Lucy Lu is a Toronto-based photographer.
I have a distinct memory of myself, at the age of 4 or 5, crying because my grandparents forbade me from wearing a dress. In their defence, it was the dead of winter. I remember wanting, so badly, to grow out my hair in order to look more girlish since I was often mistaken for a boy when I was a young child. In my adolescence, perhaps because I never felt like I was conventionally beautiful, I put little thought into my appearance altogether.
When I first watched the Miss Universe pageant on TV, seeing dozens of beautiful and graceful women walk across the stage, I remember feeling envious, that I had gotten the short end of the stick. Why were these women being rewarded for something – in their case, genetics – they had no control over? To assuage these feelings, I told myself these women were shallow, that their looks were the most, and perhaps only, valuable thing they possessed.
While the idea of a competition to crown the finest, best-looking man or woman has existed for centuries, the first modern beauty pageant to take place in North America was organized by P.T. Barnum in the mid-19th century, though it was shuttered because of public protest. The glory days of beauty pageants are long gone; viewership for Miss Universe and Miss America has been falling steadily since the early 2000s.
It seems that we, as a society, have decided that the concept of parading women on stage and judging them mostly based on physical attractiveness is an outdated and objectifying notion. But on Aug. 17, Miss Universe Canada will be crowned in Toronto. And that woman will go on to represent the country at the 68th annual Miss Universe event in December. So, it’s a notion that still won’t die. Why?
I found myself asking this question when I learned that one of my old high-school friends was participating in a local beauty pageant. Frankly, I was surprised that these competitions still existed. I wanted to know how someone such as my strong-willed friend could expose herself to that type of scrutiny and judgment. This inspired my journey into photographing beauty-pageant contestants.
At first, I had a hard time leaving my biases at the door. Many mainstream pageants such as Miss Universe still have antiquated rules about who can compete for the title. Contestants must be under the age of 28 and must not be, nor have ever been, married or pregnant, which gives me the icky feeling that pageants are just an elaborate scam that parades eligible young women on stage, from which bachelors can take their picks, as if off a restaurant menu.
But all the women I spoke with acknowledged that while pageants are not perfect, they still find something genuinely fulfilling, and even empowering, about being a part of them. Some joined with the simple hope of meeting new people and connecting with other women from all over the world. Some told me that competing in pageants helped them with their confidence or made them become better public speakers. Some said that the gruelling hours spent getting into shape and preparing for the competitions strengthened their work ethic. Many expressed the appeal of the charity and community work that contestants take part in.
It would be naive to say that individual positive experiences equate to beauty pageants being a wholly progressive concept. After all, each and every woman I spoke with acknowledged that yes, a large part of beauty pageants is still based on physical appearance. And yes, beauty pageants have had a long history of issues surrounding diversity. But contestants are still willing to look past those problems for a personal sense of achievement.
The women I spoke with showed incredible vulnerability and strength, leading me to remain torn on whether beauty pageants are something I wish to see in the future. But I’ve gained a new respect for the women who choose to participate in them. There’s something admirable about their genuine, and at times arduous, attempts to feel like the best versions of themselves, both physically and mentally. They, like me, are motivated by a desire to be seen, to overcome personal adversities and to work toward their highest potential. They’ve found their expression of that through beauty pageants and have shown me that the search for empowerment can come in unconventional and complex packages.
Alice Li acknowledges the difficulty of putting yourself out there on stage and that, in doing so, you really needed to have a handle on who you are and what you stand for. Her ambition is unwavering and her work ethic is strong. She competes in pageants, works full time and performs with dance and music in Toronto subway stations to raise money for her charity of choice, the Children’s Wish Foundation.
“These women are confident enough to stand on stage, in front of so many people, and people they don’t even know. And they’re confident enough to express their style, speak in front of people, walk across the stage in a swimsuit,” she says. “The beauty-pageant experience is for the girls who compete. And as long as the girls who compete are getting something positive from it, it doesn’t matter what the audience says.”
Alice Li, 25, is a full-time accountant and a seasoned pageant queen. She’s been doing pageants since she was 15, which makes this year her 10th year competing. She’s currently vying for Miss Universe Canada. Her previous titles include Miss Intercontinental Canada and Miss Ontario World. Shot at Ms. Li’s office in Toronto on Oct. 20, 2018.
