Former beauty pageant competitor Maddy May was drawn to the pageant scene seven years ago, when she was 19 and low on self-confidence.
It was “a way for me to have a voice,” she tells ABC RN’s Earshot.
“Pageantry has allowed me to go from the shy kid who wouldn’t say anything to a really powerful woman who believes in myself and my intellect.”
And yet the Sydneysider, who has competed in national and international pageants, is deeply disappointed in the industry today.
“You’re sold on this experience, this facade, this journey that it’s going to be amazing and it’s going to change your life,” says May.
The hidden side
For May, cracks began to form in the shimmering veneer of pageantry after several shocking events.
In a 2018 Sydney pageant in which she contested, traveling contestants were accommodated in the pageant sponsor’s private accommodation. There were cameras were hidden in rooms without women’s consent, she says.
Darwin-based photographer Jed Hansen, who photographed the event and also stayed at the property, found the cameras.
He says he noticed “strange” wiring in his own and then other rooms. He traced the wires to locate six “ultra-wide-angle” dome cameras “strategically hidden in furniture,” and at locations such as a chandelier and lamp.
When he found the cameras, he told the five women who were staying in the house and they immediately left.
He believes the sponsor had “malicious intent” toward the women.
At another contest in China in 2019, May “found out that all the girls who had actually won had gone into private rooms with the sponsors, taken their clothes off and had parties with them”.
She says some women shared with her that “things happened and that’s why they won.”
There have been other incidents that contributed to her decision to leave the election scene.
“I’m too scared to compete,” she says.
May is publicly beaten at a televised event and forced to rehearse for 14 straight hours.
“You’re working crazy hours in ridiculous circumstances…you have to present and look like a doll from 5am to 2am and keep that perfect look the whole time,” she says.
“Every little thing you do is judged, watched, taken apart and criticized.”
May says it was “dehumanizing” to be referred to the song on stage, not the name. She says she felt like pageant owners “basically own you.”
“And that’s the side you don’t see.”
Adrian Kwan, who hosted this year’s Miss Galaxy pageant and interviewed contestants for his podcast The Pageant Project, describes the organizers of one specific pageant, the Miss Europe Continental pageant, as “actually crooks.”
In Kwan’s 2020 interview with Miss Europe Continental pageant contestants Rowan Rice and Attieh Elena, they describe not being given enough food, water or toilet breaks during the pageant. They also claim that they were treated aggressively.
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The organizers of the pageant “were constantly yelling at us,” says Elena.
When the assault allegedly culminated in a woman Rice is attacked by one of the organizers and says she and others reported the incident to the police.
They were told that the organizer was “arrested a few years earlier for running brothels…” the police literally told us [that]”.
“We all thought we were safe there,” she says.
Corruption, abuse and ‘disgusting’ behaviour
American showman PT Barnum first promoted beauty pageants in the US, in the late 19th century.
Kwan says it was “marketing 101” to eventually tie the beauty pageants to specific cities to drum up tourism for those places.
While the scene is relatively small in Australia, beauty pageants are big business in other countries.
Earlier this year, Thai media magnate Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip bought the Miss Universe Organization, once owned by Donald Trump, for $20 million. She is the first woman to own it.
But the “powerhouses” are the Philippines, Indonesia and Venezuela, Kwan says. “They are crazy about pageantry”.
“In those countries, pageantry is on a different level. [Contestants] are absolute superstars and the girls who win there are pretty much ready for life… you could be a real superstar,” he says.
May says she was treated “essentially like Kim Kardashian” during her matches in Thailand and Vietnam.
“Walking two meters would take you 45 minutes because people would pull you in all directions to want their picture taken with you. You’re seen as a celebrity,” she says.
Can participants say what they ‘really think’?
Not all pageants are created equal, says pageant choreographer and coach Quintin James.
Common among the “dodgy” are structural problems that need to be changed, he says.
“I think a lot of these pageant systems don’t see the title winners or the contestants as people.”
May explains that some election executives can be bought so they can be held by “anyone”.
“It could be an ex-girlfriend [former winner]. It could just be a random person obsessed with pageants,” she says.
It could also be someone with dubious intentions.
James has coached contestants who were uncomfortable with directors’ behavior.
“I’ve even had to go to election directors and say, ‘You can’t do this. [contestants] gifts. You can’t take them out to dinner. You can’t drive them around. You’re not their friend… the lines are totally blurry here,” he says.
“Unfortunately there are a few that don’t focus on providing a great opportunity. It’s literally that they need to be validated. It’s actually disgusting.”
James also says there is “a lot of corruption” within some pageants.
“The director is essentially in charge of the election, and if you say something negative about your experience, there’s a danger – I’m not saying it happens all the time, but I know it has happened – that the director is going to say something bad about tell you to other people, and then hurt your future in the industry,” he says.
“And once you’re in it, it’s very hard to get out. Especially if you’ve won, you’re contractually bound for a year.
“So it can be ugly. It can be great if you get the right system, but it can be ugly.”
“Pageantry can be a really inhumane experience,” says May.
But she also says her competition time allowed her to “experience some of the most humbling, exciting and beautiful things… that no one else would ever see”.
And she’s made powerful human connections in her time on the election circuit.
“Basically, the worse the system works, the closer the girls get… we all melt together, protect each other, help each other and support each other,” she says.
“The quieter you are, the more likely you are to win,” she says.
Today it is more important that May has spoken out.
She would like to see pageants stop encouraging contestants to “appease all the people” at an event and encourage them to “advocate and say what they really think and believe”.
Participants should be given the opportunity to be “unique” and “true to themselves” and “have a voice,” she says.
She says beauty expectations need to turn into pageants — a message she hopes potential newcomers hear.
“Beauty doesn’t necessarily have to be [only viewed from] an outer perspective; it can be a whole package,” she says.
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