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Student Blog Series: The Road to the Crown: How the Pageant World Advances the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Women

Posted: March 28, 2024

“I’m not a model. I’m an opera singer.” This was the famous stance of Miss America 1951, Yolande Betbeze. After securing the coveted title, she refused to wear the swimsuits of the pageant’s sponsor, Catalina Swimsuits, during her appearances. Her refusal came to be known as the catalyst for the severance between Catalina Swimwear and the Miss America pageant system. Catalina then went on to create Miss America’s rivals: Miss USA and Miss Universe. For the following half a century, the pageant world flourished to the point where currently around 80 women representing 80 countries compete on the Miss Universe stage to become the one woman to capture the crown. But alongside the pageant industry’s success, its dark underbelly also thrived, exposing many young women and girls to potential commercial sexual exploitation.

While the United States holds the most Miss Universe titles, Venezuela tails just one winner behind. This is in part due to the contest’s status as a cultural industry in Venezuela, lauded as a part of the country’s national identity. The men, women, and children of Venezuela view the annual pageant to select their country’s representative as an extravagant celebrated affair. The winner then becomes a symbol of hope, the very embodiment of Venezuelan nationalism, expected to go on to bring the country success on the world’s stage at the Miss Universe pageant.

For decades, this expectation and unattainable ideal has persisted and indirectly attributed to the commercial sexual exploitation of Venezuelan pageant contestants. In reality, underneath the dazzling crown of the beauty pageant world lies a ruthless industry founded on the exploitation of vulnerable women. By offering them dreams under the guise of opportunity, pageant systems often expose contestants to commercial sexual exploitation.

The potential for exploitation stems in part from the idealization of the pageant winner and the consequential lengths women and girls go to in an attempt to achieve that ideal. Those lengths include diction classes, dental work, breast implants, acquiring multi-thousand-dollar wardrobes, and rhinoplasty among other cosmetic surgeries, all of which are often thought to be indispensable to becoming the next Miss Venezuela. The months of “standard” preparation can amount to $32,000, often forcing contestants to turn to what are termed “dark saints”, or wealthy and powerful patrons, to fund these expenses.

1989 Miss Venezuela runner-up Patricia Velásquez wrote in her memoir that she entered the pageant at 18 in the hopes of winning to remove her family from their poverty-stricken conditions. She wrote, “I quickly learned that getting into the Miss Venezuela contest meant I would have to start prostituting myself in order to find a sponsor.” She found one: a man she referred to as a “secret boyfriend.” He paid for her expenses, including breast implants and an apartment. Other former Miss Venezuela contestants have echoed this experience and have disclosed their involvement with the dark saints or sponsors that accompany them, which ranged from willing participation to practically slavery.

For many girls aspiring to uplift their families out of poverty, the pageant stage is a pathway to a future in modeling, politics, or publicity, so the expenses of participating in the competition are seen as an investment for a better life for themselves and their families. Because the alternative to draining their families’ meager savings is to turn to dark saints, many are forced to choose the latter.

In the United States, the pageant industry remains prominent, making the reports of abuse in Venezuela a cause for great concern. While information about patterns of abuse may not be as readily available as the circumstances under investigation in Venezuela, some instances indicate a similar problem surfacing in the Miss America competition. In 2013, three Miss America officials resigned after leaked emails revealed the abuse of former winners. One email, in reference to the former titleholders, stated, “You don’t need them. They need you. We also have to punish them when they don’t appreciate what we do for them.” This email reveals the problematic power dynamic between contestants and winners and the officials who oversee them; on the one hand are wealthy, powerful male officials, and on the other, vulnerable women under their direct control.

The potential for abuse grows even more concerning when considering America’s affinity for pageants for toddlers and babies. Young girls and toddlers are paraded around a stage for a paying audience in bedazzled and sexualized attire, permitting a culture where the commercial sexual exploitation of young girls can easily take root.

Despite attempts at reform, the pageant industry has a long road ahead before pageant contestants are safe from commercial sexual exploitation. Dark saints, industry executives, power dynamics, and impossible beauty standards all add to the mounting pressures on young women and girls as they attempt to navigate the pageant world. As more and more instances of abuse in the pageant system arise in Venezuela and similarly situated countries, these occurrences serve as a warning to the United States that in the pageant industry, a space for the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls is emerging.

Unfortunately, heavy is the head that wears the crown, but heavier is the hand that puts it there in places of pageant popularity like Venezuela and the United States. And until something is done to remove commercial sexual exploitation from the equation, the pageant world will not be safe for women.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Julia Snyder on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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