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Exclusive: Miss Universe, Under Pressure, Plans a Reality Show Makeover

11 minute read

Miss Universe, which has suffered a dramatic ratings decline in the last five years—and some big reputational hits more recently—has a new owner, Anne Jakapong, who will become the first non-American owner and first transgender woman to put her imprint on the beauty pageant. The billionaire CEO of Thai media company JKN Global plans to build a reality show from the competition, creating a series that she hopes will be a mashup of Project Runway and American Idol.

The 13 episodes will follow the contestants in the lead up to the competition, through the actual pageant, and then track the triumphs of the winner and the pressures she faces as she serves her term. The series is currently in development and has yet to sign a distribution deal. “We would love to have the iconic woman each year for everyone around the world—particularly women and LGBTQ—to look up to,” says Jakapong, who is famous in Thailand as a TV personality and trans-rights activist.

If this year is anything like the last 12 months, however, the show may end up looking less like American Idol and more like Real Housewives. Miss Universe, which also owns the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, endured enough scandals, surprises, tirades and tragedies in 2022 to power several seasons worth of blue-chip reality TV, including accusations of rigging, global body-shaming of the current title holder, the coronation and then rapid dethroning of one national winner for denigrating her rivals, a secret wedding between two former contestants and a local area sex scandal.

What Miss Universe hasn’t had, at least in recent years, is a growing TV audience. The 71st edition of the show, which takes place in New Orleans on Jan. 14, will be streamed via Roku and broadcast on Telemundo. Last year’s show, which took place in Israel and aired on Fox, drew its smallest audience ever, 2.7 million viewers, less than half the 6.2 million viewers who tuned in five years ago.

In October, Endeavor, the talent agency that bought the show from Donald Trump in 2015, sold it to JKN Global, which is mostly owned by Jakapong, reportedly much to the Hollywood agency’s relief. Running a contest that requires women to walk around in a swimsuit and an evening gown and gives them five minutes to impress judges with their opinions is an awkward fit for any company in an era of MeToo, body positivity and contention on gender issues, but especially for one that represents such stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Emma Stone.

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Endeavor declined to comment on the sale, but according to Jakapong, agency head Ari Emanuel told her he didn’t want to run the contest and that she should be the person to do it, “because you transformed yourself so much and you inspire people so much.”

Jakapong has already nixed the separate awards that used to be given for swimsuit and evening wear for the event in New Orleans. Delegates, as contestants are known, are also decorating the capes they wear with their swimsuits as a form of expression. “I don’t want to have the Miss Universe competition objectify women,” she says. “This year is a new year of Miss Universe, or I’d rather call it a new paradigm of the global female empowerment platform.”

Criticism, control and cosmetic surgery

For at least one of its recent participants, however, all the new changes are as pointless as embroidery on swimsuit wraps. “After the experience that I had, I think Miss Universe should cease to exist,” says Ina Dajci, who represented Albania in the 2021 contest. “It is all a fraud. It really tries to project this image as this benevolent, charity-oriented platform that’s really giving girls confidence. But I just don’t understand how you can gain confidence if you’re constantly being judged and criticized for things that you actually can’t control, like the way you look or the way your body is shaped.”

Dajci was working as architect in New York City and modeling occasionally when friends suggested she enter the pageant. They told her it had changed since Trump sold it, and it was now—and this may sound familiar—a global platform to give women a greater voice. She watched the 2019 telecast and explored the website and decided it might be a way to find an audience for the issues she cares about. After winning the Albanian crown, however, she became uneasy. In an early meeting, a Miss Universe official, she says, advised her that a video she had made about one of the themes for the year, sustainability, did not show off her cleavage or legs enough.

Read More: The Year There Was No Miss America

When she arrived in Israel things did not improve. “It was 80 girls, including me. We never engaged in any discussion about the environment or sustainability. We never talked about anything,” she says, “but every day we did hair and makeup three or four times.” The judging committee was made up mostly of former pageant contestants and celebrity offspring, rather than people with any experience in global causes. Officials spoke all the time of the confidence and audacity a Miss Universe has but watched the women like hawks. “If you forgot something in your room, a chaperone has to come up with you,” she says. “You were not allowed to do anything.”

Dajci, now 28, was a little older than many of the other contestants and says that while she wasn’t expecting an academic conference, she was still alarmed at the number of contestants who carried folders with sample questions and speeches to memorize, instead of offering their own opinions. “It’s absolutely crazy how many millions of followers these competitions still have and how young kids look up to these girls,” says Dajci. “Meanwhile, these girls have very little ownership of what they are going to say. They cannot be themselves. They are what the organization wants them to be.”

Because she’s multilingual, Dajci was sometimes asked by the other contestants to translate what the Miss Universe officials were saying, and says she was often horrified by what they were telling her peers, including shaming them about revealing outfits. Sometimes, no translation was necessary. “I remember vividly zipping [a fellow contestant] into her dress and she was in pain because of the fresh [cosmetic] surgeries.”

