Inside the very serious business of Belgian beauty

 In an attempt to silence the killjoys who diss beauty contests as fuel for the narcissism of contemporary society, personality has moved to centre stage in recent decades as the most important quality in the perfect pageant king or queen. Truth is, though, we’re all just suckers for a pretty face. Here’s our shoutout to the people behind Belgium’s parties for the pretty, which, we’re told, are nothing more than a pleasant diversion. And for that, we’d like to thank Jesus. 

Christian Nolens

Director, on Stage events, organiser and promoter of Mister Belgium

“A male pageant is very different from a female pageant. You can’t just copy and paste it, because you can’t ask guys to do the same things as girls.” says Christian. The cut off age is also older for boys. “We go till 35 because we think if you want to choose an ‘ambassador’, then you really have to go further than just 25 years of age. Some girls are really mature at 22 or 23 – but it’s not always the same with guys. They can be married, they can have kids, they can be over 25. It’s important because – and this might sound like a cliché – it’s more than just physical appearance.” The Mister Belgium competition that Christian’s company has organised for the past 10 years is glamorous, but not bling bling. “We’re quite traditional actually. We want to find young guys who represent their genera- tion… and we’re quite demanding. Sometimes we decide not to organise it because we don’t have enough good candidates – we’d rather keep our high standards.”

Darline Devos

President, Miss Belgium

Miss Belgium is really an institution – the contest exists since 1929, and I bought the company in 2005 from the previous owner, who had owned it for 35 years. It’s a bit old fashioned: girls who want to be Miss Belgium want the life of a princess – they all say during the preselection that they’ve dreamt about it all their life. And when you become Miss Belgium you are immediately a famous person.” However, says Darline, it’s not all glamour. It’s a job. “Miss Belgium has to be the ambassador for the country, she has to do charity work, and she has to be the ambassador for our sponsors. The girls are busy.” And what about accusations that beauty pageants are exploitative? Darline says “When people are negative I always say that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t dare to do what the girls are doing. They can criticise when they have done it themselves… even if they don’t win, the girls get so much life experience from it. The kind of things you can’t learn at school.”

Tim Wamback

Bodybuilder

“Is bodybuilding a talent? Well, genetics are very important. You have to be conditioned, but it also depends on your symmetry,” says Tim, adding that bodybuilding is a way of life and that people don’t have enough respect for the sport. “When you’re in training, you have to eat every three hours, you have to do one hour of cardio before work in the morning and after work you go to the gym. You see participants on stage and they’re smiling, they’re ripped and beautiful with veins everywhere. But they are really exhausted. You train 24/7 all year long for one competition and you’re only on stage for 90 seconds. It’s one of the hardest sports there is,” he says. Asked about how this rigorous routine affects his personal life, Tim says he has found a kindred spirit in his girlfriend, Olga, recently crowned European Bikini Champion. “My girlfriend understands me and I understand her. She trains and eats like a bodybuilder and I’m so happy to have found her because she knows what it’s like.”

Cynthia Ikwene

Miss East Africa Belgium

Apart from the more well-known pageant brands, Belgium has lots of spin-off competitions, like Miss East Africa. “I entered Belgium’s Top Model at the same time as Miss East Africa, but I stopped the Top Model contest because I wanted to represent my country,” says Cynthia from Rwanda. She’s very shy, and says entering the pageant has helped her – something that is echoed by many pageant participants. “I study marketing and as part of my studies I have to speak in public. I entered the competition to conquer my shyness, to learn how to put myself forward,” she says “and the competition really helped. Now I don’t mind people looking at me. I really love the catwalk!” And the criteria to enter? “You have to be from a country in East Africa, you have to be tall and pretty and you have to speak well. You have to answer ques- tions and have a talent. I really didn’t expect to win, and when I realised I had won, it was incredible. It was a blur all around me, I couldn’t hear anything – I couldn’t believe it!”

Sebastien Ulens

Mr. Personality Belgium, Mr. Universe Model 2012 candidate

“It was the first time I entered a pageant. At first, my friends and parents weren’t so happy about it. Maybe because they thought it wasn’t for me, or because of the cliché that a Miss or Mister isn’t very intelligent. But when they saw that it made me more and more self-confident, they supported me.” Sebastien wanted to be a model, but with no portfolio, didn’t know where to start. “The organisation contacted me through Facebook and asked me to participate. I did photoshoots and I learned to catwalk… I learned a lot.” he says. But, he says, a Mister and a model are two different things. “My model agency are not so happy for their models to participate in beauty pageants because they think it’s “cheap”, but I don’t agree because I learned so much.” But anyway, he says, it’s his first and last foray into the world of beauty pageants. “I still have the international competition to do, but that’s it. I’m glad I did it because it has made me a more confident person, but it’s really not something for me.”