NAIROBI, KENYA — The Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi is flooded with lights and music.
Women in long, shimmering gowns and men in starched black ties swirl around the buffet eyeing the monumental display of food laid out on silver platters.
Waiters wearing white gloves shuffle discreetly among the approximately 400 guests summoned here by M-Net, Africa's largest satellite provider and the sponsor of the search for the Face of Africa.
In the luxurious setting of one of this city's finest hotels, 12 women will soon parade down the catwalk. At the end of the show, three will be chosen to represent East Africa in the Face of Africa contest to be held in Zimbabwe next December.
The winner will be awarded a $150,000 contract with the world's largest modeling agency, Elite, and could make much more in fashion shoots and ads.
But some African reporters wonder whether the contest is a form of cultural appreciation or Western cultural imperialism.
One attendee exemplifies the question.
"It's every girl's dream," sighs Madi, a young woman in skin-tight black dress and pearls. "You walk to school in the mud one day and the next you are ... in New York." Madi has heard about the competition but didn't bother sending in a photograph because, she says, "I'm too short and, you know, fat."
Nowhere near being fat, Madi is what most people in this continent would in fact describe as a quintessential African beauty: flawless skin, sparkling almond shaped eyes, and full lips. "I've seen those girls," she says. "They make me feel like a fat duck. So let me go check what's on the buffet." Her walk across the room is closely monitored, the male contingent brazen in its appreciation.
As the guests take their seats around the catwalk, a pre-recorded video from the organizers of the modeling contest explains that the need to locate "new faces to feed into the network" has "turned the fashion industry's attention to Africa." "We want to tap into the phenomenal reserve of beauty and talent this continent has to offer," croons the beaming South African presenter. "We want to bring African beauty into the world."
The lights dim and the women come streaming out: five Kenyans, four Ugandans, two Ethiopians, and a solitary representative of Tanzanian beauty.
Hovering at an average height of 5 foot 10 inches, they stride belligerently down the catwalk. Only two, however, have mastered the art of catwalking: Lia Tafesse, a light-skinned, angular Ethiopian, and Emma Too, a dark, sinewy Kenyan. Both are favorites to win, but, as one spectator put it, Ms. Tafesse is "a bit too white" to be a symbol of African beauty.
And in fact, when the five judges render their verdict after a two-hour show with frequent interruptions from the "Safari Cats" - energetic dancers sporting loincloths - Ms. Tafesse does not figure among the winners. Emma Too does, along with Kenyan Bidania Barassa and Ugandan Hadjah Bushirah.
Dragged upstairs to face questions from reporters, the three finalists sit demurely next to Hubert Woroniecki, a manager with the modeling agency Elite, and Scott (Jan) Malan, the South African producer of "Front Row," one of M-Net's programs, and the Face of Africa competition.
When the women are asked about their role models, "Naomi" is their unanimous reply - supermodel Naomi Campbell.
Then unexpectedly, Ms. Bushirah becomes the cause of some commotion by confessing she was ordered to lose "some weight." The journalists, mostly from East African publications, pounce on that immediately. "How much weight?" she is asked. Bushirah glances nervously around her. "A few pounds," she whispers.
The atmosphere grows tense, with journalists demanding to know why Bushirah was made to comply to essentially un-African standards of beauty in a contest whose declared objective was to "bring African beauty into the world."
The stage is set for a jumpy confrontation between the journalists and the two white men, both of whom suddenly have been stripped of their standing as benevolent patrons of "African development." The stand-off is instantly recognized for what it is: an allegory for yet another imposition, another violation of the ravaged continent on the part of Western powers.
Mr. Malan, the producer, bares his teeth at the onslaught, declaring that "when the fashion industry will settle for short and fat, we'll give them short and fat." Right now, he growls, "short and fat will get you nowhere in New York, whether you like it or not. "
The journalists don't like it. A few of them leave the room fuming. Others try to bring the message home, ignoring a muted attempt by an alarmed Miss Too to reconcile the two fronts.
In the end, the subject is dropped with much strained display of cheeriness on the part of the organizers. In the end, the three women will travel to Zimbabwe hoping to become the Face of Africa.