Decades from now, future generations may very well ask where you were this past weekend. Protestors flooded airport terminals demanding justice for detainees. Lawyers raced to challenge the Trump administration’s “totally not a Muslim ban” Muslim ban. Our strange-haired, tiny-fisted commander in chief enjoyed an afternoon of the arts, via a White House screening of the animated film Finding Dory. And I spent three hours watching Trump apologist Steve Harvey officiate a beauty pageant in the Philippines.
When history books write about January 2017, they will not mention Miss Universe 2016. While quite possibly more diverse than the Women’s March on Washington, this assemblage of 86 women did not make any inflammatory statements or sartorial allusions to their genitalia. Instead, the search for the next representative of the entire planet-plus-galaxy featured an incompetent host, some very well-meaning contestants, and a performance by Boyz II Men. Still, circling the edge of the abyss makes one appreciate even the most mediocre content. If this great American experiment implodes in the next few weeks, at least I’ll go out knowing how Miss France makes her favorite beef bourguignon.
Of course, the nascent Trump era demands an explanation of the current President’s pageant past.
Back when he was just an amateur pussy-grabber and semi-successful businessman, The Donald made the not-at-all-creepy decision to scoop up the Miss Universe Organization, which includes Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. Trump quickly proved himself to be an utter menace. According to former Miss Arizona Tasha Dixon, “Our first introduction to him was when we were at the dress rehearsal and half-naked changing into our bikinis…he just came strolling right in.” In a 2005 Howard Stern interview, the future leader of the free world bragged about being “allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant.” He added, “You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.”
Trump also infamously bullied and body-shamed his first Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, calling the Latina contestant “Miss Housekeeping” and “Miss Piggy.” As Machado told The New York Times, “After that episode, I was sick, anorexia and bulimia for five years.” And while Trump ultimately sold the Miss Universe Organization in 2015, it remains the kind of production that only a Bloodsport-watching, easily amused reality TV show host could love.
This year’s Manila-based extravaganza opens on a Steve Harvey bit about last year’s humiliating performance. For those of you who don’t remember, Harvey somehow managed to make Miss Universe must-see television by mistakenly awarding the crown to the wrong contestant. After breaking a woman’s heart and confounding a worldwide audience, Harvey still got this hosting gig. Throughout the night, he will keep referencing last year’s gaffe. Apparently, once you get rid of all the racist ones, Steve Harvey only has one joke. Flo Rida ushers us into the next three hours of our lives with a medley. Welcome to Flo Rida’s house, the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, and welcome to the 65th annual Miss Universe competition!
The show is structured around runway walks and elimination sequences, which culminate in the crowning of Miss Universe. It’s stretched out with Steve Harvey “jokes” and flyover content. This year, the fast-forwardable video clips are evenly split between girl power montages and promotional material for the Philippines. In one memorable segment, a random handful of contestants debate whether they would tolerate a stay-at-home husband. Many of them are visibly disgusted by the notion. When one woman questions if this reaction betrays a double standard, an awkward silence threatens to bring this feminist consciousness-raising to an early end. Finally, they reach a compromise: husbands should occasionally do the dishes.
As our contestants take the stage in formal wear for the very first time, I can’t help but notice that one of them is wearing pants. Maybe Susan B. Anthony would watch the Miss Universe contest after all. We learn that one of the contestants is a microbiologist, and one is a former firefighter. Steve Harvey really looks like he’s making these jobs up, a la The Bachelor. Might we suggest aspiring nurse practitioner, or under-employed doula? He manages to successfully introduce the current Miss Universe and former Miss Philippines, Pia Wurtzbach, who proudly announces that she just signed with IMG. Wurtzbach thinks that, “It’s about time we put the Philippines back on the world stage.” Tragically, she seems to think that this Manila Miss Universe production will do just that.
A montage of bikini butts is interlaced with voiceovers, including one contestant’s dream of becoming her nation’s first female president. We learn that in light of preliminary interviews, the contestants will now be narrowed down to 12 women and one fan favorite. Steve Harvey insists that fans have cast 100 million votes online votes in 5 days, which smells like voter fraud. As he announces which contestants will advance to the next round, the victorious women approach the microphones and are asked deeply personal questions. Harvey informs Miss Kenya that she lost her parents at a very young age and waits for a response. Against a throbbing bass line, this poor woman struggles to articulate her reflections on mortality. Miss Indonesia is very tall, leading Steve Harvey to remark that Miss Indonesia is very tall. Miss Peru was in a horrible accident, and it took over two hours to pry her out of her car. At times, her doctors told her that she shouldn’t make the trip to Miss Universe. And yet, nobody told her that she shouldn’t wear short separates during a formal runway walk.
Miss Colombia tells Steve Harvey that a lot of people in her country hate him. Colombians: they’re just like us. Miss Canada is sporting a huge choker and the laid-back radiance of a woman who knows her country is being run by Justin Trudeau. Miss Brazil is the first black contestant from her country in over 30 years. Miss Haiti is on a research team that’s working to find a cure for blindness. She reminds the audience that, “It’s because of your eyes that you’re watching this incredible show tonight.”
