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'Pageants are uplifting, not demeaning' Māori beauty queens defend criticism

Beauty pageants. Objectification or empowerment? While opinions are divided, Māori women are entering and winning too.

Three Māori beauty queens shared their experience with Te Ao with Moana about how entering pageants have empowered them in their career and helped them build confidence.

Harlem-Cruz Atarangi Ihaia, of Ngāi Tahu, won Miss Universe New Zealand 2017. During the national competition, she raised $12,000 for charity by organising her own fundraising events. It taught her the skills to launch her own business, Harlem Cruz Limited.

“Everything that I do, through my business, through being a mum, I'm always striving to be the best that I can be and I feel like that's the quality it's come from being in pageants,” says Harlem-Cruz.

She recently received funding from Te Puni Kōkiri to host Pūrotu a self-development programme combining the framework of pageantry, te reo and tikanga Māori to empower wāhine. Activities in the programme teach wāhine how to walk on the runway, model as their favourite goddess and set goals for their future.

“I teach the girls how to do hair, makeup and really embrace their indigenous features. Most of them want to straighten or curl their hair. We do teach that, but I also teach them how to embrace your curls and different products to use.”

Harlem-Cruz models at Miss Universe 2017, proudly wearing her tā moko that represents her whānau. Source: Miss Universe

Harlem-Cruz first entered Miss Universe NZ with a mission to break the stereotype of young Māori. After winning she became the first-ever Miss Universe contestant to wear tā moko despite an unwritten rule that beauty queens should hide their tattoos.

“It was more other contestants asking me, 'Are you going to cover up your tattoo? And I said, ‘Oh no, it's not a tattoo’. They said ‘Yes it is!’ So it was about the different cultures and trying to explain to them that this was a cultural thing. It wasn't a tattoo and then them understanding why I wasn't going to cover it up,” says Harlem-Cruz.

Despite all its benefits, Harlem-Cruz says while going through the pageant world, there were things that weren't, “tika and pono” (right and true) to herself as a Māori, like getting blisters from wearing high heels and not being allowed to take them off.

“In tikanga Māori, if you have sore feet, yes, you take your shoes off or you just wear flat shoes. Why do you have to wear high heels? So there were some times when I felt like I couldn't be myself a lot. That's why I've designed my Pūrotu program.”

1970 Miss World protests. A film Misbehaviour was released in 2020 documenting the events. Source: Associated Press

A controversial history

Pageants have had a controversial history. In 1970, feminists disrupted the Miss World final because they saw the competition as demeaning and objectifying women. Back then the pageant was owned by men but today it is owned by Julia Morely.

In 2014 Julia decided to get rid of the swimwear round to shift focus from physical beauty to "brains and personality".

"I don't need to see women just walking up and down in bikinis. It doesn't do anything for the woman and it doesn't do anything for any of us," Julia said to Elle Magazine.

Earlier in 1974, Julia also introduced Beauty with a Purpose, the service element of the competition which has helped raise millions for charity and requires contestants to submit a charitable project of their own at the international competition.

Other international pageants, such as Miss Universe, still include a judged swimwear element, but Harlem-Cruz says walking in swimwear at Miss Universe wasn’t a problem for her.

“I didn't feel degraded wearing a bikini on stage. It was actually something for me to step out of my comfort zone and it really gave me a lot of confidence to actually wear a bikini because prior to that, I would never wear a bikini.”

Miss Earth New Zealand 2021 Eva Wilson, of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, has also walked the international stage in swimwear and is well aware of the criticism.

“I'd heard that other people were saying ‘Oh, it's so awful. How could you make anyone do that?” And so I sort of had that sitting in the back of my head, like, yeah, maybe this is going to be awful. But then when it actually came to it, I was like, oh, this is fine,” says Eva.

“But at the same time, I can see how for some people, it would be really quite a challenging and confronting experience. I'm not completely secure in my body, but I still manage just to go out there.”

Miss Earth New Zealand Eva Wilson in interview attire. Source: Miss Earth NZ, Facebook

There’s a misconception that contestants are only judged on their physical appearance. But these days, contestants can be judged in interview, community project work, public speaking and even sports.

Since Miss Earth is an environmentally-themed competition, Eva uses her platform to educate people about the laws that shape climate action in New Zealand.

