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Who is the fairest of them all?
Beauty contests have long been a source of enjoyment and glitz for audiences and endless material for the press. To Finns, such contests have been exceptionally important, as our country’s women have done well on the international stage at just the right times.

Arja-Leena Paavola

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The institution of beauty pageants creates its own sparkling fairy-tale world, in which radiant young women are called ‘beauty queens’, and one lucky one has the chance to have a crown placed upon her head. For its interest in beauty queens, Finland is an exception amongst western countries: in other developed nations, no such corresponding enthusiasm exists.

Research in the field of folklore done by Nina af Enehjelm shows that idolisation of beauty queens has its own logic. It originates from the interest in race and the uncertainty ambiguity felt by Finns regarding their position with the respect to people of other nations. In the 19th century, racial classification that had become fashionable placed the Finns in a lowly position.

“In the racial hierarchy, the European whites were in the highest position and beneath them were the yellow races. Because of their language and the shape of their skull, it was decided that Finns belonged to the Mongol race, and so were inferior to the whites. The disproval of the Mongol theory was a central objective in Finland, right up to World War II,” says af Enehjelm.

Europe’s most beautiful people

The birth of Finnish beauty contests can be traced to a photographic competition held in 1926 by the Suomen Kuvalehti illustrated magazine, the purpose of which was to define the typical Finnish female type. The first Miss Finland contest was held in 1932. That same decade, discussions about race were hotting up.

“In all western countries, in Europe as well as the USA, the dominant theory of the study of racial hygiene was that the greatest resource of a nation was its people, specifically the best-quality people,” says af Enehjelm. In Finland too, people were concerned that the best of society seemed generally to be having proportionately fewer children than the lower quality section of the population. In 1934, amidst such an ideological environment, Ester Toivonen from Finland was chosen as the most beautiful in Europe. That certainly gave a lift to Finnish self-confidence!

The series of victories continued and few years later, Britta Wickström and Sirkka Salonen also won the Miss Europe crown. In 1938, Suomen Kuvalehti published a cover picture of Ms Salonen toiling in a hayfield and looking bronzed and bubbling with vitality. Above the picture it read ‘Europe’s most beautiful people’.

“Maybe they really were the most beautiful girls in the contest. On the other hand, it could be that the chief organisers of the contests, France and the USA, wanted to use this way to reward our country for maintaining its republican status at a time when more and more western countries were sliding towards dictatorship,” hypothesises af Enehjelm.

Armi rekindles a belief in the future

‘Beauty queen’ fever was given a new boost with the crowning of Armi Kuusela as Miss Universe. This event came at just the right moment in time, as Finland was experiencing very difficult times. After the War, problems abounded and the nation was burdened both with considerable war reparations and the continuing fear that the Soviet Union was going to invade the country. The start of new, better times was the year of 1952, when Finland staged the Olympic Games and the world sat up and took notice. That same year, the last instalments of war reparations were paid off, Finland being the only country to honour its debt to the very last penny. This stirred national pride. And then, on top of all this, in 1952 a Finnish schoolgirl was voted the most beautiful in the universe. The event still stirs excitement in the minds of those Finns who were living through their youth at that time.

“Armi was a symbol of a new brighter age and a belief in the future. She raised the importance of beauty contests through the roof! And because the world’s press was already in Helsinki following the Olympics, Finnish female beauty got major publicity,” says af Enehjelm.

The other important event, which once again brought the international press to Finland was the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975, where, amongst other things, free communication between the West and the Soviet Union was agreed. Although freedom was still quite superficial, it was nonetheless the start of the countdown to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The West well understood the significance of the occasion.

The attention of the world was already fixed on Helsinki when a Finn was crowned Miss Universe for a second time, this time Anne Pohtamo. This aroused suspicions that maybe it was not complete chance. But victory was facilitated less by intentional points-rigging and political bias on the part of the panel of judges, and more by the increased awareness of our country drawing attention to our representative at the beauty pageant. “In exactly the same way, representatives of the former eastern bloc stirred attention when they took part in the Miss Universe contest for the first time,” af Enehjelm points out.

Front-page news

Beauty contests were always front-page news in broadsheet newspapers up to the end of the 1960s, after which reporting largely moved to magazines. A significant change was the televising of contests. The first ever televised Miss Finland pageant was a live transmission, lasted more than five hours and was a huge hit with the viewers. In the 1970s, the boom in beauty contests swelled to greater proportions than ever before. Magazines were crammed with pictures of beauty queens and tales of their wonderful lives. There were pages and pages of the stuff, even if the Finnish girl did not do well in the contest. ‘Beauty queen-mania’ is especially interesting because, at the same time, another powerful phenomenon was influencing Finnish society, namely taistolaisuus (a radical left-wing movement).

Taistolaisuus was a strict, colourless and humourless movement, as far as from the celebrity world as it was possible to be,” says af Enehjelm. “I think that the movement was related to and, in a sense, also a continuation of the bigotry of Pietism, and this despite the fact that it was a movement of atheists. The simultaneous prevalence of these phenomena created interesting tensions, even though they were not in themselves related to each other.”

Here the media played an important role. Journalists in particular were actually central to the leftist movement. Nevertheless, they had to ‘go with the flow’ and earn their crust by reporting on the beauty business, which was far removed from their own politically-orientated ideology. These days women’s magazines only glance quite briefly at beauty contests, but they are given more column inches in the evening papers, as the pageants offer free pin-up material.

Af Enehjelm’s research is mostly media-related. She has her own personal experience of being in the public eye, as her husband, singer Tapani Kansa, has continually been in the media spotlight for almost 40 years. Through her husband, af Enehjelm is also a familiar face in women’s maga-zines.

”My life with Tapani Kansa began when I was just 19, and didn’t have any real experience of any other life. I myself think that free speech is extremely precious. Exposure of public figures in the media goes with the job, but at some stage you have to draw the line.”

Af Enehjelm is in the process of suing one magazine that published some eye-catching but completely distorted headlines concerning the couple’s private life. “In this sense, I have also personally experienced how publicity can be quite crazy.”

Af Enehjelm Nina: ’Missit’. The history of the Finnish beauty pageant industry to 1969. Helsinki University Press 2004. 192 pages.

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