Thankfully, model Ashley Graham is helping Harvey out with his hosting duties. She gushes that Miss Universe celebrates “so many different women of color…hair textures…” thankfully, she gets cut off before she has to summon another diversity metric. Graham interviews Miss Canada, and praises how the contestant has overcome body-shamers in the past. She concludes, “Now go get in your swimsuit.”
The famous swimsuit competition commences, as our contestants take to the stage to rip off their tiny sarongs. Mexico throws caution to the wind and adds an extra turn to her walk. We learn that Miss Panama works out thirty hours a week, and Miss Thailand works out three hours a day. Meanwhile, Steve Harvey can barely read his prompter, and he’s getting paid to be here. This might be a swimsuit runway, but the contestants continuously reassure us that Miss Universe is about more than BMI’s. It feels like whoever says “confidently beautiful” the most times over the course of the show goes home with a free blowout and a suitcase of XS sarongs. Due to a technical difficulty, Ashley Graham is forced to ad-lib and reverts to her sound bite about diverse hair textures. Miss Universe, if you ever want to have a host who isn’t Steve Harvey, you’re going to have to stop embarrassing Ashley Graham.
As the top nine are announced, we get a personalized video segment for each contestant as she moves forward. Here, we learn that Miss USA is a captain in the Army Reserve, Miss France is studying dentistry because she was so inspired by her childhood dentist, and glaucoma runs in Miss Haiti’s family. In an all-too-short segment, Harvey announces the winner of the off-camera “national costume” competition, otherwise known as the parade from The Hunger Games. Where was Lenny Kravitz when poor Myanmar was forced to walk the runway with a fully puppet theater (approximately 40 kilograms) on her back? In the immortal words of Miss Myanmar, “It’s too heavy and I really want to put it down.”
To usher in the evening gown segment, the women who have already been eliminated morosely circle the stage in their shiny dresses. Our contestants emerge in groups of threes, each more sparkly than the last. Apparently, Miss France’s gem-laden gown took nearly five months to make (was Karl Lagerfeld not available to craft this couture?). Miss Haiti is rocking a built-in choker, which always works for me. Miss Thailand looks amazing—seriously, Google this dress.
It’s quickly becoming apparent that the online votes mean nothing—they are announced, but seem to have no bearing on the judges’ decisions. R.I.P. the popular vote. Our top six are France, Kenya, Colombia, Philippines, Thailand, and Haiti. We quickly break for a Melania Trump panel on cyberbullying, in which some fallen contestants reassure one another of their inner beauty. And then, finally: the question round.
Not only are these questions cruel, but I’m 100% sure that Steve Harvey would not be able to answer a single one of them. Miss Philippines is asked to name a significant change she witnessed in the past decade. She chooses…people coming together over this year’s Miss Universe competition. Next, Miss Kenya is forced to weigh in on Trump—specifically, what about his presidency most excites her, and what concerns her. This could be a difficult question for an American, let alone a foreign contestant. Her answer is a nervous jumble; something about how “Donald Trump having been elected may not have been the choice of many people living in the United States,” followed by the controversial observation that he has managed to unify the nation. Miss Thailand comes on the heels of these alternative facts, and delivers an ode to the King of Thailand, insisting that, “For all the Thai people his majesty has been like a father to us.” It is strange. Next, Miss France is asked how she, in all of her infinite wisdom, would resolve the refugee crisis. She responds that, “countries should have the right to open or close their borders,” before launching into a semi-detailed discussion of France’s policies. Harvey halfheartedly summarizes the Women’s March, and asks Miss Haiti what she would have marched for. She says that she admires Eleanor Roosevelt, and thinks that human beings should respect one another. After all, she notes, there used to be six species of humans, and now there’s just the one. Unfortunately, Steve Harvey does not ask a follow-up. Last but not least, Miss Colombia has to speak to why “violence is so prevalent in today’s society.” She wants to educate the children.
The final three—Colombia, France, and Haiti—move on to the “final word” segment. They each have to answer the same question, which is to name something in their lives that they’ve failed at and learned from. The contestants have to wear noise-canceling headphones while their competition answers, so no one has an unfair advantage. Of course, headphone hair is unfair to everyone. Miss Colombia takes an abstract approach, and discuses how one might judge someone based on their sexual orientation, and how one could subsequently grow from that. Miss France recalls a time when she failed at a model casting, and then succeeded at a subsequent casting. Miss Haiti shares how she struggled in the wake of the earthquake, but eventually realized her dream. It’s unclear how/why Miss Haiti perceives a horrible natural disaster to be a personal failing.
Boyz II Men personally escort the final three across the stage while serenading them, and present each contestant with a red rose. Bachelor Nick is about to descend from the ceiling and try to take these girls on a group date to Milwaukee. The reigning Miss Universe does a victory lap to a voiceover about her HIV/AIDS awareness work and her eternal gratitude. Four more years of Pia! Colombia is quickly out of the running, leaving only France and Haiti. Harvey really milks the crowning, forcing the final two contestants to stare at one another, hand in hand, for what must have been a very long minute.
Finally, Harvey announces that the title will go to Miss France and her world famous beef bourguignon. Our new Miss Universe is quickly surrounded by her fallen sisters, while Steve Harvey is busy congratulating the real winner: Steve Harvey. “I’m Steve Harvey,” he exclaims as the camera lingers, “and I got it right!”