“I wanted people to be aware of the fact that a lot of the way that environmental issues are framed, puts it back onto you as an individual. Whereas I think we need to see more collective action to make sure we have laws and standards in place that don't let industries continue to pollute on the scale that they are.”

We are so proud of our Eva and her environmental advocacy! #missearth2021 #policiesforchange #environmentaladvocate #embracingindigenous #ProudToBeMaori

Posted by Miss Earth New Zealand on Thursday, November 4, 2021

Eva is so good at speaking she won the Best in Interview award when she competed in Miss Supranational 2019, an international pageant in Poland.

“Before I started pageants, I didn't even realize that speaking in public and interviews was something that I was good at, nor interested in. Whereas now that's all I want to do with my time. I want to think about ideas. I want to discuss them with others. I want to go find out answers, she says.

“That assumption that I don't think or speak anything is a little bit offensive for me because it is what I pride myself on the most.”

Atutahi Potaka-Dewes entered and won Miss Rotorua 2020. Photographer: Mark Robotham.

Pageants and feminism today

Atutahi Potaka-Dewes is a haka concert performer, te reo Māori advocate, former Te Arawa FM presenter and was a contestant in Miss Rotorua 2020. She was questioned by her whānau when she decided to enter.

“When I told my Nan, ‘Hey, I'm thinking of entering' she looked at me and she was like, ‘I don't believe in pageants. I'm a feminist.’ I said ‘Oh, I don't know how to respond to that Nan, but I'm going to do it anyway’."

Three months later, Atutahi ended up winning the competition.

“When I came home with the crown and I showed her, her first question was, “Oh you won Miss Te Arawa yay’. And I was like ‘No nan, I won the grand title Miss Rotorua' and she just looked at me and she started crying,” says Atutahi.

“For both of us, it was a realisation of the trauma that she and her kuia and māmā thought a Māori woman should carry herself. It was just a really beautiful moment, a full-circle moment of us to be like ‘Hey it’s okay to love what we do and who we are.'”

Atutahi, of Te Arawa, Ngāti Porou and Sāmoan descent, says you can be a feminist and enter pageants too.

“If anything, this is probably the platform for feminists. Beautiful women on stage, all having that one kaupapa of amplifying, not only external beauty, but inner beauty, our inner smarts, everything that encompasses what a woman is in the modern-day age, this is the platform to be able to help that.”

Miss Rotorua is such a success it has its own reality series, Gowns and Geysers. Source: TVNZ

Miss Rotorua pageant - a trailblazer

Miss Rotorua is different to traditional pageants and contestants are not judged on their physical appearance but on their “mana” says director Kharl Wirepa.

Over 12 weeks of the competition, contestants take part in activities to learn about tikanga Māori, stage performance, social work and business management. They also work in groups to raise money for local and national charities.

Atutahi says, “It's a safe space for women who don’t necessarily have the best support in their life for themselves so in a sense, it's like a counselling session which is what we do when we get together with girls. We spill out all our hara we help build each other up. So Miss Rotorua has that point of difference of opening its doors to all shapes, all sizes, all backgrounds, all ethnicities.”

Atutahi says pageants do have a place in te ao Māori.

“It’s a great way for our young Māori women to discover bits and parts of themselves that maybe they would never have never been able to discover in other avenues. I mean, we have kapa haka, a form of performing but something about a beauty pageant, something about wearing, wearing beautiful clothes and having this mindset of it's just me on stage. It's up to me now. Something is so empowering about that.”

Humility in te ao Māori

Humility is a common value in te ao Māori so entering pageants can seem against the norm. But Harlem-Cruz says “we need to look into why we’ve become so humble”.

“I feel like that comes from colonisation. Our mana was always put down. So we were always kind of taught from generation to just be quiet be in the back, be humble, but I don't think it was being humble at all. I think it was actually, 'just be quiet, you're Māori, stay in the background'. So I feel like we've taken that on to being humble when really Māori should be standing proud in our mana.”

Atutahi says, “The kumara doesn't know how sweet they are, so they don't speak about it, but everybody else does. But I think 'No, me kōrero'. When you know you've got the goods, why not show it off? Let people see it and there's something beautiful, there's something sexy about a woman who's confident in herself and knows that what she's got is good.”