It wasn’t your average beauty contest. The 18 young contestants were nearly naked for most of the event. At one point, they wore outfits that looked like something out of a sci-fi sexploitation flick—taut skimpy tops with a masking tape aesthetic and tighty-whitey shorts that cultivated “camel toe” as a fashion accessory. And yet the finalists prepared like few others before them ever had. They offered themselves up—narrowed noses, bulbous-lipped smiles, and balloon-like breasts—for inspection by judges (including plastic surgeons) who held up scorecards.
Welcome to the Miss Plastic Hungary pageant. The October competition didn’t bother with airy speeches about ending poverty or bringing world peace. Nor were there swimsuits—perhaps because few of the breasts present needed any support at all. And these contestants, unlike the controversial former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, they had to provide evidence that they went under the knife at least once to take the stage. (No, Botox alone wasn’t enough.)
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The provocative English-language Hungarian Web site pestiside.hu posted a photo of what appears to be an application that invited aspiring contestants to note the “place of surgery” (on the body), the date of surgery, and the surgeon’s name, as well as the applicant’s bust, waist, hip, and—get this—shoe size.
From the more than 100 applicants, 18 altered ladies were selected. As they strutted before judges, some appeared to be impersonating models on the catwalk, while others let their bodies swing like moonlighting porn stars approaching a stripper pole. Given that they were not asked to speak during the competition, these women ended up as human billboards for breast augmentation, facelifts, rhinoplasty, and toe tweaking. (Because you can always make those ungainly digits look better.)
In fact, the event was less about the hopes and dreams of the female contestants than it was about the growing industry that shaped them. The pageant organizers’ goal was to publicize recent Hungarian advances in aesthetic scalpel-science and promote more “plastic surgery tourism” to a country where cosmetic “work” has reportedly continued to grow despite the economic crisis. (A video report from theplasticsurgerychannel.com—yes, it exists—said that procedures in Hungary cost about half of what they do in the United Kingdom.)
Some contestants appeared to be impersonating models on the catwalk, while others let their bodies swing like moonlighting porn stars approaching a stripper pole.
As should be clear by now, the grace and elegance exuded by the Austro-Hungarian empire’s gorgeous architectural charm did not extend to the pageant hall, raising a question about how such a rich culture and history could succumb to this sort of gaudy spectacle. There is a long tradition of spas and innovative beauty treatments in Hungary—think Estée Lauder, who was the daughter of a Hungarian immigrant. Yet few would have predicted, when the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, that Budapest would evolve into a raunchy European porn capital where even staid television news viewers are confronted with cleavage-wielding Hungarian weathercaster Noémi Gaál.
And yet, somehow, contest organizers were determined to emphasize the many forward-looking elements of their pageant. Yes, the event highlighted the hypocrisy of traditional beauty contests that ban women for ostentatious surgical alterations, while enforcing a nearly superhuman aesthetic on all concerned. Organizers also claimed that plastic surgery helps women to overcome their poor body image and live fuller lives, although they seem somehow less interested in recognizing how other women’s extra-natural bodies might encourage those insecurities. Instead, proponents of plastic surgery sometimes cite evidence from an American study that suggested that attractive people are more successful. True or not, such information (or disinformation) is being used to fuel the cosmetic surgery market from Mexico City to Budapest to Shanghai.
Organizers also expressed hope that they could shatter local stereotypes about plastic surgery by promoting natural-looking alterations. The judges appear to have done their best to find a good-taste beauty queen (i.e., not the biggest breast augmentation). And the reaction of the 22-year-old victor, Réka Urbán, as shimmering golden streamers fell from the rafters and sappy music belted from the sound system, seemed true enough. As Miss Plastic Hungary was crowned, she looked like so many beauty pageant winners before her, flushing rosy. She even appeared to wipe a tear from her eye.
Was it real? It is hard to know. Is anything?
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.