Donald Trump and the Year the Pageant Went Political

The beauty pageant has officially gone political.

Ever since Donald Trump became a Republican candidate for president, the spotlight has shone on the Miss Universe pageant in new and often unexpected ways.

First, there was the running joke that cocktails with Miss Latvia (or Denmark, or Norway - you get the picture) was the extent of Mr. Trump's foreign policy experience. Then, there were the investigations into Mr. Trump's business dealings in Russia as a result the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, held in Moscow. My own, earlier, analysis of the 2013 pageant highlighted its politicization from an international affairs standpoint. But that politicization was taken to even greater heights following Mr. Trump's slander of Mexicans coming to the United States as "drug dealers" and "rapists". Mexico immediately pulled its contestant from the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. The threat of a Latin American boycott soon followed. After filing a lawsuit against Spanish-language broadcaster Univision for its refusal to air the competition, Mr. Trump sold Miss Universe, effectively ending his ties with the Miss Universe Organization and its brand.

While many thought the small part that Miss Universe had to play in the 2016 elections had ended with its sale, Hillary Clinton's comment in the first presidential debate that Mr. Trump "loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them," brought one particular Miss Universe back into the spotlight twenty years after she won her crown.

Alicia Machado was not particularly well-known in the United States prior to Ms. Clinton's reference to her in the presidential debate, having acted in a handful of Spanish-language films and in several reality television shows on Univision. Her tenure as Miss Universe was overshadowed by her struggle with body image issues and weight gain. Yet, the day after Ms. Clinton's remarks the New York Times published a profile of Ms. Machado. In the days since, Ms. Machado's singing career has been publicized and she has taken on an ever-growing role within the Clinton campaign.

The extent of Ms. Machado's comeback is due, almost singlehandedly, to Mr. Trump. His comments on Twitter in the early hours of September 30th disparaging Ms. Machado and calling her "my worst Miss U" mean that Ms. Machado and Mr. Trump's prior ownership of the Miss Universe pageant will continue to be in the news for the foreseeable future.

This raises the question of other ways in which Miss Universe is relevant to the upcoming election. First, there remains the possibility that even more former Miss Universe contestants will speak out against Mr. Trump. The attention being given to Ms. Machado may demonstrate that there is little to lose and much to gain from airing grievances against Mr. Trump.

Second, Ms. Clinton's appeals to female voters are likely to continue to play on Mr. Trump's alleged misogyny and to link this to his role as the owner of a beauty pageant. In my opinion as a former beauty queen and as an academic, that would truly be a shame on the part of the Clinton campaign. The strength of Ms. Machado's condemnation of Mr. Trump is built entirely on her experience as Miss Universe. Her ability to serve as an articulate emissary to the Latino community stems from her profile as a celebrity, one which she owes almost entirely to beauty pageants. Pageants retain an important place in Latino culture and this may be difficult to square with Ms. Clinton's strand of feminism.

Lastly, Ms. Machado's new role as a Clinton surrogate further blurs the thin line between politics and entertainment seen in this election cycle - an effect that is unlikely to end regardless of the outcome on November 8th.