Until recently, beauty contests – largely derided as out-dated sexism in the rest of Europe – have been big business in Switzerland. Now, however, the winds of change are blowing away the clouds of hairspray.
Ever since Switzerland’s Stefanie Job won the inaugural Miss Europe in 1928, slim young Swiss girls have strutted around stages in swimming costumes being graded, usually by older men.
But whereas public disapproval drove such shows from television screens elsewhere in Europe decades ago – the BBC announced in 1984 that it would “stop televising beauty pageants because they are anachronistic and almost offensive” – Miss Switzerland was treated as media royalty until last September, when Swiss public television pulled the plug after steadily falling audience figures (see box).
Switzerland, however, can never claim to have been at the vanguard of sexual equality, having only given women the vote in 1971 (1991 in one canton, and that was only because the federal government put its foot down).
“I still maintain that there’s a great media interest,” Christoph Locher, who has run Miss Switzerland since 1976, told swissinfo.ch.
“In recent years the trend has been for journalism to turn its attention towards celebrities and it’s a basic fact that in Switzerland’s small market there are few celebrities from show business,” he said.
“All the media needed content, and every year we produced a new star. We were and still are the greatest provider of content in the entertainment sector.”
However, it appears beauty queens are in danger of over-exposure, as it were.
“In the old days there was one Miss and then the next one would come along,” said Frank Bodin, head of communications agency Euro RSCG Zurich.
“Today, there are former Misses, runners-up, candidates… It’s simply too much. [The organisers] need to focus on the essentials and redefine themselves.”
It’s certainly true that over the past decade Miss Switzerland usually earned SFr400,000-500,000 ($438,000-547,000) during her year in the spotlight. Her face was rarely absent from gossip magazines or billboards, selling anything from shoes to barbecue equipment.
“These competitions are not just about beauty,” Fabienne Amlinger from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies at Bern University, told swissinfo.ch.
“Money plays a big role. The reason why [Miss Switzerland] is no longer broadcast is connected to the fact that sponsors couldn’t be found.”
Many critics of beauty contests say they reinforce the idea that girls and women should be valued primarily for their physical appearance. Achievement, they argue, counts for little.
This, in turn, puts tremendous pressure on women to adhere to conventional beauty standards by spending time and money on fashion, cosmetics and even plastic surgery.
“There’s this pressure to conform to the norm,” Amlinger said. “The beauty that’s chosen is highly standardised, it’s not an individual beauty. If you look at these beauty queens, they’re all highly standardised and look very similar.”
Locher, however, denies the contest has a message.
“We don’t want to make the world a better place – it’s pure entertainment. Some people like it, others don’t,” he said.
“For the candidates, it’s a chance to become famous for a short amount of time without much effort and often without much talent! Whether that remains the case in the long run is another question…”
So are beauty contests a bit of harmless fun, or is there a darker side?
“For men it’s just a bit of fun – looking at a line of women with not much on and even pretending to be a judge and choosing the most beautiful one,” Olivier Voirol, a sociologist at Lausanne University, told swissinfo.ch.
“But if you’re a woman and in particular a teenager, permanently subjected to a beauty standard embodied by a beauty queen, to be told that to be beautiful you have to weigh 50kg, be tall and thin with long hair and loads of make-up – when that’s presented as the ultimate model of feminine beauty, that can pose a few problems.”
Voirol said many studies showed that when young women’s sexual identity starts developing, the role of these images of feminine beauty is extremely strong.
“Here I’d say it’s no longer just a bit of fun – it can be dramatic for some people if you don’t have the ‘right’ weight or a ‘good’ body.”
Amlinger agreed. “It goes back to this problem of standardisation: that it’s considered the one and only form of beauty. I think it can make people insecure – young women especially – but also anyone for whom the image triggers a feeling of aspiration.”
One notable aspect is the relative success of non-white candidates or those with foreign roots.
For example, the mother of current Miss Switzerland Alina Buchschacher comes from Trinidad and Tobago, while 2008 winner Whitney Toyloy has Chinese and Panamanian roots. Both Bianca Sissing (2003) and Melanie Winiger, who since winning in 1996 has gone on to become a successful model and actress, have an Indian background.
Is it possible that choosing mixed-race girls as the epitome of Swissness helps social integration?
Voirol, who believes a “sizeable part of Swiss society has a problem with integration and respect for foreigners”, has his doubts.
“It could shake things up if we were presented with someone who fundamentally questioned the standardised idea of beauty, someone who was outside the imposed aesthetic code. That could be really interesting – there would be a shift if suddenly Miss Switzerland weighed 80kg or was black, as opposed to mixed race,” he said.
“But whether it really contributes to integration, I’m sceptical – precisely because it’s one of the areas where social norms, patriarchal norms and views of women recur in a particularly caricatured manner.”
Beauty competitions have taken place in Switzerland since the 1920s, but the Miss Switzerland competition didn’t start until 1951. Since 1976, it has been organised by Christoph Locher.
No Swiss has ever won Miss Universe or Miss World. Lauriane Gilliéron came third in the 2006 Miss Universe.
In April 2012, a lack of funding forced Locher to cancel the 2012 Miss Switzerland competition – he hopes it will continue next year. In September 2011, public service television dropped the competition in the wake of steadily falling audience figures. Sponsors followed.
Mister Switzerland was also dropped by public television in May 2011 but has since signed a three-year contract with a private station.
In 2001, television viewing figures for Miss Switzerland peaked at 1,080,000. Jennifer Ann Gerber won and earned SFr310,000.
Figures then hovered around 900,000 until 2006 when they fell to 674,000. However, that year’s winner, Christa Rigozzi, made a record SFr570,000.
The 2011 show was a flop – only 400,000 viewers tuned in (a 25.7 per cent audience share), down 200,000 on the previous year. Alina Buchschacher’s earnings have not been disclosed.end of infobox