Photo by Stacy Kranitz
“I wore a bikini and caused a world controversy,” said Vida Samadzai, now wearing an aqua evening gown in a darkened ballroom at the Canoga Park Hilton. Samadzai, better known as Miss Afghanistan, wasn’t exaggerating. She shocked the Muslim world by participating in the swimsuit segment of last year’s Miss Earth contest. A year later, she still receives letters of admiration as well as death threats. “The government might prosecute me if I go home,” she said.
“It was a two-piece swimsuit, not a bikini,” said former Ms. America Susan Jeske, who coached Samadzai through the Miss Afghanistan contest and continues to do so today. “You have to remember to tell the press that you’re not interested in politics.”
“I’m not interested in politics,” said Samadzai, nodding.
Interested or not, a week ago Sunday night Samadzai was once again at the center of an event with tacit political significance: the North American semifinals for the international Miss Iran contest taking place next month in Dubai. Samadzai hustled off to give the 13 young Iranian-American and Iranian-Canadian pageant contestants a final pep talk. Just as Jeske had done for her the previous year, Samadzai was teaching a new axis of beauty how to rule the catwalk.
“Girls, listen up, we only have a half hour to practice, but you look hot,” she began.
Despite Samadzai’s encouragement, most of the contestants looked visibly nervous. The judges were sending fewer than half of them on to Dubai to compete for the deed on a $125,000 apartment and the chance to represent Iran to the world for the first time in 27 years. After what seemed like another 27 years, the show finally began with a thrumming of Persian techno, a psychedelic light show, an opening act who resembled a rhinestoned Dr. Evil, and questions adapted, not so subtly, from the Miss America playbook.
“Define yourself as a unique Persian woman,” a judge instructed the first contestant, Shiria Behroozfar.
“I’m bubbly, is what people tell me,” said Behroozfar, resorting to English after a struggle with Farsi. (Fluency in the native Iranian tongue improved contestants’ standings.) As the onstage interviews progressed, the I-would-promote-world-peace platitudes were punctuated with some surprising responses. A 17-year-old announced she wanted to work for the CIA. A contestant from Montreal boldly gave the crowd her take on the cultural gap in the Persian diaspora. “In Iran, all the young people do is party. Here we have to work,” she said.
One can only wonder how the morals police would view some of the talent show that followed. Candles perched on their heads, the women belly-danced down the catwalk, exhibited traditional Persian paintings and recited poetry in Farsi, all in a bid for shayesteh, the Iranian ideal of perfection. Halfway through the program, Hooshmand Ashili — “Iran’s Tony Bennett,” according to one audience member — came onstage to belt a Sinatra tune. “No more will I go all around the world,” Ashili sang to his fellow exiles.
The pageant itself will air in much of the world, courtesy of local organizer International Programming Network, Australian sponsor Emu Oil, and the illegal but widespread access to satellite television back in Iran. Audiences can phone in to pick their favorites, American Idol–style. IPN head and contest host Mehran Abdeshah claims the final pageant will be the most watched event in Iranian television history. That hope, he says, is not simply for the benefit of his channel. “We’re tired of seeing these videos of killing of people and cutting their heads,” Abdeshah said a week before the production. “We’re trying to show another side of our people.”
But since few Americans are likely to tune in to a program delivered partially in Farsi, the pageant’s impact may be limited. Some Iranian-Americans worry it may inspire a backlash. “A few of the contestants have interned with Shirin Ebadi,” said judge Nelly Farnoody-Zahiri, referring to the Iranian lawyer who last year became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. “This will give the Iranian government a good excuse for arresting her.”
The final contestant of the night, Sepideh Haftgoli, could probably be arrested for her performance of a risqué salsa with a non-Persian partner. Dipping suddenly to the floor at the end of their number, the pair scandalized the audience with a Havana Nights–style lip lock. Sitting in the second row, actor Faramarz Assef suggested that the pageant was not about offending hardliners back home but giving the modern equal footing with the traditional, and letting ordinary Iranians interpret shayesteh for themselves. “What she’s doing the community can’t accept,” Assef said. “But they’ll see it’s very brave.”
One Hand Debating
The overhead fluorescent LIGHTING flickered and hummed as people found their seats in Ojai’s tiny Chaparral High School auditorium last Wednesday night, settling in for what was billed as a good old-fashioned, town-hall-style candidate forum. Ferial Masry, Democratic candidate for the 37th Assembly District, sat patiently behind a long, sticky cafeteria table as several school-board candidates hashed out their differences. But at 7:35, when she was set to go head to head against her Republican opponent, Audra Strickland, Masry found herself staring at an empty chair.
There is probably a very good reason Strickland failed to show, and that reason is most likely fear. What is so scary about debating in front of a small gathering of mostly elderly constituents smack-dab in the middle of a district that stretches from the northeastern side of Ventura County south into West Hills, Northridge and Chatsworth? For an answer we have to go back a few weeks to Leisure Village — a neatly manicured retirement community in Camarillo — where Masry and Strickland met on the evening of September 13 to debate for the first, and probably the last, time.
On that night the two candidates sat side by side onstage at the community rec center. Strickland seemed confident at the outset. Camarillo is a pretty conservative little burg, and the seniors at Leisure Village tend to have sizable checking accounts — the kinds of checking accounts that can afford leisure and favor Republicans.
Masry, whose name is on the November ballot as the result of an unprecedented grassroots write-in campaign, introduced herself by relating her personal history — her childhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, her schooling in Egypt and her eventual decision to move to America in order to escape the oppression of her home country. Strickland, who is the wife of current 37th District Assemblyman Tony Strickland, took a less personal approach, clinging tightly to the ultraconservative rhetoric her husband has wielded over the last six years, and simultaneously bashing the Democratic leadership in Sacramento.
