There is no swimsuit competition at Miss World. Miss Universe, sure: More body than brains. But Miss World? She’s all about charity and humanitarianism and talent.
Which may be why you had no idea there is a Miss World.
Let alone that the global pageant — which is considered more prestigious than Miss Universe — is happening right now, on the Maryland fringe of the nation’s capital, with a crowning Sunday at the new MGM National Harbor casino.
That’s why 117 women from around the world were gathered in the decidedly unglamorous Prince George’s Sports and Learning complex on Monday, in French braids and various shades of athleisure and face paint. There may be no bikini contest for Miss World — but there is a 60-meter dash.
They had already competed in a preliminary fitness test, and the top 24 were facing off in a series of physical challenges — running, long jump, shot put — to earn a berth in the pageant finals.
A starting gun cracked. Miss Malta crossed the finish line, arms raised in triumph — and then promptly tripped over the raised edge of the track.
In any other country, the moment would have been captured by dozens of cameras and posted on Twitter — the Internet loves a good beauty queen blooper. But aside from some Chinese pageant bloggers, barely anyone was there.
Compare to a year ago, when the 2015 Miss World America found herself living the life of an A-list celebrity in Sanya, a resort town in southern China, where she competed in last year’s pageant.
Imagine, said Victoria Mendoza, what it’s like to be a member of One Direction or another red-hot pop group, where “people are banging on their tour bus screaming and crying and taking pictures. That was what it was.
“I had people taking pictures of me in the elevator at midnight,” she said. “You can’t understand anything they’re saying — women and children, crying. Men crying!”
Our planet, you see, can be roughly divided into Miss World turf and Miss Universe turf. The United States and Latin America? That’s where Miss Universe reigns. Donald Trump famously owned that 64-year-old pageant, before selling it at the messy start of his presidential campaign. It’s headquartered in New York, along with Miss USA, the stateside qualifying pageant. Both are broadcast live in the United States.
The 65-year-old Miss World is a British export. It’s hard to find in the United States — this year’s show will air Christmas Day, tape-delayed, on the E! cable channel. For years, its American contestant wasn’t even chosen through a pageant, but handpicked by a modeling agency.
Miss World has produced few celebrities of any renown in the United States — compared with, say, Miss America, which brought us Gretchen Carlson and Vanessa Williams. True, Halle Berry and Lynda Carter passed through the Miss World system — but you didn’t know that, did you? The most recent American to win Miss World was Alexandria Mills in 2010. Name ring a bell? No?
But in parts of Europe and especially Asia, Miss World is everything.
“If you come from a pageant-crazy country like the Philippines, you’re a big deal. She’s set for life,” said Jeff Lee, a pageant coach who mostly works with Miss Universe contestants but coached Miss World Mexico this year. “The Chinese Miss World from 2007 did really well. You can see her as the face of Swarovski in every airport in China.” Miss World’s greatest success story is Aishwarya Rai, a Miss India who won the global pageant in 1994 and became a Bollywood superstar.
The competition is steeper for Miss World. Miss Universe only features about 80 women. But Miss World accepts contestants from 140 countries — Wales, for example, gets its own slot — and micro-states such as Guadeloupe and the Cook Islands.
“Miss World is a really unpredictable pageant,” said Lee. In 2009, it “had a winner from Gibraltar. Gibraltar!”
Julia Morley, the pageant’s chief executive and widow of founder Eric Morley, eliminated the swimsuit competition in 2014 and has tried to emphasize Miss World’s charitable mission. She said she is looking for contestants who are equally at ease doing a telethon in Iowa, charming donors at a cocktail party, and trekking to a mountaintop orphanage.
“We need girls who are going to be not too spoiled,” she said.
The winners “tend to be more demure, they tend to be more classically elegant,” said Lee. Where Miss Universe has “a lot of aggressive stage presence . . . a lot more slits, a lot more figure-hugging,” Miss World is more of a big ol’ ball gown type of pageant. “I send most of my girls [to Miss World] in bedazzled” dresses, he said.
Lee summed it up: “Universe is that modern sushi that you get at Nobu. Miss World is filet of sole.”
Miss World even eschews the stump-the-beauty-queen interview questions that generate so much buzz-worthy humiliation at other pageants. “They ask every year why you want to be Miss World,” Mendoza said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
The contestants show the judges videos highlighting their charity work — beauty and misery to the tunes of melancholy piano concertos. Miss Côte d’Ivoire worked to prevent grim-looking skin rashes in rural villages. Miss Brazil helped lepers. Miss Indonesia helped a village of trash scavengers build a new school.
“This is quite a very tough one to take,” Morley said of Miss Kenya’s video about female genital mutilation, a topic championed by four contestants. “So if anyone can’t take it, I understand.”
But for a pageant that aims to be more compassionate, Miss World keeps getting tangled up in geopolitical strife.
In 2002, a Nigerian company offered to sponsor the pageant for $8 million, so Morley took the show to Abuja. The scantily-clad women arrived during Ramadan, enraging local Muslims and triggering a massive riot that killed 250.
This year’s controversy has centered around Miss Canada 2015, Anastasia Lin, who was denied a visa to the Sanya pageant because of her advocacy work for Chinese political prisoners. The pageant gave her a second chance this year, but she squabbled with organizers over whether they were trying to prevent her from attending a D.C. screening of a movie she stars in, which dramatizes Chinese human rights abuses.
Lin ultimately was allowed to attend the screening, and Morley chalked up the dispute to a misunderstanding — and not pressure from the Chinese sponsors of last year’s pageant. “She’s been treated kindly and well,” Morley said. “I don’t really want to whinge about her. It’s a shame that she feels some kind of anguish.”
This year, the pageant is “self-financed,” said Morley, who estimates it costs between $5 million and $6 million, largely funded by fees from license holders for the qualifying pageants. The new Miss World will win $100,000. Paperwork filed with the U.K.’s Charity Commission last year indicated that Miss World’s separate “Beauty With a Purpose” charity brought in roughly $250,000 and spent $86,000 on causes, but Morley said that doesn’t include the contestants’ individual fundraising and giving.
Morley decided to bring the pageant to Washington because, she said, the city exemplified “something more achievable for a woman to be able to realize more for herself.”
Getting more exposure for Miss World in the United States was a goal, too. But in an era when beauty pageants have lost their cultural relevance, that could be a challenge.
Jory Rivera, a pageant blogger from the Philippines, said he was “quite surprised” by how dead things seemed at the Gaylord Hotel, which is housing the contestants. A health convention down the hall seemed livelier than the pageant media day, which drew a handful of news outlets, mostly foreign.
Still, he had work to do. “The minute you publish a photo of Miss Philippines, you go viral,” he said. An instant later, Catriona Gray, Miss Philippines herself, appeared in the hallway wearing an Audrey Hepburn-esque pink cocktail dress.
“Cat!” he yelled.
“Hi, Jory. I’ll see you later,” said Gray.
“Oh my God, I have to take a photo of that dress,” he said as she vanished into a conference room.
Drawing somewhat less attention than Gray was Audra Mari — our very own Miss World America 2016. The North Dakota native admitted she knew little about Miss World before she entered. While her official platform is Habitat for Humanity, she’s now burning up with another cause: “I want, no matter what happens, for Miss World to have more of a name here,” she said.
If this were the interview competition, she would have nailed it.
“I don’t think that Miss World is a pageant,” she went on. “I feel like it really represents the modern woman.” A quick hug for the reporter, and then she dashed off. She had a relay race to run.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Aishwarya Rai won Miss World in 1992. She won in 1994.