At the beginning of this year, Haiti was ravaged by a massive earthquake that left many people dead or injured and many buildings ruined. Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean organized a telethon to raise money for relief efforts, and people from around the world donated to charitable organizations on the ground in Haiti. Fast forward seven months, and Haiti has elected a beauty queen to represent them at the Miss Universe pageant for the first time in more than 20 years. While many in and out of the country are hailing this as an accomplishment, I can’t help but wonder if a beauty queen is really what Haiti needs right now.
This isn’t to say that I have any problem with the woman chosen as Miss Haiti. Sarodj Bertin sounds like a pretty incredible person. She speaks four languages and is studying to be an attorney. Her mother was a well-known human rights activist who was murdered after she announced her candidacy for the presidency. Even a story about Bertin losing all her luggage on the way to Las Vegas (where the Miss Universe pageant is being held next week) and having to borrow gowns from fellow contestants manages to come off as endearing instead of pitiful. “I want to change what people think about Haiti,” Bertin said in an interview. “Yes, we have poverty, we are in the middle of a crisis, but we also have so many beautiful things to share.” Look, I agree with that. But I have trouble agreeing that the best thing for Haiti right now is a beauty queen. Who paid for Bertin to fly to Las Vegas? How many people competed in the Miss Haiti pageant, and how were they able to get clothes and makeup and pay for travel? I’m not saying that because someone comes from a poverty-stricken country in the middle of rebuilding after a massive natural disaster they’re never allowed to experience joy and should live like ascetics. But it’s hard for me to determine how having a beauty queen representing your country is some kind of achievement. Why is Bertin wearing an evening gown and a sash instead of putting her skills to use running an NGO or organizing relief missions?
It could be possible that if Bertin wins or places highly and is able to swing some good PR out of her participation in the Miss Universe pageant, good things could come out of it. In the meantime, though, it seems like one person is getting a bunch of cool stuff – interviews, recognition, free clothes – while the rest of the people in her country are struggling to get through each day. It’s sort of like eating a giant ice cream cake when everyone around you is starving – it feels awkward and uneccessary, even if you earned it. Is some good PR enough? Is the opportunity to represent your country while wearing a bikini an achievement? I don’t know the answer to that. But I hope Sarodj Bertin does.