Elham Wagdi first walked into the small Miss Egypt office in Cairo in 2006 in dirty jeans and with paint in her hair. She had come directly from her university art class, not knowing what to expect. There were about 100 girls in 5-inch heels and sequined dresses in every corner of the space, practicing for their audition to become the next Miss Egypt, and hopefully, the next Miss Universe.
She overheard two girls advising each other on what to say. “Just tell him, ‘I want world peace,’” Wagdi remembered the girl telling her nervous friend. At that moment, she had a feeling she would not make it through to the next phase — she had just told the panel she was not interested in fame or even winning, but just wanted to try something new.
As it turns out, Youssef Spahi, who has been running the organization since 1998, was not looking for cookie-cutter answers.
“Beauty pageants are not only criticized in Egypt,” he said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “Even in Italy, they criticize it because they see it as shallow. Especially for us, in the Arab world, it’s important that our girls go and change the image. Everyone thinks we have veiled women and they don’t study. I believe the beauty pageant is a very good way to change this image about women in the Middle East.”
As the battle between Islamists and secularists rages on in Egypt, with cultural institutions like opera and cinema being targeted, one of the lesser-known events that has been put on hold is the Miss Egypt pageant. Spahi, who was a model himself and owns an agency, had to skip entering Egypt into the Miss Universe pageant in 2012, and after the coup in July and the ensuing violence, he has, not surprisingly, had to abstain again this year. Until recently, he still had planned to send one of the contestants from earlier years, even if he was not able to put on a pageant in the country. That backup plan turned out to be unfeasible, but Spahi is already thinking forward to 2014.
“Right now in Egypt, we are on shaky ground, so it’s hard to sponsor anything these days,” he said.
While Egypt has a long history of creating beauty aesthetics from ancient times, and even won the Miss World contest in 1954, Spahi and Wagdi both acknowledge that the pageant is pretty low-profile in modern-day Egypt, although its presence had been increasing before the revolution.
“People are not very interested in pageants in Egypt, they’re interested in football [soccer],” Spahi said. “I wanted to change the image.”
After he took over the pageant from an American woman in 1998, he began to raise the pageant’s profile by inviting international contestants to Egypt and planning press events. He devised ways to accommodate conservative cultures.
“It was the first time that we did the swimsuits on stage,” he remembers of the early years. “To balance it, we used a sarong, so it looked like a one-piece swimsuit with a mini-skirt, just to see the fitness of the girls.” Still, he admits that whether Muslim or not, many of the girls do not have the blessing of family members or simply don’t grasp the idea of the competition.
Beauty pageants aren’t well-oiled machines that are a deep-seated part of the culture like they are in countries like Colombia, Venezuela and the United States. For the very same reason, Spahi sometimes finds it difficult to find sponsors, although Pantene, Haagen-Dazs and Diet Pepsi have all supported the pageant for short stints.
Wagdi, who was Miss Egypt 2009, learned the hard way when she went overseas for her first competition. She went to breakfast in jeans and sneakers only to find the women in cocktail dresses and full faces of makeup. “I forgot I was a beauty queen,” she said. She went to the room of her friend Alexandra Braun, the 2005 Miss Venezuela runner-up. "I was shocked. She had seven huge bags for clothes, two for shoes and one for makeup and accessories. … Every outfit she had was inside a transparent bag and there was a small pin with an earring and hair pin and hand accessories and pictures with the shoes that showed how it’s supposed to be done. And I said ‘Wow, there is a lot of effort here!’”
Spahi has a trainer and a designer and he tries to prepare the women for what to expect. He even sponsors the pageant himself when he can’t get corporate backing. What the pageant really does for these women is pull them out of obscurity and onto international runways, into the glossy magazines and eventually to projects of their choosing.
Hoda Abboud was the first Miss Egypt after the contest fell off the grid for many decades, winning the title in 1986. She went on to model, act and travel and in 1990 started work as the public relations manager and in talent development for the Alexandria Opera House. “I love what I do because I believe that art is the real measure of how much a country is developed,” she told Al-Monitor. “I think that Egypt is on the right track for a free and democratic Egypt. Egyptians are against terrorism and we will keep fighting it till Egypt becomes a great country as it has always been.”
Wagdi has walked and posed for global brands like Dolce Gabbana, Moschillo, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Elie Saab. She even refused a year in the United States with Armani because she was not ready to leave home for such an extended period.
She hosts a talk show on MBC, where she discusses women’s issues in addition to other topics. “I almost traveled all over the world. I don’t think this chance would ever happen if I worked in any [other] kind of field or domain. [I have] a voice and the right to speak loudly as an Egyptian woman on a popular channel in the world,” she said.
One of her bolder moves as a single woman is that she lives alone in a country where women more often than not live with their parents until they are married. “You have no idea how much it took to convince my family to [let me] do that. If I am not living my thoughts, how can I send it to others? Even if I get a bad reputation.”