Are beauty pageants becoming more humane?

Sunday night's mixup at the Miss Universe pageant gave two contestants the opportunity to display grace during a very awkward moment.

John Locher/AP
From left, Miss USA Olivia Jordan, Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez, and Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach react as they make the final three at the Miss Universe pageant Sunday, in Las Vegas.

Sunday night's mixup at the Miss Universe pageant will go down as one beauty pageantry's most memorable gaffes, but it should also be remembered for its moments of kindness.

In announcing the pageant's winner, host Steve Harvey misread the cue card, mistakenly crowning Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutiérrez Arévalo, as Miss Universe. He then reappeared on stage to announce his error, and the crown was then transferred to the actual winner, Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach.

But anyone hoping for a "mean girls" moment would have been sorely disappointed. While an apology was expected to come from the mortified emcee, some may have been surprised to also hear the newly crowned winner make a heartfelt apology of her own.

“I do apologize for what happened,” said Ms. Wurtzbach who has continued to humble herself and apologized for Harvey’s error in the same press session. “With what happened, again, I am very sorry.”

The Twitterverse resonded with praise and sympathy for the contestants.

The grace displayed by the two women stands in sharp contrast to the words of another beauty pageant contestant, Destiny Veléz, also known as Miss Puerto Rico, who faced an indefinite suspension for posting verbal attacks against Muslims on Twitter. In announcing Ms. Veléz's suspension, the pageant's organizers said "her words do not represent the integrity and esteem of our program." Veléz subsequently apologized.

Hilary Levey Friedman, who teaches a course on beauty pageants in American Society at Brown University and is the author of "Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture," notes that social media has quickened the response time between gaffe and consequence.

“The Miss Puerto Rico America situation is clearly a situation where the power of today's instantaneous media – and social media – result in swift decisions when someone says or does something thought to be counter to the image of a pageant titleholder," says Prof. Friedman "Because the results are both so fast and reach so many at once, the lag time between a (mis)deed and a dethroning is much more rapid.”

Friedman, whose mother was Miss America 1970, says that while it has historically been the Miss America Pageant that has been more focused on the inner beauty as well as the outer beauty, “within the past half-decade Miss USA, which is owned by Miss Universe, has been making an effort to be more about the inner beauty, they’re doing more service, their global platform is HIV/AIDS.”

Some of the shift in tone in the Miss Universe contest, says Friedman, has to do with the pageant's attempts to distance itself from its previous owner, Donald Trump. But she says the shift may have begun almost a decade ago, when the reigning Miss USA, Tara Conner, made headlines for underage drinking and drug use.

But Mr. Trump, who is not known for being reluctant to fire people, did not ask Ms. Conner to return her crown. Instead, Mr. Trump, whose brother, Fred, died from alcoholism in 1981, sent Conner to rehab. "I've always been a believer in second chances," he said at the time.

"I think this is part of a larger shift in how we view cultural icons and cultural heroes than just how Miss America and Miss USA are viewed,” says Friedman.

The message of Miss USA this past year has been “You’re perfectly imperfect,” which Prof. Friedman says is due in large part to presidential candidate Trump’s negative influence on the brand.

“I think that captures the sort of shift they’re trying to make,” she says. “The basis of all of these events is there is a minimum bar for how you have to look to be in a pageant. Just like there’s a height requirement for the NBA, but even there we see the real heroes are not always those on the field but the ones who care and give back.”

Friedman says that the grace with which both Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines handled the debacle “can only further that shift especially if they are able to parlay that into some sort of issue over the course of the year into being a winner or a loser and what that means.”

“Miss Philippines and Miss Colombia displayed grace under pressure in an unexpected and unprecedented situation,” says Friedman. “What happens in the next few days will show what may or may not have occurred behind the scenes. For better or for worse both contestants, along with emcee Harvey, will live on in social media infamy.”

Donald Trump’s ugly rants, Steve Harvey mistakenly crowning the wrong Miss Universe, and Miss Puerto Rico's anti-Muslim Twitter rants are giant steps the pageant world is taking down a pitted runway toward an improved inner beauty standard.

The social media multiverse gets First Runner Up for its ability to instantly unleash policy-shaping wrath on pageant sponsors, Mr. Trump, Mr. Harvey and on Miss America Contestant Miss Puerto Rico, Destiny Velez, who has been suspended indefinitely for her series of anti-Muslim tweets.

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