Lydia Smit, a fourth year management student, recently placed 3rd Runner-Up and won the Miss Photogenic title in the Miss Universe New Zealand Competition. This year she has travelled to Thailand as part of the competition, held fundraisers for charity walked the stage in Grand Final of the competition.
Outside of the competition and her studies, Lydia is an intern with the Matamata-Piako District Council, works looking after dogs at a kennel and acts as an overseas exchange ambassador for the University of Waikato. Before the Grand Final, Nexus spoke to Lydia about balancing life and beauty pageants. “Each day is very different and kinda crazy, especially with all my Miss Universe preparation and fundraisers going on, but that’s the way I like it. I’m not very good at doing nothing,” Lydia says.
Lydia says she was inspired to enter the competition after witnessing the work of beauty queens growing up. According to Lydia, “they’re not just there to represent a female’s strength, compassion and inner and outer beauty, they’re there to support charities and be a voice for people or causes that may not have the platform to speak and make a difference. Pageant organisations like Miss Universe allow others to be heard and for differences to actually be made. They’re in no way just about the glitz and glam.”
Many major pageants in New Zealand place a large emphasis on charity and community work. Since 2012, the Miss Universe New Zealand competition has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for numerous charities. Jessica Tyson, Miss World New Zealand 2018, established an organization that teaches high school students about sexual violence and self-defence. Former New Zealand beauty queens have set up organizations such as LearnCoach and Annie’s Lifeline. This year, Lydia fundraised for Variety, the Children’s Charity. She placed second in the Entrepreneurial Challenge, which is based on how much each contestant raises for charity as well as taking into consideration their sponsorships and business skills.
Despite this, critics of pageants have denounced the competitions as antiquated forums that objectify women. Just last month, the Miss India competition received international backlash for lacking diversity in its contestants, and last year Miss USA came under fire for making comments about another contestant that some described as intolerant and even xenophobic. However, Lydia argues that critics of beauty pageants lack understanding of what is involved in a competition like Miss Universe New Zealand.
“The people who think this haven’t actually looked into pageants and what they stand for, all they do for others, the millions of dollars they raise for charity, the positive role models they produce and the overall positive image they portray for inner beauty and making positive change.”
The Miss Universe New Zealand competition is currently one of the only Miss Universe franchises that does not hold an on-stage swimwear competition. In 2012, directors Nigel Godfrey and Jack Yan made the decision to remove the swimwear portion from the stage, instead opting for contestants to be featured in a swimwear calendar.
In 2018, a number of Waikato students competed in Miss Universe New Zealand, including former social policy and psychology student Nurul Shamsul. Nurul made history as the first hijab-wearing finalist, and placed 5th overall. “Being Miss Universe you have to be an all rounded woman and so it is so much more than just a beauty pageant. If it was just a beauty pageant then it would be against my own values and I would have not competed in the first place,” says Nurul.
Nurul hopes that her experience in Miss Universe will help to challenge traditional notions of beauty. “Being in Miss Universe was so much bigger than myself as my intentions were to help break boundaries and stereotypes as well as redefining what true beauty is,” Nurul says. “I hope that from my own journey it inspires other girls to embrace and be confident with their uniqueness and differences because it’s what makes them beautiful.”
For Lydia, the highlight of her journey has been the relationships she has formed with other finalists. “The Miss Universe journey is extremely fun and exciting at times and sometimes extremely stressful and full on, and having met those girls gives myself and them someone to laugh with but also a support crew when we need one,” says Lydia.
In 2019, debate is still taking place about whether beauty pageants should have a place in modern society. While there is no disputing the value of the charity and community work that young women involved in the competitions take part in, critics maintain that pageants are ultimately damaging to women. Minister for Women Julie-Ann Genter states that she would not criticise a person’s choice to participate in a beauty pageant, but that "girls need to know their skills, intellect, courage, sense of humour and treatment of others matter." For Lydia and Nurul, their personal experience has proven rewarding and empowering, despite the opposition to beauty pageants.