Along the arid southern coast of Peru, near the expansive vineyards of Ica, they are put to work trampling grapes in large wooden vats.
In the humid high jungles of the east, they are interrogated with probing questions about the future of the Amazon, about the brutal stripping of the natural environment in the quest for lumber, gold and oil.
In the cold altitudes of the Andean highlands, they walk in nothing but bikinis through the chill night air, camera flashes bursting across the stage like muzzle flashes.
These are the would-be beauty queens of Peru, a rare breed who brave the verbal and ocular inquisition of peers and judges in the quest for national and global stardom.
These are the beauty pageants of Peru, where hopefuls battle for titles such as Miss Tarapoto or Miss Ica or Miss Piura, where the newly crowned queens win the right to compete for Miss Peru and one-day, just maybe, Miss World….
“Hey Man, Let’s Go Watch a Beauty Pageant”
When I enthusiastically suggest going to a local beauty pageant, I normally receive some strange looks. “Why? Why, the hell would we want to go to a beauty pageant? We never do that back home, why would we do that in Peru?”
It’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. I’ve never been to a beauty contest back home in the UK. I’ve never even considered going to one in the UK and I probably never will.
But ever since I went to my first beauty pageant in Tarapoto, Peru, I’ve been hooked. Some would perhaps think this a dirty, secretive addiction, one of voyeuristic pleasures, sly photography and lonely thoughts.
Oh, no, I tell you. I go to beauty pageants in Peru because they are kind of stupid, frequently funny and perfectly eccentric in a wonderfully Peruvian way.
Saving the Amazon One Smile at a Time
Beauty pageants, wherever they are staged, are inherently strange. They involve the judging of perceived female beauty to some spurious but widely accepted standard, with a few stupid questions thrown in to make it oh-so-clear that this is more about the mind than the body. Sure.
When you throw some typically Peruvian touches into all this, the result is a heady and often bizarre mix.
Peruvian beauty contests — at least the regional ones — normally start late and end late and things don’t always go as planned. Musical interludes sometimes fall flat. Microphones fail. No one applauds. And the event organizers play English-language pop songs that, unbeknown to them, are riddled with expletives.
It’s not unheard of, for example, to see a bright-eyed young beauty queen walking the stage to the sound of Eamon singing “f*ck you, you ho, I don’t want you back.”
The contestants are always asked ridiculously broad or overly weighty questions concerning, for example, methods for increasing tourism in the region, saving the jungle from illegal logging, or how best to promote Peruvian cuisine to the global market.
Hand on hip, smile fixed, the contestants try to answer as best they can: a well-rehearsed scene that nonetheless remains tense, with any stutter or stumble magnified to a frightening degree. The slightest falter in tone or cadence — or worse, a completely forgotten response — is enough to break that forced smile just for a moment, sending a ripple of apprehension from contestant to crowd.
It’s fairly random to write about Peruvian beauty contests on a blog about backpacking, I know. But I honestly think I could write a book about the myriad ways that these contests mirror certain aspects of Peruvian society. I could, but no one in their right mind would buy it, let alone read it.
So I’ll leave you with this final recommendation: if you get the chance to see a beauty pageant in Peru — ideally something regional rather than a big Lima event — go for it. They are fun, they can be funny and at times farcical, and you just might end up having a new-found respect for these beaming Peruvian beauties.
I know I do.