Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Miss USA Lebanese-American Rima Fakih


And you thought beauty queens' infighting was fierce. No pageant managed by The Donald would be complete without its own outbreak of culture war.

Last year, of course, there was Miss USA's great Carrie Prejean controversy — when the reigning Miss California upheld marriage as an exclusively heterosexual insitution after celebrity blogger Perez Hilton asked about gay matrimony. (That dustup was eventually overtaken by Prejean's own naughty-photo scandal, which Donald Trump himself eventually arbitrated.)

This week, Lebanese-American immigrant Rima Fakih of Michigan was crowned Miss USA — maybe the first contestant of Arab or Muslim background to win, though the pageant's records are incomplete.

There were, of course, the usual day-after revelations about the new titlist's past media exploits: pictures from a 2007 pole-dancing competition and an appearance in a salaciously titled independent video production. But she remained fully clothed in both outings. In fact, the most provocative photos that have surfaced of her seem to be the official lingerie shots taken under the auspices of the pageant.

Instead, the highest decibels have been reserved for her Muslim Arab background (though the contestant herself has spoken little about religious matters, stressing that her family observes both Muslim and Christian holidays).

Daniel Pipes, who publishes a right-leaning blog on Middle Eastern affairs, pointed to a "surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants." While allowing that "they are all attractive" — Pipes, a former board member of the U.S. Institute for Peace, posted pictures of several — he said that their victories "make me suspect an odd form of affirmative action."

Pipes didn't theorize how shadowy beauty-pageant fixers might be greasing the skids for contestants — but other political bloggers were happy to advance more heated pronouncements.

"Miss Hezbollah is now Miss USA," declared conservative radio talk show host Debbie Schlussel, saying that Fakih's relatives in Lebanon had ties to the terrorist organization based there. Schlussel also said Fakih received some financial backing from onetime Hezbollah supporter Imad Hamad — or, as Schlussel put it, Fakih's "bid for the pageant was financed by an Islamic terrorist." Suggesting the pageant was "rigged," Schlussel wrote off Fakih's victory to a "politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate."

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin saw a conspiracy afoot, too — generic rather than Muslim-specific this time. Malkin mocked Fakih as a "gaffetastic" contestant who tripped over her gown as well as over her answer to a question about birth control — exposing Fakih's ignorance, Malkin argued, about what constitutes a "controlled substance" and what the purpose of health care is. "Looks like the Miss USA pageant didn't want to risk the wrath of the open-borders mob," Malkin said.

Immigration was in fact another flashpoint of political controversy over the contest. Runner-up Morgan Elizabeth Woolard of Oklahoma was asked for her views on Arizona's recent immigration law, a question that drew boos from the crowd before the judge — actor Oscar Nunez of "The Office" — could even finish getting it out.

When he did deliver the question, asking whether immigration enforcement "should be mandated by the state or by the federal government," Woolard replied that she was "a huge believer in states' rights," then added: "I think it's perfectly fine for Arizona to create that law, and I'm against illegal immigration. But I'm also against racial profiling, so I see both sides in this issue." You can watch the exchange here:

"Fox & Friends" host Gretchen Carlson (herself a former Miss America) suggested that perhaps Woolard's conservative-leaning "informed opinion" was enough for the judges to exercise political correctness and award the crown to Fakih over a blonde from Oklahoma.

Foreign commentators, meanwhile, have seized on the whole Miss USA episode as a prime example of (as the Guardian's Richard Adams calls it) "America's weirdness." You might look at Fakih's victory as a certain kind of "triumph" of the West, the Spectator's Alex Massie says, representing "a form of emancipation or at least cultural assimilation that might be thought useful (in as much as such contests can ever be considered useful)."

Yahoo! News asked 1996 Miss USA winner Ali Landry what she thinks about it all. She says she's sorry to see the pageant's sharp turn into public controversy, though she adds that she's "very grateful" for the opportunities that accompanied the title.

She stresses that the pageant has amped up its political and cultural visibility under Trump's stewardship.

"Back when I competed, Trump had not purchased it yet, and it was very tame and the questions were very general," Landry said. "But now it's all about the ratings. So you have 17-, 18-, 19-year-old girls who haven't lived their lives yet, who don't have much life experience, being asked to form strong opinions about things."

Landry, who now works frequently as an actress and recently launched a line of children's clothes, also conceded that even before the Trump era, the Miss USA pageant always came with lots of pressure to generate media attention.

"You have to remember, it's a business first and foremost," she said. "So I think that the controversy, whatever shape or form it's in and no matter whose expense it's at, that's ultimately good for them from a business perspective if the pageant's in the news and if they're getting good ratings."

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