the desert city of Rahat to experience Bedouin culture.
“Colonialism, racism, cultural appropriation, patriarchy, whitewashing, all in one place,” Ines Abdel Razek of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy tweeted in response to photos of the beauty queens wearing traditional Palestinian dresses and rolling grape leaves posted by Miss Philippines, headlined “Day in the Life of a Bedouin” with a camel emoji.
None of the contestants responded to the provocations, however, leading many people to declare the effort a “BDS fail.”
Jason Pearlman, who has worked as a media consultant for the Tourism Ministry, says he believes the social media attacks backfired because they were mean-spirited.
“In their attempt to disrupt the contest, they attacked the girls personally. The language and rhetoric they used showed they weren’t trying to promote the cause of the Palestinian people, but that they were filled with hatred for Israel, and it didn’t help them make their case.”
Another winner: feminism
While the event was arguably an international image-building success, the reactions to the hoopla inside Israel were decidedly mixed.
When the entry ban on foreign citizens was announced, followed by the news that the Miss Universe show would go on, there were angry words from Israelis whose family members were prevented from entering while contestants were allowed into the country.
“My mother is beautiful, too – let her into Israel!” was the rallying cry of a video of pregnant women whose mothers were not being permitted into the country for the births of their children.
Ironically, feminism also scored a victory in the Israeli public square as a result of the contest. Beauty contests were once a mainstream sensation in the country: After all, Israel’s biggest celebrity, movie star Gal Gadot, was a beauty queen who participated in the Miss Universe contest. But the lack of enthusiasm over the event among locals this year – and public questioning of the government subsidy – highlighted the fact that its glory days had passed.
Notably, the local representative in this year’s Miss Universe pageant had competed in a Miss Israel contest that was not broadcast on prime-time television after the event received dismal ratings in recent years, and commercial sponsors were increasingly uninterested in being associated with the ritual.
Netta Barzilai, who won the Eurovision national song contest for Israel in 2018, told the media she had been asked to perform but turned down the opportunity because beauty pageants were “outdated and diminishing.” While she said she was “flattered” by the offer, she added: “I cannot see myself standing on a stage where women are judged by appearance, body size, height and weight.”
The negative public mood turned the Israeli producers of the event, Tali Eshkoli and Asaf Blacher, apologetic. They told the media on the eve of the contest that they had attempted to convince the Miss Universe organization to allow them to replace the swimsuit portion of the competition with sporty activewear, but failed. Blacher also criticized the contest’s rule that competitors had to be single and could not be divorced or mothers, calling it outdated and saying that “things need to change” in the future.
The same news story featured criticism from former Israeli beauty queens. They included Ilana Shoshan, a former Miss Israel, who criticized the Israeli government’s decision to invest so much public money in a “business enterprise” that treats women like commodities – one associated with violence against them since “if a woman is just an object, there isn’t a problem hitting her if she doesn’t do what you want her to do,” she said.
Rina Mor, a former Miss Israel who captured the Miss Universe title in 1976 and is now an attorney, pulled out her sash and crown from a canvas bag that she kept in storage wrapped in a towel. She said she saw them merely “as objects” that she kept as family mementos in case her daughters “ever expressed any interest in them.”
But, she said, her daughters didn’t ask to peruse her shiny memorabilia, and her granddaughter “ran away” when she saw the crown, perhaps signaling the attitude of current and future generations of young Israeli women toward beauty pageants.
Instead of wearing a rhinestone crown and dreaming of being a princess, fashion model or even Miss Universe, Mor said, her granddaughter “is more interested in cars. I think that’s pretty cool.”