It’s probably the last week in June or first week in July, it’s Saturday night, and after much calculation and planning, your Hungry Monkey order has come through the door just in time. The pizza is flowing, there’s a bottle or two of rosé on the coffee table, and the TV is blasting the opening credits on GBC. Around 10 of your closest female friends/family members/neighbours (and perhaps a couple of intrigued men) are splayed on your sofas in ‘la sala’ as the starting line-up is revealed. Bright lights, bouncy hair and bronzed to the nines, it could only be Miss Gibraltar. 

Some call it the highlight of the Gibraltarian social calendar, and before the Gibraltar Music Festival blessed our Victoria Stadium in 2012, it probably was the standout annual cultural event. And yes, people deny such scenes as I’ve described, but according to Instagram/Snapchat stories and all the Facebook likes each year, I’m going to go ahead and guess that a fair few of you are telling porkies.

This year however, the tradition will be broken as the pageant will not be televised. After two deadline extensions only three contestants have signed up and, although we won’t be able to sit and enjoy (or criticise) the whole affair from the comfort of our sofas, the show will still take place in June. The poor turnout has called into question a number of issues people have with the pageant, which has run uninterrupted since 1964.

Do beauty pageants still hold a place in 2018? The demand isn’t there this year from young women, and of the last 10 Miss Gibraltar shows, eight have required entry deadline extensions because of lack of initial interest from contestants. Women need more convincing, often through tags on Facebook posts about the impending deadline, with messages like “what are you waiting for?!” and “tu si que vale!” from well-meaning friends and family.

Maybe women are less keen because many of those in the Miss Gibraltar age bracket (17 to 24 years old) are studying abroad. Maybe it’s because of social media pressures which have become much more a part of the process. Show producers now use Facebook to promote the pageant, posting images of the contestants in matching outfits, head shots and swimwear, adding to public engagement as photos score hundreds of likes and comments.

Local pageant organiser and former beauty queen Bianca Zammit says this pressure may play a part, but won’t have been the deciding factor for women. She says: “Social media is a popularity contest – what’s the difference between getting criticised on stage and on Instagram or Facebook?” Former contestants may disagree though, as online comments can feel a more personal attack than any off-hand observation made by your Instagram followers behind closed doors. Miss Gibraltar 2013, Shyanne Azzopardi experienced the brunt of this following her win, as online trolling (all centred around her looks) highlighted the Gibraltarian audience’s nasty side.

Former producer of the show, James Neish, says point systems now place more emphasis on speaking rounds: “The interview will upset you from the top spot or push you into the top spot. You have to have other qualities as well, but it does play a huge role.” Unfortunately, as much as the pageant’s criteria evolves viewers aren’t buying it, and Neish says this is a reflection of audiences, not pageant culture: “We as society still expect ‘la mas guapa’ to win.”

Zammit fulfils this societal stereotype, saying, “It’s not just about looks, because believe me there are ugly girls who have won Miss Gib”. Contestants raise thousands for charity, develop as speakers, teammates, and performers – but we still obsess over the colour of their dress. She and Neish agree that perhaps that says more about viewers than about the show itself.

But maybe we need to cut the audience a bit of slack. It’s difficult to get past the beauty element when the premise of the show has always pitted women against each other based on their physical attributes (which, some need to be reminded, is entirely subjective) and it is called a beauty pageant. How can you expect nearly 60 years of cultural perception to evolve if we don’t even see the contestants being interviewed – save the token “I want to be a good ambassador for Gibraltar” rehearsed one-line stage answer? A couple of attempts were made to introduce an on-stage presentation round a few years ago, but have vanished since. If organisers of pageants are intent on building reputations as skill developers beyond looks (which I don’t doubt benefits contestants immensely), then why not show audiences these progressions, instead of keeping them hidden?

It still remains that only three women thought entering was worthwhile this year. Many competitions on the Rock go ahead with dwindling participants because of our limited population, so you may wonder what the difference between this and an athletics race with only three entrants is. Nothing, except the £50,000 annual government funding.

