Miss Universe 2017: 'This pageant is more relevant than ever'

Beauty and brains are obviously not mutually exclusive. But beauty pageants continue to be a divisive topic: Are they sexist? Feminist? Archaic?

Vanessa Friedman, fashion director at the New York Times, took the debate a step further and wondered about how women’s sexuality in public showings — like the Love Advent pinup calendar or on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk — are considered in a post-Weinstein world. Do they allow women to reclaim their sexuality? Or do they perpetuate objectification?

The same may be asked of pageants: In 2017, what’s the point of women walking around in bikinis and ballgowns?

“I think beauty pageants like Miss Universe are more relevant than ever before,” Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, newly crowned Miss Universe 2017, said during an interview for AOL’s Build Series in New York. “I don’t see this as a beauty pageant, I see this as a platform I was given to make a meaningful difference in the lives of women — and men — all around the world. I got this opportunity to be a role model to young girls. To me, this is a very big honor, but it’s an even bigger responsibility.”

Is this even real? #MissUniverse2017 Dress by @anelbothac ❤️

A post shared by Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters (@demileighnp) on Nov 27, 2017 at 2:39pm PST


For Nel-Peters, her new responsibilities will include teaching women how to defend themselves, both physically and emotionally, when they’re under attack, and partnering with organizations that will help her reach that goal. The Miss Universe winner has taken a self-defense course herself in South Africa, a fortunate coincidence when she was carjacked a few months after winning Miss South Africa in early 2017. One can’t help but be reminded of Sandra Bullock’s character in Miss Congeniality.

But does a “responsible” platform for effecting meaningful change need a swimsuit competition? “I worked really hard to have a healthy, fit body. It’s always been who I am,” Nel-Peters told Yahoo Lifestyle after her Build interview. “To walk on a stage in a swimsuit, if that isn’t confidence, what is?”

In addition to defending the swimsuit portion, the 22-year-old college graduate maintained that the contest is “more inclusive than ever,” despite having no plus-size women onstage (Ashley Graham, model-entrepreneur and body positive activist, was a host this year.)

There were girls who weren’t a size 0 [in the pageant]. Everyone is welcome in Miss Universe. Miss Canada last year was a big advocate for healthy body image, and that’s exactly what she promoted,” Nel-Peters said. “[Miss Universe] is the first pageant to accept transgender women, and openly gay women could participate. I think Miss Universe is very inclusive.” 

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