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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Behind the scenes at Miss World

ONE MONTH IN SANYA: In her first interview after returning from the Miss World Beauty Pageant in Sanya China, Miss Uganda Praise Asiimwe Akankwatsa talks about the racism, as African girls were segregated, the gossip among the girls and the fun she had. She tells DENNIS D. MUHUMUZA [pictured together] about the Miss World Contest, its unpredictability and all the madness that comes with the World’s largest annual television event.

How did it feel being part of the Miss World experience?
Great. It was the first time I was getting out of the country; I got a chance to mix with so many girls and learn what happens in different parts of the world. I made many friends; my best friend was Miss Zambia, Precious Kabungo Mumbi who was also my roommate. Miss Philippines, Carlene Aguilar, Miss Portugal, Angela Maria Fonseca Spinola and Miss Slovenia, Sanja Grohar were also my good friends. We spent a month in camp being groomed for the finals. We learnt basic things like makeup, catwalk, how to interact and everything.

In what mood were the girls?
Jolly. We were grouped according to continents because it was easier for the chaperons to handle us. The African girls were really nice and had solidarity but I loved the Caribbean girls most because they were most lively and would come up with all sorts of ideas. Towards the end, we were getting homesick, that's when we began getting on each other's nerves, that's when gossip set in.

What kind of gossip?
Like who is seeing who, remember this is a group of girls that haven't seen their boyfriends in a long time. And there are men. And these are girls that are being jealously guarded by chaperons to avoid any scandal. And all of a sudden, you start hearing that this one is seeing the other guy, this one is doing that -you know the girls; you all warm up to the gossip but have to keep it hushed because you don't want the organisers to know.

So did some girls sneak in men after all?
Every night, the chaperons made sure that we were in bed but that didn't stop the girls because we toured the whole of China and we were with these guys everywhere because there were very many paparazzi, so they had to guard us. They were men and very attractive men [laughs]. I would say it was impossible to sneak them into rooms but at least, we got a chance to spend some time together.

Miss Botswana, Tshegofatso Abigail Tumisang Robi was tipped to go far but it is Miss Tanzania, Nancy Abraham Sumary who won the Miss World Africa category. What happened?
One thing I learnt about Miss World is that it is not all about beauty or brains -rather it is all to do with luck. In fact no one ever paid attention to Miss Tanzania right from the beginning because she's shorter, with a big ass (behind). Miss Botswana was all over the place and everyone knew she was going to win. And then on the final night, just like that, they announced Miss Tanzania. It was a shock. Most girls cried. We expected Miss South Africa, Dhiveja Sundrum, to win because she's Indian anyway, and with the racism there, we knew she would win. Our bet was also on Miss Nigeria, Omowunmi Akinnifesi, Miss Uganda and Miss Zambia. Honestly, we don't know what was considered because we were not asked any questions, all we did was dance in front of judges in bikinis and catwalk and that's it.

Surely any professional judge will not slap a prestigious crown as of Miss World on any girl because of racism?
I will give my personal opinion. Most judges are former Miss World and normally when your country has ever won, you already have a judge from your country and therefore stand a chance. Even Miss Iceland's mother is former Miss Iceland. There is obviously racism and there is no way we are going to keep quiet about it. For instance, there is this particular incidence, as we were doing rehearsals for the final day and this photographer comes and is taking pictures for the website. Asia goes there, Americas, Caribbean and then Africa. We go on stage (Africans) and the guy just takes one snap and runs off to take other girls that are already seated. Also, when I won in the talent show, I didn't appear anywhere. I mean I was there, I had done my best and then they just said I tied the position with Miss Costa Rica, Leonora Jimenez Monge and then they went ahead and said Miss Costa Rica amazed the audience with her tactics and she tied with someone else. They didn't mention my name and the country.

