The Stubborn Beauty of the Bulgarian Situation

When I was a student in Fortaleza, Brazil, in 2002, I had pictures of the gymnast Diana Popova on my desktop. These were, as you can see below, low quality pictures of a pale Diana, wearing boring monochrome leotards, hardly any make up, her natural hair color and eyebrows that are not even emphasized with pencil. My anthropology professor in Brazil looked at my screen and said, "Who is this girl? Wow, I can't stop looking at her."

He had never even heard of rhythmic gymnastics but thought she was beautiful.  Many of us thought the same. In fact, some gymnastics tournaments in 90s had a "Miss Tournament" prize and Diana often won that one, after a vote from a jury that included mostly journalists who covered the event.

I wrote a post in Bulgarian about this, and, sadly, it is not about gymnastics. I am using Diana's pictures to make a point because pictures can be a lot louder than words (even though I love words more deeply and way beyond anything I have seen on a picture).

This post is about the latest Miss Bulgaria contest, where yet another choice of a new Miss Bulgaria has left the public wondering if the jury judged with their eyes open, so to speak.

Before, I get into this I would like to address some of the comments I have gotten so far to a Facebook post that I wrote.  First, many think that the Miss Bulgaria contest is not that important. While that is certainly true, I happen to write about a rhythmic gymnastics, a sport that is very far from the popularity of sports like soccer of basketball. But even soccer or baseball are not as important as war, hunger, terrorism and climate change. Yet, millions of people around the world watch these sports and write about them with passion; that by no means shows that they do not care about "the real issues."

In fact, if anything, sports events and beauty contests can frequently look like a rather striking reflection of the overall state of affairs in a society.

The second comment has been that the contest is "compromised anyway," so we should not expect much from it. Here is where the real problem lies. We can't just go around accepting that things are compromised, no matter how unimportant they may be. This attitude means that nothing will ever improve.

With this introduction, I will get into how this discussion started. The problem is illustrated, as mentioned earlier, by pictures.

The population of Bulgaria is several million. Out of them, thousands try to become Miss Bulgaria. This person was selected. Because a picture means a thousand words, I ask in a few: do you really believe that this can possibly be the most beautiful woman in all of Bulgaria?

An old joke said that French use the prefix "de" in their names, the Dutch use "von," and the Bulgarians should use "our," meaning that  "our Ivanova" or "our Petrov" often gets appointed to positions, or given a title because he is "our man," as nepotism in Bulgaria is so rampant.

I have always thought that nepotism is an important issue but, to my surprise, some people don't.  After all, it's just "some chick" going to a beauty contest. We have bigger fish to fry. Yes, indeed. Very big fish. Like bank bosses, hospitals leaders and ministry officials who get appointed without having any qualities or credentials either. I truly wonder how we are going to fix those bigger problems, if we can't manage "a stupid beauty contest."

But, hey, some say, this is not news. Indeed, it isn't. Some previous pageant winners have looked almost identical to this winner. The same overdone plastic surgery, the immovable forehead, the huge eyelashes, the inability to put together a meaningful sentence in Bulgarian. They may have used the same plastic surgeon or even dated the same person. At any rate, the were all "ours."  Or, rather, "theirs." The girlfriend, daughter, niece...of some person in a position of power who chooses to abuse power.

 "But the other contestants are just as bad," some people commented. Now, this is where I really object. Please refer back to the bad pictures of Popova. Not all  participants, and not all Bulgarian girls look like this contest winner. It's just not possible that they all do. If you wish to defend to current Miss Bulgaria, tell me, with a hand on your heart, that when you look at her, you want to say, "Wow, I can't take my eyes off of her."  This kind of attitude is what the Luda Fenka (Crazy Fan) wants, not some illogical argument about how the whole world is just ugly and corrupt anyway (even though there is  some truth in that!).

I want your heart to start racing when you see beauty because the ability to see beauty means you are free to love life. "There is no worse prison that the one in our heads," says the Russian singer Victor Tsoi. It seems to me that if people truly think this beauty contest is fair and honorable, they are locked in a prison where the sentence is complete lack of dignity.

A friend wrote to me that we should focus on the victory of the Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov and ignore the beauty contest. I fail to see why we can't be happy by one and disgusted by the other. But let me tell you about Grigor. As a child, Grigor got support from two very influential soccer players, Hristo Stoichkov and Dimiter Berbatov (both better good looking that the present beauty queen). They are very different but they both are able to see beauty and to respect other people's talent. They picked Grigor and sponsored him, not because he was "theirs," but because he was great. Now he is at the top. Even if he doesn't stay there, nobody can take his talent away from him and put some mafia boss's friend at the top three of world tennis. That is, in fact, comforting, to say the least.  You know, not as important as war, hunger and natural disaster, but very encouraging nevertheless.... for those  in pursuit of whatever dream they have chosen. Even the dream of winning some silly beauty pageant.

I am not sure if we need to measure whose dream is more important , or compare a beauty contest to other world events. There will always be some political problem or natural disaster that is much bigger than contests or athletic events.

 But I do know that the worth of a person is certainly not measured by the number of people who will say, "well, she won because the other contestants weren't that great either." I think real success in such a public endeavor should measured by the number of times the heart of a fan flutters with admiration and awe. For every 100 people who think the new Miss Bulgaria is "not that bad," there are 10,000 who think that Grigor Dimitrov is "amazing."

"Our" people have no right to rob us of the rewarding and hopeful feeling that someone who deserves it has won. That is the feeling that fuels dreams.

 I, for one, stubbornly refuse to engage in a pitiful acceptance of the ugly and unjust, even if it has to do with an "already compromised" contest. I  also look at those pictures of Diana Popova and it strikes me that, despite all the nepotism, despite how unpopular rhythmic gymnastics is, I showed her to a random person in Brazil and made his heart race. Isn't that reason enough not to be silent?

If we speak up now, maybe next time, or in 5 or 10 years, the jury at this particular contest will not be quite so corrupt. The real beauty if our situation is that we can make changes. Very small changes, at least at the start.

"I affirm, " says Victor Tsoi, "that good always prevails over evil, and patience is stronger than the sword of the samurai."