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The televised shocker award for 2017 goes to … Miss Universe NZ

Miss Universe NZ.

Apart from Fox News and anything Mike Hosking, you don't often come across genuine TV shockers.

We live in a one step forward, two steps back kind of world. Or as co-host Holly Pollock trilled on stage at Auckland’s SkyCity Theatre, “Can you believe it’s been a quarter of a century since the Miss Universe New Zealand grand final was available for everyone here on the telly?” Miss Universe New Zealand 2017 proceeded to demonstrate why 25 years is not nearly long enough. In an age when most television, apart from aberrations such as Fox News and anything involving Mike Hosking, manages not to make your fillings ache, here was a genuine shocker.

I was out reliving some of the best television ever made – Jerry Seinfeld was in town – when social media indicated I was missing some of the worst. I caught up later on YouTube. “OMG!” indeed, Twitter. Twenty young women kicked things off by gyrating in tiny dresses before being required to scream at us in strange voices: “Don’t forget to vote for me!”; “Remember to love yourself!” It’s not easy to love yourself when you are losing the will to live. The final screened on Bravo, which brought us The Real Housewives of Auckland. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

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Mark Leishman looked bemused to find himself co-hosting a show that made Tux Wonder Dogs seem glamorous. Apparently, an event with an audition process involving a lethal-sounding “Stiletto Camp” counts in 2017 as a way of fulfilling a young woman’s dreams.

Some things have changed. The beauty-pageant industry, an early adopter of virtue signalling, seems finally to have accepted that provoking an outbreak of world peace is not really on the cards. In these market-driven days, contestants compete in an “entrepreneurial challenge” to raise money for charity. The New Zealand franchise has also, noted Leishman, “removed the bikinis from the stage!” Instead, there was a swimwear photo shoot. Off to a Thai resort for an infomercial that recorded beauty-queen antics in what felt like real time.

The shoot involved contestants in togs inspecting the local flora or testing the structural integrity of one of the resort’s stone columns by leaning dreamily against it. There was time for new cultural experiences: “It’s so hot out here!”; “I just touched a buffalo’s bum!”

Holly Pollock and Mark Leishman.

Meanwhile, back at the theatre, what could make this any worse? A magician. And a string of entertainment-related glitches. “Sorry, that’s the wrong track,” said singer Razé when her music started. “I can do that one if you want,” she volunteered. Thanks to the gleeful recording of the show’s every excruciating misstep on social media, I now know the technical term for a slight upper-storey wardrobe malfunction: “nip slip”.

There was the almost-obligatory awarding of a sash to the wrong contestant. And surely in a world about to be taken over by robots, there must be a way to make a tiara that doesn’t immediately go askew. At one point, train-wreck television threatened to become more than a metaphor as one contestant tried to walk off while another was standing on her train.

After an eternity of faffing, a brutal cull reduced 20 hopefuls to 10 and then, as smiles wobbled bravely, a final five. The winner, Harlem-Cruz Atarangi Ihaia, seems lovely. She got a car, though she has to return it when she turns back into a pumpkin. And the whole wonky spectacle was in a good cause, with some of the money raised by audience voting promised to charity.

It’s easy to laugh, but in a world where All Blacks routinely get their kit off and model undies, you can’t begrudge women the chance to also leverage off what British sociologist Catherine Hakim has called their “erotic capital”. And there is a certain pleasure to be had in television this unrepentantly unreconstructed. As long as it only comes along every quarter of a century.

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.