Before you flew to China, you told Daily Monitor that you are known to break records. That you would be among the top five...
I went there despite the odds and did well in the Talent Show where I was the only African who won. That was a record. And I will ask you whether any Ugandan queen has done that before. [Laughs] About not being in the top five, I expected that everyone would have a chance to show what they had and it wasn't the case. But winning at the talent show automatically qualified me into the top 25. It's there in the records.

Tell us about your winning poem
I wrote it myself and it was titled The African Child. It was about the plight of an African child, about child labour. There is this child who grows up in the village, does all the donkey work and no one recognises what he does or ever says thank you.

It is alleged that you headed into the finals ranked last at 250-1 odds?
Those rankings were done by outside people who had nothing to do with Miss World. The organisers followed a voting system, which didn't favour Africans. Ugandans know very well that they never voted for me. Not that I blame them because how many Ugandans have credit cards? They are very few and that's what they followed. But they should know that I was not the last. I represented them very well, they will never hear of any scandal I did there unlike some girls (whom I won't disclose here).

You promised to woo the winner into visiting Uganda. When is she landing?
She will be here before the end of 2006. I got her contacts and she is my friend. By February, however, I will have brought Miss World Africa who is our neighbour Miss Tanzania to Uganda.

What was so exceptional about Ms Unnur Birna Vilhjalmsdottir that helped her win the Miss World crown?
I'll tell you one funny thing. Just like Miss Tanzania surprised us, Miss Iceland did the same. As we approached d-day, everyone started saying so and so could win and Miss Iceland never came up. Girls thought the winner would be Miss Jamaica, Terr Karelle Griffith because she's Jamaican in the real sense -she's nice, she's lively and all that. And then there was Miss Italy, Sofia Bruscoli who was also great. Miss Iceland only made it in the top 19 for the Beachwear, a thing that shocked her. She wasn't a celebrity, just a girl like others but luck was knocking on her door and now she is Miss World.

Sanya's Beauty Crown theatre where the grand finale took place, what is it like?
It's very huge -it's where all the important entertainment functions in China take place. Like when we had just arrived, there were the equivalent of the Grammys and we met Jackie Chan. It's as big as Nakivubo stadium or much bigger and is all decorated.

How much money did the guests pay to watch the event?
There were tickets for $600 ( about Shs 1.08m), $400 (about Shs720,000), $200 (about Shs360,000), and $100 (about Shs180,000) and the place was fully packed.

How is Sanya?
It is so beautiful with hospitable people. I mean the night I got there, I was like wow, I must be in Miami! There are palm trees alongside the roads, with beautifully dazzling lights though the place is very hot, so hot that clothes became a burden to us.

So did you guys strut about naked?
God, no!! [Laughs] We just kept it skimpy. It was comfortable that way. We were in sleeveless tops, and bikinis though we were never allowed to get out of the hotel that skimpy because the event is a decent one.

Is it true that some girls undergo plastic surgery before the event?
Girls go there to win. And they'll do anything to win. That surgery stuff is personal and you can't start invading people's privacy and saying they did it. All I know is that judges don't care how natural one looks. You have to wear makeup and look your most artificial -that's what Miss World is all about. In fact, African girls were laughing at me when I said I would keep it natural. They said, "Do you think we are looking for nature here."

The Beach Beauty final is said to be the most glamorous. What does it entail?Basically what happens there is that you dress in bikinis and then catwalk in front of three judges. You just strut and smile and walk back and a winner is chosen.

Did you bag any prize money?
No. Just a medal for the talent show.

So what next for Ms Juliet Praise Asiimwe after Miss World?
I've been taking a break, but my office opens on January 3 (last Tuesday). I will get serious with the fight against HIV/AIDS, help out in charity. I will also be cleaning up the city, and will do all sorts of things to help the youths -teenage pregnancies, I will be helping out in all that. I still have my books to read as well.

What should Uganda's next beauty queen expect in the Miss World pageant? Shock. Everything there is unpredictable. All I can tell her is to go and have fun. This is a free trip, free accommodation, one whole month outside, be yourself and let God do the rest.

Published in Daily Monitor, January 6, 2006