Dajci is the only member of the 2021 cohort speaking out for the record, but another participant who did not want to be named because she is still working with the organization, says she too felt poorly treated in Israel, and had to sit in her hotel room while contestants from the more populous nations were photographed at events. And, in a since deleted social media post, Miss South Africa, one of the top three winners, whose cause was mental health, noted that hers had suffered during the contest.

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After Israel pulled out of the pageant this year, several former Miss Israels weighed in. “Queen Elizabeth has died, and now the beauty queen contest is buried,” said 2003 winner Sivan Klein on TV. “It asks smart questions of smart women, in a bikini. It places a crown on the head and, at the same time, a ceiling.”

Back in America, some contestants in October’s Miss USA pageant took to social media to air accusations of rigging. Crystle Stewart, the former pageant winner who owns the right to run Miss USA, was suspended by Miss Universe, which launched an independent investigation into the complaints of rigging. A few months later the investigators said the claims were unsubstantiated. But by then the campaign had triggered a wider revelation of the news that Stewart’s husband, Max Sebrechts had been quietly removed from the organization in February after he was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior towards the contestants.

“I have fully cooperated with the investigation of the spurious allegations and will continue to do so,” Stewart told TIME in a statement. “I remain committed to always running a fair, respectful, and honest competition.” She added that her company, Miss Brand Corporation, had also dealt with the sexual harassment allegations appropriately, by removing Sebrechts from day to day operations.

A business model under pressure

Audiences customarily have a hearty appetite for the spectacle of beautiful young women being mean to each other, so the light level of public interest in Miss USA’s woes might worry the Miss Universe Organization more than the allegations themselves. On the other hand the death of beauty pageants has been predicted for decades. “It’s very easy to dismiss something until you meet the people that come through and see their platforms, things I didn’t know about,” says longtime president Paula Shugart. She’s proud of the work of the current Miss Universe, Harnaaz Sandhu on global menstrual equity. What Miss Universe fans around the world have focused on however, is not Sandhu’s activism, but her weight gain, as she dealt with celiac disease.

To the very many people who have asked Shugart how a Harvard Kennedy School graduate can run a company that promotes such a narrow model of ideal womanhood, she replies that the organization is changing and sometimes ahead of society in areas. The first trans contestant, a Miss Spain, appeared in 2018. “This year it’s the first time we have a representative from Bhutan,” says Shugart, adding that she’s openly bisexual. “I don’t even know if that’s legal in the country.” (It is.) After this year’s contest, women of any marital status and mothers will be eligible to enter.

Shugart is aware that many contestants have cosmetic surgery, but says that is influenced more by the popularity of such procedures in different cultures than it is by Miss Universe. “It really goes down to the grassroots level, the person each country chooses to be their representative,” she says. “I did point out to the [national] directors over the first few years that I was there that the women who won did not have surgery.”

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Perhaps the bigger question for Miss Universe is not whether it can withstand the scandals and the enraged participants, but whether it is still a business. Israel, Sweden and Kazakhstan did not participate this year due to a lack of local support. The show no longer has a traditional broadcast outlet in the U.S. In 2021, its profits fell 44.4% from the year before, despite higher revenues. Nevertheless, tickets to the live show in New Orleans sold out in three days, says Jakapong, who noted that 95% of the usual countries are still participating—and says she’s had at least one head of state fly her to visit potential future venues.

While owning Miss Universe is a capstone dream for the self made billionaire, who sees her journey to womanhood echoed in the struggles of the contestants, she is nevertheless hard-nosed about the institution’s business prospects, and has identified nine possible revenue streams, including new licensing opportunities (one possibility: Miss Universe Water), talent management, travel and the TV show.

Dajci doesn’t need to be Miss Universe. After the contest she returned to her job and is now working between the U.S. and Albania for her nonprofit Design for Good. In December, an exhibition she organized of drawings by Afghan refugees called “The Architecture of Displacement” was mounted at the Albanian Mission to the U.N. in New York City. She says she decided to speak out about her experience with Miss Universe on behalf of the many young women she met from Asian and Latin American countries whose commitment to pageants had been so absolute that she feared they had few other options.

The day after the contest, she saw most of them for the first time with no makeup and was struck by their vulnerability. Many had been crying. Many were going home with no clear idea of where their future would take them. “I understood in a new way who these girls really are,” says Dajci, “not whatever they were trying to show during those days.”

Dajci is angry at herself for being tricked into wasting a year of her life doing what it takes to participate in Miss Universe, only to find out it was still a cheesecake contest. For these other women the cost was much higher. “It is even worse than people imagine,” she says. “It just destroys girls and make them more insecure about how they look, makes them compete with each other for things that really don’t matter.”

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