To put £50,000 into a show annually gives the pageant a government-backed importance that perhaps isn’t appropriate for a show which ultimately judges women based on beauty. The Miss England pageant is funded through sponsorship, as are many the world over. If Miss Gibraltar is truly supported by the community then surely sponsorship would be easy to come by. Though this year the sum is expected to be smaller because of the shrunken size of the event, the government’s involvement in a niche practice which only a handful of women participate in each year seems excessive.

Neish defends the cost of the event, citing the other participants involved: “Miss Gibraltar is much more than just a beauty pageant, it fills a cultural need. When else do stage designers, managers, presenters, and performers really get a proper sense of a live Gibraltar TV show?”

After organising 40 pageants at the same venues through sponsorship, Zammit disagrees, saying it “doesn’t need to get taxpayer funding at all”. Zammit estimates that £10,000 could easily serve organisers, adding: “If they gave me £50,000 to put on a Miss Gib, my contestants would come flying down in rockets.”

Beyond personal opinions and funding squabbles, the theories surrounding the issue echo that of the recent banning of grid girls from Formula 1. The models, who formerly held up pre-race number placards on the track, were banned by F1 organisers as the practice was deemed “at odds with modern day societal norms”. The decision was met with jubilation by many feminist commentators, but grid girls argued their role wasn’t demeaning, and that feigned political correctness was removing opportunities they worked hard for, leaving them out of a job.

You could argue that the same be said for pageants. Neish says some so-called feminist arguments can be perceived as judgmental rather than helpful: “Are you saying that the girl entering can’t choose for herself? It’s insulting as maybe they are using this as a platform to go into the fashion industry or to travel.

“And how enriching is it to be in a pageant like Miss World where you’re meeting 117 people from other cultures to exchange experiences with? It’s a massive opportunity.”

Zammit says naysayers trying to defend the rights of women are actually underestimating those who enter: “You know what you’re getting yourself into.”

They’re absolutely right, as those who enter are adults. The difficulty arises when you look at the child and teen pageant culture that has boomed in Gibraltar for decades. Zammit, who has organised pageants for girls as young as 10, says her contestants are fully aware of what they are getting themselves into, as much as their parents who sign consent forms are: “I have a meeting with both the mums and contestants, and I say, ‘This is a beauty pageant, only one girl will win’ – I make it very clear to the girls and it’s up to them.”

She says in her 16 years’ experience girls have always benefitted from competing in her pageants, even re-entering year upon year. And the demand definitely seems to be there – as Zammit’s Dream Girl (10 to 15-year-olds) and Miss Glamour (16 to 21-year-olds) have run consistently since 2003, and there’s also Miss Teen Gibraltar (14 to 18-year-olds) and Miss Cover Girl (9 to 13-year-olds) organised by No1 Models.

But perhaps this demand speaks volumes not of how positive the practice is, but rather at how young girls perceive themselves, due in part to social media pressures to look a certain way, the age-old importance placed on looks in traditional media and, undoubtedly in Gibraltar, the institutional prevalence of Miss Gibraltar as the supposed Holy Grail of achievements for women. After all, the government funds it, Miss World 2010 got an actual parade down Main Street, and the winner’s picture is splayed across magazines, newspapers and social media for all to admire during her reign. Of course girls are going to be affected by this, and to suggest they fully understand the influences at play is to overestimate the awareness of children and teens.

In any case, it’s creepy for adult judges to score and compare underage girls based on their looks, and to do it on a stage and then publicise it online and in the media is just wrong, even if their parents gave consent. There should be no place for child and teen pageants in 2018.

But what of Miss Gibraltar? I’m sure there will be those who miss the fun of watching this year, and also those who are glad about the reduced publicity the pageant will receive. And even if the show sees a renaissance in 2019, at least the contestant controversy this year has sparked (some) meaningful conversations about government funding and the roles available to women in Gibraltar.