Russia Watch: Latinas rule! Africans, Asians and Europeans pushed aside in Moscow’s Miss Universe contest

OK, I did not interview Miss Venezuela. I did not think the Miss Universe jury in Moscow would really fall for the latest plastic product of Venezuela’s beauty queen assembly lines.

Last week, at a press availability for the Misses, I could not fail to miss Miss Venezuela, Maria Gabriela Isler. Her blinding white teeth made me want to put on dark glasses. Her princess gait made the other Misses look like peasants. Earlier, at a night club “night out with the contestants,” I noticed she had a skillful way of elbowing her way to the front of the cameras.

But, early on Moscow’s Sunday morning, the Miss Universe diamond tiara landed once again on the head of a Miss Venezuela — for the third time in six years.

The fact that it kept sliding off Maria Gabriela’s leonine locks might have been a signal that the jury made the wrong call.

Out of 86 contestants from around the globe, the jury winnowed the race down to a ‘diverse’ group of five Latinas: Miss Spain, Miss Ecuador, Miss Venezuela, Miss Brazil, and Miss Philippines. (The Philippines are sometimes called Spain’s gift to Asia).

Gosh, five Latinas. No Miss from Africa, Europe, or mainland Asia was good enough to make the final cut.

The contest evening started on a sensible note.

Miss U Moscow Nicaragua VOA

To pick the top 16, the jury picked beauties from little countries – Costa Rica, Switzerland and Nicaragua. It also chose contestants from big countries — China, India, Brazil, Britain, the United States, Spain and Indonesia. This strategy kept hundreds of millions of people around the globe glued to their TV sets.

But slowly, as the magic number of 16 inexorably approached, it dawned on millions of Russians that this jury was not picking a BRIC, but a BIC – Brazil-India-China.

Despite the swelling chant of “Rossiya”, the jury culled Russia in the first cut. What a slap in the face to the host country!

Lovely Elmira Abdrazakova, Miss Russia, was consigned to a back row, forced to wear a wide smile for the rest of the night. (Miss Abdrazakova is tougher than she looks. Six months ago, when she was elected Miss Russia, hundreds of racist knuckle draggers clogged her social network pages with hate messages, objecting that a woman with a Tatar father was to be Russia’s face to world. She disabled the pages and went on with being Miss Russia.)

Miss U Moscow Russia VOA

On a lighter note, we were treated to singing by Emin Agalarov.

Emin is the son of Aras Agalarov, the Azeri-born Russian businessman who owns Crocus City, the Moscow venue for Miss Universe and the largest shopping mall in all of Russia. In a dynastic coupling, Emin is married to Leila Aliyeva, the daughter of the President of Azerbaijan.

The whole thing seemed to shaping up a huge joke on NBC, the American network with broadcast rights. Headline: Billionaire Russian Oligarch Buys a Miss Universe Contest to give Karaoke Singing Son Worldwide TV Exposure.

In reality, Emin turned out to be a surprisingly good singer – energetic, passionate and a good voice.

He was a refreshing contrast to the other entertainer, Steven Tyler, the deeply aged, 65-year-old American veteran of Aerosmith. On his visit to Moscow, Tyler should have visited the Lenin mausoleum on Red Square to learn some embalming tips.

With Russia out, Russian state TV commentators dropped the cheerleading and started commenting.

Fortunately, Ksenia Sobchak, the Pasionaria of the anti-Putin opposition, had been summoned back from state television Siberia. Still off camera, she provided catty commentary. On Miss Switzerland: “Her lower half looks a bit fat.”

Invisible to TV viewers around the world was the political controversy over hosting the pageant in Russia. This summer Russia implemented “a gay propaganda law,” a vague piece of legislation designed to push openly gay behavior out of the public eye.

In August, Andy Cohen, last year’s Miss Universe male co-host, announced that he would not come here from the United States. He told E! News that, as an openly gay man, he would be “unsafe” in Russia.

Taking over as co-host, Thomas Roberts, a NBC reporter who is also openly gay, flew into Moscow with his new husband, Patrick D. Abner. Before and after the show, Roberts sharply criticized the law.

But on camera, at show time, he lost his voice, limiting himself to flashing his bright white smile and making forgettable comments. Maybe he was intimidated by Donald Trump, who sat scowling in the front row. Trump, who owns the Miss Universe Pageant, is notorious for shouting at people he barely knows: “You’re fired!”

Comic relief came from Philipp Kirkorov, the Russian pop singer, who blackens his eyebrows and goatee to look like an operatic version of Ivan the Terrible. Kirkorov is widely presumed to be gay, but he plays by Moscow rules: act as you please, just don’t say you are gay.

Kirkorov had a bright question for Miss Brazil – on the future of women in the workplace.

Miss Brazil, Jakelyne Olveira, launched into a smart response. But, in the fast-paced show, her answer got lost in a cumbersome translation from Portuguese to English to Russian. That night, millions of Russians went to bed failing to learn that the President of Brazil is a woman.

Miss U Moscow Myanmar VOA

So, there we were at the end, a choice among five finalists – all big-haired Latinas. Africa was out. Europe was out. Mainland Asia was out.

Over the last eight years, five of the Miss Universes have been Latinas. Six, if you count Leila Lopes from Portuguese-speaking Angola.

Maybe it is time for the Miss Universe organizers to reshuffle the jury, open the windows, and let in the rest of the world.


(Photos: VOA)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.