The much-mocked world of pageants occasionally produces some genuine winners
Posted: January 16, 2013
Mariana Bečková, 14, was crowned the 2012 Teen Face of Europe in the competition, which focuses on natural beauty and character.
Cynics - many of whom may have watched the Jan. 12 Miss America pageant - will tell you beauty queens are only ditzy young women using their good looks to get ahead in life and capture a Swarovski crown. Perhaps too many of us are familiar with the glitz pageants of the type that has made Honey Boo Boo, of the U.S. channel TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras, famous for using terrible grammar and proudly displaying odd redneck behavior to national audiences with a spin-off show. The series shows overbearing mothers coddling their tween or toddler daughters almost to the point of suffocation while demanding perfect routines, eyelashes a drag queen couldn't fake and spray tans that shade kids Oompa Loompa bronze.
I know this world. I grew up in the Deep South of the United States, where this is a way of life. For many young girls, pageants are a springboard to honing their professional careers. The pageant world is deeper than Honey Boo Boo.
"For young women looking to refine their talent, build confidence and cultivate strong communication skills, pageants can be life-changing experiences," explains Kimberly Crystin Hunter, a former beauty pageant contestant in Alabama, where the newly crowned Miss America also comes from. In fact, Hunter learned not only to focus on verbal and nonverbal communication skills during her interview and onstage questions, but was "developing the skill of working well under pressure." It's a skill she says has helped her in her professional life. She says she has never once been turned down for a job after the initial interview - and she also says that's not all one gets out of it: "I honestly believe that most young women enter pageants in search of scholarship money or to help cultivate [their skills]. I feel contestants learn the significance of helping charities through preparation building their platform. I do not feel that pageants are about vain self-indulgence."
I was curious whether this might work the same way in Europe. How does a young girl from the Czech Republic get involved in pageants and why? Does she have the same feelings as Hunter or is beauty here just skin-deep?
"At first, I was not very positive," says Kateřina Bečková, the mother of Mariana, a 14-year-old who has enjoyed some recent success. "I told her, 'I don't know the world of pageants.' But if she will find one, register, get through the stages, get herself ready, then I will go with her and support her."
It was with this blessing that Mariana signed up for her first Face of Europe competition, held among the fairytale facades of Disneyland Paris. It's the type of place where "every girl can dress up and feel like a princess," Mariana says. "At Face of Europe it all feels like a fairy tale: making new friends, taking professional photos, living my dream of being on stage and expressing my feelings about certain topics in front of a big crowd."
Mariana's family first traveled to Disneyland Paris in 2011, when Mariana participated for the first time. "[During that competition,] I went without any big expectations, but we had a great time," Bečkova says of the enjoyment of being with her daughter. Losing that first round did not dissuade Mariana. Now in the teen category and with a little more confidence, she signed up again for the 2012 edition of the competition, the finals of which took place in November.
The Face of Europe pageant is a natural-beauty contest focused on girls and women between the ages of 6 and 30. The contest has many similarities to the Miss America or Miss Czech Republic pageants with the exception that the swimsuit portion is missing. Interview questions focus on the young woman's hobbies; Mariana's include cheerleading, singing and acting on stage.
On the last evening, Mariana's question was typical: "What would you change about the world?" Her answer - very heartfelt - sounds like the mission statement for the Tereza Maxová Foundation, a charity and a woman she would like to emulate one day. ("She is so kind and beautiful and giving," Mariana gushes.) For the young beauty queen, like many teens on the pageant circuit, charity is an important part of the storyline, one that you cultivate and mold. Mariana's idea of charity was simple. "Not everyone is given the opportunity to live in high standards like us," she says, "and so I think it's important."
Kateřina waited as the points were tabulated, the natural beauty and the interviews taken into account; finally, the names of those chosen were read off. "First I was a bit shocked since I didn't believe they would choose a girl who wasn't from England, but the moment when they announced Mariana as the winner was magical," Kateřina says. "We were both crying, and I was very happy, very happy, proud and touched."
For such a young woman, Mariana has the determination and poise of a seasoned pageant veteran. Her aspirations are both educational and professional. She would love to attend the Miss Czech Republic pageant one day: "I've been watching it on TV every year ever since I was a little girl. I just can't wait to see what the future holds for me!"
What I discovered in my comparative quest was a determined young woman who is well-spoken and smart, more tuned-in with Hunter's ideology of pageants as platforms than, say, the world of Honey Boo Boo. And, honestly, if pageants produce tenacious women ready to put education, talents and charity at the forefront of their lives, we should be applauding them, not putting them down. Three cheers to Miss Mariana Bečková: the 2012 Teen Face of Europe.
Heather O'Brien can be reached at