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30 Years From its Prime, Miss Universe is Still Handing Out Tiaras

TV presenter Sonia Gray hosted Miss Universe New Zealand over the weekend. Here she recounts for us her experience walking back in time to this magical and deeply strange world. Photography by Max Alawwad.

It’s almost impossible to imagine now but, like smoking on airplanes and cheering for Chris Cairns, Miss Universe New Zealand used to be a real thing. In fact 25 or 30 years ago it was the hottest date on the telly calendar.  I, my whole family and everyone else in New Zealand would sit down once a year and watch Miss Taranaki or Miss Invercargill or Miss Timaru be crowned Miss New Zealand.

But the tiara doesn’t mean what it used to, and pageants as a whole have disappeared from the common consciousness. The place they once laid sole claim to in the public mind is now given over to X Factor, American Idol and The Bachelor.

As a result of this Lionel Skeggins-like disappearance, I was surprised to be asked to host this year’s Miss Universe New Zealand. It turns out the competition has managed to stay alive in relative obscurity all these years, and is attempting to fight its way back to something-ness.

I did not immediately jump at the opportunity. Even in my long passed modelling days I would have set fire to my nude g-string before I entered Miss Anything. But the pageant’s multi- (seriously, multi) talented organiser Nigel Godfrey (recognisable as the middle aged real estate man in the Bayleys television commercial amongst many others), assured me the show had changed and that I was perfect to host.

I should note here that even the smallest amount of flattery will generally convince me to do just about anything. Plus deep inside me there remains a 10-year-old pageant-lover, sitting on the floor in front of a TV struggling to maintain its vertical hold. I couldn’t let her down.

So I subbed out from the Lotto draw for the night, found a gown so long, gold and sparkly I bore more than a passing resemblance to an Oscar statue, and showed up for rehearsals.

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You, like I, may well be wondering who the hell enters a beauty pageant in 2015. There’s Max Key’s girlfriend of course – but she was in Miss World New Zealand, which is the competition to this competition. Actually, they’re more like sibling rivals – both competitions are owned by WME/IMG, which recently purchased them from presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

I have never met the future Mrs Key, but if she’s anything like the contestants from this weekend she is probably both lovely and racially diverse. It’s hard to say if it’s the result of planning, but amongst this group of finalists, whittled down during the ‘Stiletto Camp’ that ran prior to the event, somehow every ethnicity, body shape and background seems to be represented. (Not every body shape – but as much of a spread as can be expected in a beauty pageant).

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There were no obvious boob jobs or lip plumps, most spray tans had been kept within societal norms, and the girls seemed to have a genuine fondness for each other. They are mostly students, mostly fairly well accomplished and mostly just looking for diversion from their daily routine.

The show itself turns out to be a hybrid – part variety show, part beauty pageant. On paper: very dubious. In reality: a delight. It’s unapologetically a “show” – a shiny, bright, glitterball of a show. It’s not televised as such – the networks aren’t interested in broadcasting it anymore – but it’s filmed on a multi-camera setup and streamed live to the internet.

The cameras – whether they’re actually turned on or not – add a layer of legitimacy to what might otherwise feel a little corny. And the familiar motions of creating a TV show out of a live event add structure to the glitz. It’s also a modernised version of the old-fashioned format – reality television without the villains. The production values are high and there are concessions to modernity in online voting, immunity from elimination and tension music. But the ‘80s glitter and sparkle, and the general hokeyness probably would be too much for television. What is powerfully nostalgic in the live arena would likely come off naff on network television.

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My co-presenter for the night is the inimitable Stephen McIvor. He turns out to be a bloody good time, with an apparently bottomless well of dad jokes and a well cut suit. Unfortunately, due to a lack of rehearsal time we’re pretty much winging the whole show, which makes his affability a massive relief.

