For the first time in history, voting for Miss Universe candidates in Russia is super-democratic, conducted via e-mail or SMS messages. From the numerous candidates, Russian Internet surfers singled out a certain young Alyona Pisklova. The girl from the Moscow region topped the ratings throughout all the stages of the contest, leaving her 600 rivals well behind, and was on the brink of entering the finals, when the contest's organiser, the Russian Rambler Internet company, disqualified her, claiming that she had not yet turned 18.
The thing is that, with victory seemingly assured, Alyona is very far from the traditional notions of female beauty in our globalising world. And defiantly so. The photos posted on the web feature a short (164 cm), plumpish (60 kg), chubby girl with the measurements 90-75-100. The childish face shows no trace of makeup. Moreover, the photos for the web-contest were not sent by Alyona, but by her friend, and were meant as a joke.
The Russian web community, however, chose Alyona in protest against the "perverse" standards of female looks imposed on society and the world, against tall and thin beauties, whom one does not encounter frequently in real life. To support the girl, the website "Say No to Barbies" was set up and became tremendously popular in no time at all. Voting for the "alternative beauty" acquired a whiff of ideology, a protest against "uniform products and brands that corporations are trying to turn into a cult for some groups of the population", proclaims the anti-Barbie manifesto. "We vote for individuality and ourselves!" the movement's initiators declare.
The media has started a heated debate: is this a stupid stunt by some young people with nothing better to do, or the true voice of the nation that should be heeded at all times? Proponents of the former maintain that, regardless of the vote results, Alyona will never go to Ecuador, where this year's global contest is to be held, as it is a game with its own rules and the girl's measurements and image do not fit in.
The reasoning of the Barbie opponents, though, is much more impressive, as it is better considered and socially grounded. They cite the world feminist and human rights movements, which have long accused beauty contests of sexist propaganda. In explaining the Alyona phenomenon, they have tackled the essence of democracy, declaring, "The main enemy of democracy is the consumer society. And its prophet, the Barbie doll". They argue that the global toy, given to babies as soon as they are born, deprives them of their own preferences and true choice.
They recall thousands of unhappy girls all around the world who are willing to die only because their looks do not correspond to the etalon invented by fashion designers, glossy magazine editors and diet pill distributors. To put it bluntly, "if you have a Barbie, bury it near a McDonald's!"
In the beginning, the organisers from Rambler remained calm, evidently thinking that everyone would soon get tired of the joke. "The company's position is that we make the vote absolutely honest," spokesman explained. "We do not nominate our own candidates, or support or oppose the current candidates".
Yet the ranks of Alyona's supporters continued to grow and Rambler, it seemed, lost its nerve. The company was in no way ready for such an extravagant move i.e., to send Alyona Pisklova to Ecuador.
They should have been, many Russians believe. The appearance of an "alternative beauty" from Russia would shake the contest's stagnant atmosphere, interest in which has been steadily declining all over the world, and would open new horizons for it. After all, true innovators, both in art and the model business, always end up rejecting outdated forms. Indeed, there are a number of examples: just a few years ago, designers, tired of uniformity, launched a campaign to search for new faces and found an "alternative" Kate Moss.
Moreover, sending Alyona to the Miss Universe contest, Russia would finally secure the flattering image of iconoclast. There has been a precedent. Miss Universe 2002, Russian Oksana Fyodorova, scandalised the world community by giving up her diamond crown to write a thesis and host a children's TV programme. As it happens, the still brilliant Ms Fyodorova commented on the situation with Alyona as follows, "It is always good when a person can challenge stereotypes".
The curtain has not come down on the story yet. Alyona's fans can still contest Rambler's decision to disqualify her. Yet as long as current sentiments remain the same, the Internet voting experiment for Miss Universe candidates is unlikely to be repeated in Russia. After all, next year Russian surfers may find an Alyona Pisklova who is definitely over 18.