"glamour is back!" boldly claims the poster announcing the 2003 Miss Universe Canada pageant at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre last weekend. But the question is who the hell thought it was gone? I've been given permission to seek answers backstage with the young beauties, though they're always required to be in the presence of a chaperone. This makes me feel like some dark and evil lord come to ravish the young virgins in the village.
Most shocking is the apparent innocence of these girls in their rosebud of youth. The first ingenue, Christiana from Ottawa, isn't even out of high school. She's as docile as a fawn, so I censor my questions for fear of reducing her to tears and to avoid the motherly outrage of our chaperone.
I want to ask how she feels parading around in a bikini and whether she feels she needs to be a beautiful and strong woman on the inside as well as on the outside. But I find myself watering down the question. She answers with wide, unblinking eyes and evident earnestness. "The woman has to have the nice body format, the hair, the face that women look up to, but as well you have to have personality and intelligence, because you're representing Canada."
In contrast to Miss Pretty on the Inside, I have a chance to speak for a while with dark-haired Clarissa, who's currently working on her PhD in medieval French lit. She has remarkably wide and unblinking eyes, too, but hers are more penetrating. You can feel her determination to get this crown. It sends a slight shiver down my back. It's strange, but when she smiles her eyes don't crinkle at the sides.
She's a far more skilled interlocutor than her pageant sister. She tells me she has a theatre background, was a figure skater before becoming a runner, spoke at an international academic conference last year (her article is being published), worked with a feminist scholar in university and is competitive by nature.
All of the women offer up the same narrative: they're part of a blithe sorority of which one lucky and deserving member will walk away with the crown, enabling her to represent Canada in some way that, while vague, is at least as important as the services our peacekeeping forces perform for the United Nations.
Later that night, when they're presented onstage for the opening act, they sport multicoloured sequined gowns and enough hair products to make a drag queen blush. As I blink away spots of blindness from the reflections on the variegated glitter, I'm shocked to see that the girls I interviewed aren't so much "pretty" as embalmed in a tougher, harsher cosmetic beauty.
They're painted, with carmine lips and shimmering grey eyelids and streaks of colour along the cheekbone. Their hair is either swept up or cascading over one shoulder. It's a Woodbridge wedding party gone awry. They would scare the little children they appear with in the name of charity -- part of the PR ritual while they're in Toronto.
It's baffling that on the one hand this pageant seeks to vaunt the native kindliness of young women, but on the other presents them painted like Victorian strumpets, coquettishly undoing the small sarongs that cover their bikini bottoms to entice a few more points from the panel of judges.
Each young woman has her time in the spotlight to parade in beachwear and evening gown -- numbers straight out of Gone With The Wind or second-skin strapless gowns with long slits up one or both sides.
Then there are their Canadiana-inspired red and white outfits. They strut heavy-heeled across the stage, eventually finishing with legs spread and arms akimbo, always with that not-so-friendly smile spread across their faces.
I'm speechless. It's one thing to watch a version of this spectacle on television. But live, I have to sit in mute outrage for all the women in my life.
The 46 contestants are mysteriously narrowed down to 10, my PhD student among them. Even more mysteriously, the pretenders to the crown are again reduced to five without having uttered a word other than their name, city and province of origin.
Again the dark-haired PhD student makes this second cut.
In spite of myself, I sit forward in my chair. If she wins, maybe she'll muster her feminist teachings and reject the crown. Maybe she'll speak out against pageants from the position of having been offered the crown.
The panel of judges -- a restaurateur, an aging beauty queen and even lesser-known suburban personalities -- will make the final cut after the pageant's only nod to the idea that the contestants have brains: the question-and-answer period.
Julian Fantino, listed in the program as a panel member, is not present. Maybe he was responsible for the background checks to make sure none of the girls had been married or were expectant mothers.
Again, almost as if by some secret agreement, the five finalists are cut down. Mine is named third in line of succession, while another becomes the first loser.
Not even handed a bouquet of flowers, she's walked off to the side, where she stands statue still, reeling from disappointment, while the new Miss Universe Canada, a young woman with long blond hair and a sparkling blue dress, blushes in humble confusion.