The task of deciding the fairest of them all falls to a judging panel including both the lovely Megan Alatini and Steve Broad, the charming reality show regular who was so tortured on the last X Factor. They’re joined by MJ Lastimosa, the reigning Miss Universe Philippines – which I imagined as a nation still enjoying the first blush of affection for pageants without irony or awkwardness. Another Filipino, Ben Chan, the multimillionaire “founder of Bench, the Phillipines’ largest clothing chain” and the event’s major sponsor.

The Sky City Theatre fills up with family, sponsors and Frankie Stevens. Soon the show begins and the audience are introduced to the contestants while they perform a choreographed dance to ‘Single Ladies’. I admit, this doesn’t sound great, and should have gone so wrong: 20 mostly non-dancers, doing the actual Beyonce moves from the video, in little sequinned dresses and high heels. Paris Goebel it is not – but the choreography and execution is tight, and they stick the landing.

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There’s a performance from X Factor’s cute-as-a-pair-of-buttons country duo Mae Valley. McIvor and I are instructed to present them with gifts onstage after their performance – little miniature guitars which the show’s impresario Godfrey bought for them in the Philippines. It’s not clear why they get the gifts or why the Philippines again or why they’d want miniature guitars – but that does not seem to matter. The show is littered with odd moments like this which scan as bad ideas, but all just end up adding to the ‘70s charm.

The Evening Wear section starts and the ever-present Nigel is now doing commentating from the side of stage: “here’s Emma wearing a black and white long dress with a split at the back” etc etc. It’s not at all necessary – everyone can see what the dress looks like – but is a nice nod to pageants of old.  

And then, all of a sudden, it’s elimination time. And our script, groaning against the weight of clichés at the outset, comes into its own. “It’s that time”, says McIvor earnestly “this is a very, very tough part of the show”. [Long pause] “This will be end of the journey for some of our finalists,” I say.

Godfrey comes back on stage to name the survivors of the elimination. 20 finalists become 11 and then 11 become five and we’re close to revealing the winner.

Russell Dixon (who doubles as the Assistant Producer of this show, and in another life was a TV3 weather presenter) serenades the final five with an apparently well-known showtune with which I am unfamiliar. I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but this not a normal night and Russell’s song is great.

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McIvor and I then do some links from the softly lit auditorium. With all the confetti and sequins and showtunes the anachronism slowly dissolves and we are teleported back to 1985. “I’m actually starting to feel the magic,” one of the crew whispers to me.

There’s time for a one last showtune and it’s a curious choice – ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie with an ensemble cast (including Nigel Godfrey, of course) and a Filipino orchestra. “There won’t be a dry eye in the house after this,” Russell Dixon tells me as they go on, which may or may not be true.

The announcement of the winner is vintage pageantry.  There’s an “ooooohhh” from the audience as the throne comes out. It appears to be a giant, quilted high-heeled shoe. Godfrey lets the tension music play on… and on… before finally announcing Miss Universe NZ as Samantha McClung from Marlborough.  She’s a six foot tall blonde goddess, and was my pick from day one (which, due to the compressed rehearsal times, was earlier that day).

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Sammie is stereotypical beauty-queen beautiful, but that’s hardly her fault. She is a sweetheart and will make a great ambassador.

Unfortunately, there are 19 other contestants who had their eye on the crown and are going home empty-handed. The tears flow freely in the dressing rooms. “You’re all winners to me,” I tell them.  No one has any interest in being a winner to me; no matter how great the ‘journey’, the destination was the title and tiara.

When Sammie finally vacates her high-heeled throne, I slip on in to see how it feels. Obviously I’m minus the crown and way outside the beauty queen demographic, but the magic had gone – I just felt self-conscious.

Why in the hell should a beauty pageant exist in 2015 New Zealand? It’s a throwback for sure, repulsive viewed through certain lenses – judging women in this bizarre competitive scenario. But despite the uncomfortable feeling that by being there, I’m doing something wrong, it’s undeniably good-natured, in a way that the entertainment landscape of 2015 rarely is: a two hour bubble of smiles and sequins and a welcome holiday from reality.

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