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By Saphia Khambalia

About three months ago, when Miss USA 2006 was amid reports of cocaine use and Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Ritchie’s stint in rehab was just ending, I was invited to a city dinner meeting for local influential women because I volunteered for one of the organizations that planned the event. The master of ceremony’s message throughout was to the point: Young women need to get some positive role models in the media and fast.

“To say that Britney Spears needs more publicity about her sex life is to say that McDonald’s needs to advertise more,” she said sarcastically. “What kind of image are we setting for the women of tomorrow?”

She walked behind my chair. “Now, there’s one young woman in attendance that I’m not too worried about,” she said. “She’s only 20 and she has a career drive that makes even me tired. Please welcome Saphia Khambalia. Tell us, what new project are you embarking on now?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “I actually just entered a beauty pageant.”

A few of the women smirked, but for the most part they all just stared blankly at me.

I stood up in front of the crowd of disapproving women and explained my case. Since landing a spot in the top 30 for the 2007 Miss World Canada Pageant I have become a more polished, intellectual and media-savvy woman. The experience has been incredibly career-enforcing, I said.

Most of the women nodded and went back to their dinners. However, a few weren’t satisfied with my answer. How could I possibly believe all that nonsense about beauty pageants being good for my career, one woman asked me. How could I not see that beauty pageants should be extinct? How dare I call myself a feminist?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this reaction over the last few months since I decided to run in the Miss World Canada. The term “beauty queen” rarely illicits any thought other than a “starry-eyed bimbo” in a ball gown. Sure, any pretty girl can be photogenic — but a beauty queen has to have something more. I’ve exercised my brain in preparation for this contest more than any workout at the gym.

After beating out 200 other girls from across the country in rounds of casting calls and interviews, I secured my spot as one of 30 national contestants. There was no turning back. I kept busy around my community soliciting sponsors and advertisers for financial support (running in a pageant is a big business). After months of writing letters, making phone calls and meetings with politicians and members of the community, I had secured more than $3,000 — half of which went straight to the $1,500 entrance fee for the pageant itself.

Then came the barrage of print and television interviews when local media got wind of what I had been up to. The Stoney Creek News, Hamilton Spectator, Grimsby Lincoln News, Niagara This Week and Cable 14 all wanted to know what it was like to run in a beauty pageant. I told them all that I didn’t want to be a stereotypical beauty queen.

All of my time is consumed by the aesthetics of the business: appointments with make-up artists, photo shoots, stylists, dentists, estheticians, dress designers and wardrobe planners. All the while I’ve been attending awards ceremonies and city hall meetings where local dignitaries have had me speak about my experiences. Not to mention perfecting the piano solo I will be performing, hitting the gym and preparing for the interview portion. Did I mention I’m still a full-time student? I definitely wasn’t prepared for all this when I signed up.

So what about the claim that pageants are old-fashioned and patriarchal? In my opinion, all the things that I have been doing have taken an ambitious, intelligent and driven attitude — very far from the ball gown-clad Barbie doll some assume a model to be. It’s true, parading around in a bikini and heels is objectifying. But no more than the risqué Victoria’s Secret models or the scantily-clad celebs we see flaunted on covers at every magazine rack.

Is it possible to say that maybe beauty pageants have been ahead of their time? Realistically, we are judged primarily on how we look, how gracious we can be and how “adaptable” we are to the people around us, before we are judged on our abilities. Beauty pageants have accepted and embraced this mentality for years.

Moreover, winners have to display their intelligence in front of national audiences while not being offensive yet not sounding weak, vague, or lacking in courage or compassion. Few prime ministers manage to accomplish this feat, but it must be admitted that most beauty queens do.

Pageant winners continue to become lawyers, politicians, corporate executives and journalists, due to the practice they get at dealing with the public. There are countless success stories: Halle Berry, former CBC president Carole Taylor and Vanessa Williams have all made names for themselves after their pageant reigns.

In that sense, maybe the pageant system is a very realistic reflection of the paragon for today’s woman. And maybe the pageant is far less at fault for training women to fit this standard than the public in the outside world is in expecting it of women in the first place.

Dare I even go so far as to say that running in a beauty pageant has made me more of a feminist?

Alas, the beauty pageant does have its weaknesses. There are always the girls that make it to the top who are straight out of the plastic mold — still clinging to clichés like ‘creating world peace’ or ‘ending world hunger.’ But that’s not why I’m in this. I am standing my ground and taking on the pageant world full-force, all in the hopes of becoming a stronger, polished, confident and even more empowered woman.

I want to make sure that I am the Miss World Canada that is not just making a few mall appearances, signing autographs across the country. I have a voice and I plan to use it. Young women may one day come to see the position of a ‘beauty queen’ as more than just smiling for a camera. And hopefully this year and for years to come, beauty pageants will stamp out those stereotypes. They have the potential to be very good, positive programs for all women. Now all we have to do is work on the Ms. Spears and Ms. Lohans of the world.

To vote Saphia to become the next Miss Canada World, go to and click on contestants.

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