“I’m tattooed, pierced. I’m short. I’m not a beauty queen!” says Vanessa Nash-Gale, winner of Miss Fuller Woman Canada 2016, the only plus-size pageant in Canada, which folded a few months after she was crowned. Ms. Nash-Gale grew up watching Miss Universe and has always been interested in fashion, makeup and glamour.
She says what most people don’t know about pageants is the hard work that contestants put into them. When she was competing, she was also working 40 hours a week and rehearsing three hours everyday, sometimes rehearsing two more hours on her own at home. When I ask her about her thoughts on beauty pageants and feminism, she responds, confidently: “People would say ‘I thought you were a feminist.’ Well, I am a feminist. I choose to be in a pageant, just like I choose to wear makeup. Feminism isn’t about rejecting the feminine; it’s about accepting whether or not people want to subscribe to it.”
Vanessa Nash-Gale is a 39-year-old sewing and leather-craft teacher from Newfoundland. Shot in Ms. Nash-Gale’s home in Toronto on April 6.
“I’m a huge believer in being the queen of your life,” says Natasha Euteneier, mother of a four-year-old son, Sebastian, whose experience as a single parent led her to advocate for other moms in her pageant platform. Ms. Euteneier participated in Ms. Galaxy Canada this year, as this stream of the Galaxy Pageants allows for women with children to compete. Being the epitome of an extrovert, what Ms. Euteneier enjoyed most about competing was meeting people, being introduced to different causes and being able to engage with her local community.
Ms. Euteneier says: “As a person, you have many different areas that you will be judged on, whether you like it or not. You’re also judging yourself. So what pageants are doing is inspiring you, and judging you, on who you are and what you can offer to the world.”
Natasha Euteneier is a 27-year-old sales professional and entrepreneur. She recently competed in Ms. Galaxy Canada, representing Halton Ont., and will be competing in Miss Europe Continental this November. Shot in Ms. Euteneier’s home in Georgetown, Ont., on March 22.
Kate Briones is sweet and well-spoken, and at first, I hardly noticed her speech impediment, something she’s had since she was 4. She looks back fondly on her decision to enter her first pageant two years ago, where she took home the title of Miss Teen Canada’s Top Choice. This year, she competed in Miss Teen Galaxy Canada.
“Speaking was always something that scared me,” she says, “so I wanted something to kind of help me out of that, to help me feel more confident about myself.” She said she was surprised to win, but that winning taught her that her speech impediment is not something that will hold her back from achieving the things she wanted. “The only competition I have is within myself.”
Kate Briones is a 17-year-old high-school student. She hopes to go into child and youth work in the future. Shot in Ms. Briones’s home in North York, Ont., on April 14.
Juliana Qian is the first runner-up to Miss Chinese Toronto 2015 and had previously competed in Miss Asia Toronto. Her interest in pageants started with competing in an Asian-Canadian modelling competition – Sunshine Generations. “Modelling, being on stage and performing in front of an audience is what I really love to do,” she says. Ms. Qian has been dancing since her teens and now teaches hip-hop and popping as a side job.
I asked her about the reactions of her family and peers when she told them she was entering a pageant. She says: “I think [my family] were pretty supportive; I got a lot of positive feedback. But, in a way, I felt more disconnected from my friends, because they didn’t really understand, they thought it was like a ‘Barbie’ thing to do. So I felt like I was being judged because of that.”
Juiliana Qian, 24, works as an administrator, but identifies more as a dancer and model. She still performs and models but is not sure if she wants to do another pageant in the future. Shot in Ms. Qian’s home in Scarborough, Ont., on April 12.
Grace Diamani wishes to see more women of colour participating in and winning pageants. She is currently competing in Miss Universe Canada.
As the daughter of a political science professor and a women’s studies professor, she admits there was some hesitation from her parents when she decided to enter Miss Grand, a pageant with a specific message to “stop the war and violence” around the world. Ms. Diamani was already interested in modelling at the time and this statement spoke to her because of her ties to the Republic of Congo, where her parents are from; she wanted to advocate for women and children in war-torn countries through her platform.
Grace Diamani, 26, is currently living in Ottawa and studying sociology at Carleton University. Taken in Ms. Diamani’s childhood home in Whitby, Ont., on July 27.