27 April 2009

Meet Miss Universe New Zealand

"And the winner of Miss Universe New Zealand is Miss Southern First National, Katie Taylor."

With those incongruous words an Aucklander competing in her fourth beauty pageant was declared a winner for the first time.

The annual orgy of bikinis, frocks and hairspray is not what it used to be. Once the pageant topped the television ratings and drew huge live audiences. Today it continues only because of the dedication of a small band of enthusiasts and the contestants themselves.
To enter they have to find a sponsor willing to put $3000 toward the cost of staging the pageant, hence Miss Southern First National and Miss Ultimate Transport Solutions as well as Miss Tuscany Road (a Putaruru fashion store).

On Saturday night, in what was almost a final act of desperation, contest organiser Val Lott staged the pageant in what Horowhenua Mayor Brendon Duffy calls the "real New Zealand" in the hope that Levin's "small town charm" would revive interest in the show.

The venue was the Horowhenua Events Centre. Plastic tables and chairs were laid out on top of a basketball court. Blue and white balloons floated from the centre of each table. The court markings were still visible beneath.

In the contest's heyday, spectators used to queue around the block to witness the finale to a six-week tour of the country. In Levin, the only thing that smacked remotely of a queue was the crush created by smokers heading for the dimly lit car park during the costume changes.

But what the event lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm, air kisses and high-heels and that was just among the audience of mothers, sisters, aunts, proud boyfriends and bashful dads. Levin's basketball courts may never be the same again.

The contest began with the bikini parade. Fifteen young women, skins glowing a uniform gold, self-consciously strode along the catwalk, posed in front of the five judges, pirouetted and stalked off stage. The judges Mr Duffy and four others scribbled earnestly; the boyfriends whistled and cheered.

Next came dresses and sparkly gowns more whistles and cheers. Then there was one final hurdle for the five finalists to clear the question.

Local favourite Priyani Puketapu, 18, whose every appearance was greeted with roars of approval, was asked her opinion of Stephanie Naumoska a painfully thin Miss Australia contestant whose state has sparked worldwide controversy.

Because of the pressure on women to look thin it was easy for them to develop eating disorders, said Miss Horowhenua, who aspires to become a lawyer and work with international human rights organisations. "Oh come on," cried an angry voice, presumably one of the out-of-towners in the audience of about 400. More angry muttering followed. It was the only hint of controversy.

Miss Taylor, 22, a construction project manager whose ambition is to present a TV series on the importance of sustainable "green" housing and buildings, was asked what significance she attached to Anzac Day. Strangely it was just the question she had been hoping for, she revealed. She had attended that morning's Anzac service and been moved to tears thinking of her grandfather's war service. The audience applauded.

Minutes later she was moved again when she was named as New Zealand's representative to the Miss Universe pageant in the Bahamas later this year. Miss Horowhenua was first runner-up.

And Ms Lott thinks she's found a formula that will enable the pageant to continue.

"We've been invited to come back," she said. "We accept graciously."