Miss Universe Ireland 2019: Beauty queens for the #MeToo generation
From feminism to STEM, this year's Miss Universe Ireland contestants have a lot to say and will use the pageant to be heard, writes Tanya Sweeney
To some, Miss Ireland is a vacuous beauty pageant where brains and talent don't matter as much as bikinis and lovely bottoms.
Yet for others, the competition is much more than that. Miss Universe Ireland organiser Brittany Mason, formerly a Miss Indiana, even credits the event with saving her life.
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"I didn't come from a good home life and this took me out of my little home and town of 369 people and showed me the world," she says. "It taught me life skills, showed me how to pull myself up by my bootstraps and take control of my life."
Besides, try telling this year's finalists that it's just a pretty girl parade: this year's the group contains a NASA datanaut, trainee solicitor, oncologist, social worker, rugby player, and quantity surveyor among their numbers.Speak to any of them about their reasons for applying for Miss Ireland and some intriguing phrases keep coming around time and time again: 'message', 'platform', 'respect' and 'change'. Contrary to widely held opinion, swimsuits don't really come into it.
Fionnghuala O'Reilly is currently living in Swords. The NASA datanaut's big passion in life is highlighting STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education among young girls, and making engineering roles more accessible to women.
"One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in the competition is that it's a great platform to put a spotlight on important issues," Fionnghuala says. "I'm so happy to represent Ireland as Ireland has been doing amazing things lately. We have young change-makers making their voices heard - our country is so small and so impactful."
Malahide native Ciara Mulligan is equally ambitious, working with one of the biggest law firms in the country. A trainee solicitor at Matheson, the 22-year-old has always had an interest in 'standing up for what's right and wrong'.
"Here, you're representing Ireland and I have my own platform to highlight the protection of young people and children from domestic abuse. I want to get across to people that no matter what you go through and what your circumstances are in life, you can come out on top," she says.
London-based quantity surveyor Dearbhla Walsh (26) wants to focus on charity work and raising the profile of women working in construction.
"There aren't enough females in the sector, and I fell into the business, so I always think, 'Why wasn't I interested in it when I was younger?'" she notes. "It was because I didn't think it was a business open to me. I'd love to have a voice on the issue and pageantry gives you a voice."
There's no doubt that this year's cache of contestants are passionate, accomplished, worldly and altruistic women. They're versed in identity politics, the workings of #MeToo and feminism. What's more, they are fully convinced that they can champion their causes, and female diversity in general, using Miss Universe Ireland as a conduit.
Yet it begs the question: why is the 'pretty girls in swimsuit' element of Miss Universe still one of the first things that springs to people's mind?
"Whenever I talk about Miss Universe Ireland, people will always have the opinion that it's just a pretty girl or modelling competition where you are judged first and foremost on your looks," agrees Dearbhla. "There's so much more to it than that. These women are all extremely intelligent and driven. You're out and about, meeting so many people and honing your interview skills. You get a lot out of it."
Of the bikini element of the pageant, Ciara observes: "If you think it's just girls walking up and down a catwalk in bikinis, perhaps it's time to think about how it shows how determined, healthy and dedicated these women are. I spend five days a week in the gym - you have to be seriously motivated and determined to put your best foot forward."
The contestants are aware of, though clearly bored with, the conceit that pageants are a shallow, retrograde blight on feminism.
Fionnghuala notes: "If you're a supporter of women, you're a supporter of all women, including women who want to get up on stage and show their best self to the world."
As a biracial contestant, Fionnghuala also observes that Miss Universe embraces female diversity more than some might believe.
"There have been contestants that have worn burkinis, and have different religious backgrounds," she reveals. "Others have overcome disabilities. I've seen contestants with natural Afros, with tattoos - they come from every background and it's something to be celebrated. Last year's Miss Spain (Angela Ponce) was a transgender woman."
Brittany, too, has noted that various body types are celebrated via the platform, citing the success of 2016's Miss Canada, Siera Bearchell: "We had a very beautiful, very curvy girl in our original top 30 (in Ireland), and I'm sad that she wasn't able to continue in the competition as she was in law school and needed to focus on university," she explains. "The idea that Miss Universe women have to be a certain size is absolutely untrue."
Brittany took over the license for Miss Universe Ireland in 2017, and has noted that the competition is still working to shrug off its 'pretty model' image. Much of that came from Donald Trump's involvement in the competition: he bought the pageant in 1996 from ITT Corp and remained co-owner of the competition until 2015. During his tenure, Roz Purcell entered the Miss Universe competition as Miss Universe Ireland in 2010, and noted that the now-US president made 'weird' comments about her looks.
Brittany points out that the competition is now owned by women: "(His involvement) perpetuated the idea that it was just about pretty girls," Brittany says, choosing her words carefully. "But look at the way society is changing and through the #MeToo movement we are talking about the right kind of issues. Breaking away from Trump was the best thing to happen. It's built on empowering women and it's what the organisation has always been about. We wear sashes, and that's a nod to the women's suffrage movement."
The winner of the Miss Universe competition, which will be held later this year, is assigned a one-year contract with the Miss Universe Organisation, going overseas to spread messages about the control of diseases, peace, and public awareness of AIDS. Aside from the job, the winner also receives a cash allowance for her entire reign, a New York Film Academy scholarship, a modelling portfolio, beauty products, clothes, shoes, as well as styling, healthcare, and fitness services by different sponsors of the pageant. She also gains exclusive access to events such as fashion shows and opening galas, as well as access to casting calls and modelling opportunities throughout New York City. The winner is also given the use of an apartment in New York City during her reign.
Closer to home, the winning Miss Universe Ireland contestant also has much to look forward to: "It's a lot of long hours and long days working across different times zones, and there's a lot of responsibility that comes with it. But the winner gets wardrobe, hair, makeup, media training and career management," reveals Brittany. "We sit her down the moment she is crowned and ask, 'What would you like to accomplish?'"
Last year's winner, Donegal nurse Gráinne Gallanagh, had hoped to raise awareness about women's health and bodily awareness. She admitted to loving the 'girly' camaraderie and swimsuit section of the experience, and has recently broken into modelling as a bonus.
"She has just become the first Miss Universe Ireland to walk in Miami Swim Week, and has signed with an agency in London, gotten modelling jobs in Germany and worked with Sports Illustrated," reveals Brittany.
Which of course begs the question: is the chance to raise awareness of social issues the main draw to Miss Universe Ireland, or does the opportunity to create a modelling career or media profile hold more appeal?
"To be honest, the profile thing or the social media thing doesn't really interest me," admits Dearbhla. "I'm not doing this for that kind of attention."
"Of course a lot of women want to model or break into entertainment, but similarly a lot of them want to break into politics," adds Brittany. "They want to raise the status of their current careers as well. But given that the show is watched by half a billion people worldwide, you can't get any more incredible a platform than that."
Miss Universe Ireland will be held on August 1 in Dublin's Mansion House. For information see missuniverseirleand.eu