The more Masry explained her positions (pro-life, pro–stem cell research, pro–medical marijuana, etc.) the more the audience clapped and smiled. The more Strickland talked the more the audience stiffened in their seats. When she claimed to support George Bush’s attempts at Medicare reform, a few Village residents snickered audibly; when she said she opposed seniors’ efforts to procure cheaper prescription medicine from Canada, a low growl rose from the crowd.
But the moment where everything went seriously wrong for Strickland was during her brief closing statement. Again she took a stab at the state’s Democratic leadership, but this time a collective noise rose from the rec room floor — a raucous combination of laughter and heckling. Strickland tried to talk through it, and for a few painful seconds she pantomimed the posturing of a politician but struggled futilely to make a sound. At that point the diminutive, silver-haired MC kindly stepped in, asking the Leisure Village crowd to behave, which allowed Strickland to sputter quietly to a close.
Quaint little gatherings with seemingly well-mannered audiences are not always what they seem to be. Strickland learned that lesson the hard way and no doubt feared that even the predictably peaceful residents of Ojai might turn similarly hostile. Masry took the opportunity to speak clearly and persuasively about education and affordable health care — two issues that are the foundation of her campaign. “We need a change,” she said. “I want to represent the people, not only the Democratic Party or only the Republican Party. I want to see everyone represented.” It was, of course, an easy political statement made even easier by the fact that there was no one there to compete with it. Judging by its response — applause, a few whoops and a whistle — the audience didn’t seem to mind at all.
When Beauty Attacks
The attack came from the right. The team of trained experts — a man in a striped shirt, a pretty blond, a pretty brunette, a girl in a black smock and a woman with a video camera — converged on the chosen victim.
“Hey, Punky Brewster! Wait up!” said William Whatley, the man with the stripes. He was the loud, extroverted one, the one who made you either laugh or cringe. “Would you like a makeover?” He’s what they call in the business a “rock & roll” stylist.
“No. No, thanks,” said the woman, edging away. “No.” The woman had puffy red hair and pale skin.
“Where are you from?” asked Whatley. “Texas? Really? Okay. Since I like your accent, you can keep your hair.”
It was an overcast Friday afternoon when I met with the makers of Fox TV’s Ambush Makeover. A small legion of stylists, makeup artists, wardrobe consultants, producers, managers, executives and publicists had gathered at today’s chosen field of battle: Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. Their enemy: unflattering tops, bulging bottoms, hideous haircuts, overgrown eyebrows and scary dye jobs. Their modus operandi: Grab the unfashionable off the street. Do their hair. Do their makeup. Film it and show it on national television. It was simple, as far as plans went. But the execution was proving much more difficult.
We stood in a cluster scanning the crowd. Sizing people up. So this is what it felt like to hang with the popular kids in high school. Yes, they were going to be cruel. Whatley called it taking people out of their comfort zone.
“Let’s get real,” said host Gigi Berry, the brunette. “What we’re doing? It’s kinda mean. It’s embarrassing to have a bunch of people walk up to you and tell you that you need a makeover. But there’s a way to do it graciously.”
And just what is “bad” to these members of the beauty police?
“It can be anything from orange hair with black roots, to running pantyhose, to fuchsia lipstick,” said stylist Mary Alice Haney, the pretty blond. Haney has done her tour of duty at Harper’s Bazaar Paris, at GQ and Allure.
“Tell her about the yellow clippy, William,” said Shanta, who is the show’s spokesperson. That morning he saw a woman wearing a yellow clippy in her hair. He grabbed it and threw it on the ground. Then he stomped on it. “It smashed into a million little pieces,” said Whatley gleefully.
“I’ve been dying to make over my mom,” said Shanta.
“This is the Gigi method,” said Gigi. “Start with a compliment, then go into the negative.” Gigi stood up straighter. “For example, ‘You have beautiful eyes,’” she said, “‘but your hair . . . !’”
“What about the Stepford Wives?” asked Whatley, pointing at a gaggle of impossibly thin, large-breasted women of indeterminate age — all wearing summer dresses and pastel pumps. Simultaneously, the Wives turned their sunglassed faces toward the windows of the nearby Pottery Barn.
“Nnnnooo,” said Mary Alice.
A middle-aged nerd in a bow tie? “Too easy,” said Gigi.
Finally they snipered a woman with frizzy brown hair strolling arm in arm with her husband. She was in her mid-40s. She wore khaki shorts.
“You are going to look fabulous!” cried William Whatley.
“Fabulous!” cried Mary Alice.
“Fabulous!” cried Gigi, at which point they whisked the woman into the Ambush Makeover bus, which doubled as a full-service beauty salon. Several dressing stations had been set up inside the bus, along with a television monitor playing nonstop episodes of . . . Ambush Makeover.
“See how she’s got these little bangs here?” said Whatley. “We’re going to bring the line up to here,” he cupped his hands around her jaw line, “then loosen this up . . . ,” he made a karate-chopping motion next to her ears, “. . . and give you long, sexy layers. How does that sound?”
Where makeovers were concerned, there was a fine line between needing versus deserving, Whatley said. A woman with a bouffant hairdo, for example, needed a makeover. That much was certain. But then there was another type of woman, a woman who looked disheveled or depressed, whose life had gotten so busy and out of control that she didn’t even have time for herself anymore. This woman — or man, even — deserved a makeover. An hour later, their current ambushee’s new look was done. She emerged from the bus beaming, hair sleek, lips glossed. The team gathered to strategize for their next attack. In a month’s time, the bus would travel to Phoenix, Austin, Miami, Orlando, finally ending up in New York. Coast to coast, more battles would be fought along an Axis of Ugly. The war for beauty is far from over.