Their smiles may captivate the audience, but beauty alone won't be enough to win the crown at this year's Miss World competition in London on Sunday.
"Beauty with a Purpose" is what the Miss World organizers say is at the heart of the competition. That's the portion of the contest in which each contestant is judged on the impact she makes working with nonprofits, or starting her own, in the poorer parts of the world.
Skeptics may scoff. After all, competitions like Miss World and Miss Universe have long come under fire for being superficial and for promoting outdated images of women. But between the sparkly gowns, talent shows and controversial swimsuit competitions, global issues can get a global stage — even if just for a few minutes.
"The good thing about those pageants is they seek to reinforce the traditional values of looking out for your neighbors and for those in need," says Mike Kiernan, director of advocacy and public affairs for the nonprofit Save the Children. "They probably will make a difference at least in raising awareness."
That is, if the winner stays committed to her cause. "It's interesting because you might think that getting a crown would lead to a self-absorbed time in one's life," Gabriela Isler, the 2013 Miss Universe, wrote in an email. "In reality, most of the year is spent focusing on people in need."
The 26-year-old Venezuelan has been working with Cordaid, an international development organization, to raise funds for people in the Philippines who were hit by Typhoon Haiyan last year. Their latest efforts focus on helping people recover from this month's Typhoon Hagupit.
National title holders also support a variety of causes. Miss Uganda might get a wake-up call at 6 a.m. to speak out on subjects like maternal care and HIV prevention in different parts of the country, says Brenda Nanyongo, organizer of the country's beauty competition. "Mobilize and fund-raise to get people the proper health care or proper medical care — those are the things that a typical beauty queen would do."
To this year's Miss World competitors, Nanyonjo has one piece of advice: "Don't give the usual cliché answers like 'Oh, I want to help the orphans,'" she says. "No, no, no — say something that's truthful."
"A pretty face is not enough," she adds. "When you open your mouth and you don't make an impact or you don't make sense, then [the crown] is useless."
It's not all about getting dressed up and appearing on TV. "If those are the reasons you sign up [for these competitions]," Nanyonjo says, "you're in the wrong place."
If you'd like to preview some of the causes championed by this year's Miss World contestants, here's a sampling.
Miss Philippines Valerie Weigmann: Helping the indigenous community through street music.
Miss Bolivia Andrea Forfori Aguilera: Caring for children behind bars
Miss Tanzania Happiness Watimanya : Reproductive health among adolescent girls