Q: Three of the last six Miss Universe pageants have been won by Miss Venezuela — what's in the water there? Are pageants a big part of their culture?
A: No, pageants aren't a big part of their culture. Pageants are a massive, huge, enormous part of their culture. In 2010, professor Belinda Edmondson of Rutgers University published an academic paper that pretty much summed it up: "In the beauty contest-obsessed societies of the Caribbean and Latin America, a contestant’s chances of winning a national pageant are directly related to the perception that she has a shot at winning an international beauty contest such as Miss World or Miss Universe."
In other words, in Latin America, beauty pageants serve much of the same hometown rah-rah function that football does in Texas, or basketball in Indiana.
"In the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the beauty pageant is the quintessential middlebrow cultural product," Edmondson writes, "a mix of cheesecake, social desire, commercial canniness, and Third World nationalist ambition. Its winners are frequently used as spokeswomen to promote state initiatives in farming or commerce.
"The beauty pageant, then, covers roughly the same terrain as the romance novel — social aspiration, nationalism, and pleasure."
As for Venezuela in particular, well, a source close to the Miss Universe organization puts it to me this way: "They take their pageants very seriously. It's a big deal, and a ton of girls compete. It's a different level of importance there, and they're fierce competitors."
Maria Gabriel Isler, the contest's new 25-year-old, half-Swiss champion climbed her way to the top of the Venezuelan circuit, while working as an anchor for a national TV network. Isler earned a bachelor's degree in marketing and seems to have specialized in presentation as an art form, having worked as a professional gift wrapper in her early life. She began her rise to Miss Universe winning the Miss Guarico prize — representing her home state — before winning the title of Miss Venuezla and finally the entire Universe.
Q: Which countries have produced the most Miss Universe winners?
A: Well, Isler marks the seventh Miss Universe to come out of Venezuela. But there's one country that has produced eight winners. Say it with me: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! (FYI: Puerto Rico, which sends its own delegate, has won five times.)
Q: Does every country have a Miss Universe contestant?
A: Nope. Every year, 80 to 100 countries send women to compete. And the planet has more than 200 sovereign states on it. For example, this year's Miss Universe pageant did not contain a Miss Albania, Miss Armenia, Miss North Korea, or Miss Bahrain. There is also an opening for a Miss Bhutan, if you're thinking of maybe launching the franchise there.
Q: How do other countries crown their Misses? In countries where there isn't a democracy, but, say, a king or a sole ruler, can he just crown his girlfriend? Do princesses ever get to rep their country?
A: If you think that Miss Universe and McDonald's have little in common, think again. Both are run like franchises. Local organizations hoping to send a Miss Universe contestant to the big show have to get permission from the Miss Universe Organization.
Most of the time, a local pageant has determined the winner of each participating country, but not always. For a few years, Australia stopped hosting pageants, deeming them archaic, and instead selected its Miss Aussie via a modeling agency. (Oz has since reinstated pageants.)
Royals, dictators, and problematic governments can't crown whomever they want ... at least, not without the pretense of a pageant or some other ceremonial contest. The Chinese license holder, for example, finds its Miss Universe China using a combination of regional contests and direct auditions.