Beauty queens talk about “making a difference” during competition but often just end up becoming the faces of brands. Two Miss Switzerland competition winners are the exception, using their celebrity status to raise the profile of worthy projects.
“I was really afraid of going to India as some parts of the country are very, very poor,” former Miss Switzerland Laetitia Guarino, told swissinfo.ch.
The 24-year-old was invited by Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes to spend a week in eastern India, visiting various projects aimed at improving the lives of local children. This included visiting vulnerable children in a red light district and those suffering from malnutrition in rural areas. Guarino even requested her mother to come along to provide moral support in case it became too much for her to handle emotionally. But after arriving in the Indian city of Kolkata she was put at ease by the reaction of children she encountered.
“I saw many children in Kolkata who didn't have education, toilets, healthcare and it was very sad to see that. But it was great to see the reaction of little Indian girls when I told them I was Miss Switzerland,” says Guarino.
Beauty pageants are seen as a route to success in India and the country has produced four Miss World and two Miss Universe winners since the 1990s. Most of them end up joining the Indian film industry becoming even more successful and influential.
Guarino isn’t the only Swiss beauty queen getting out of her comfort zone. Current Miss Switzerland Lauriane Sallin was in Brazil for an event connected to the Rio Olympic Games and volunteered to visit a project looking to rehabilitate young offenders who came from the favelas or Brazilian slums. It was a prison for minor girls in Ceará State that made the biggest impression on her.
“At first you see these shy, young girls but afterwards you listen to what they have done and learn that some had killed people. I was shocked by the contrast,” says Sallin.
The 23-year-old was upset to see girl prisoners who only knew of life in the favelas surrounded by violence and drugs while other parts of the same city were safe, with good education facilities and hope for the future. She is grateful for the chance to see a different part of society and understand why gang violence is one of Brazil's biggest problems – something she feels she could only have done thanks to her role as Miss Switzerland.
“It is not just about being beautiful but showing you can use this beauty to do something. As an ambassador you have the possibility to become a sort of microphone for these people and tell others why projects to help them are so important,” she says.
Making an impact
The trips to India and Brazil have left a lasting impression on both Guarino and Sallin. Guarino is currently studying medicine at the Lausanne University Hospital in the Lake Geneva region. Visiting public hospitals in India exposed her to no-frills medicine.
“In Switzerland, we have an elitist medicine system with a lot of scans and additional diagnostic examinations. One thing I learned in India is that it is also necessary to concentrate on the person and use simple diagnostic methods,” says Guarino.
Guarino is also a big believer in the power of social media to get young people interested in what’s happening in disadvantaged parts of the world.
“In India I made video clips everyday explaining what I was doing there. This kind of communication is what helps NGOs get their message across,” she says.
For Sallin too, her visit to Brazil has revealed the potential of Miss Switzerland to influence people.
“It is important to ask yourself what Miss Switzerland represents. For me it is a young woman who is strong and responsible and who is aware that her words and actions can influence other people,” she says.
The French and art history student has a few lessons for organisations looking to raise the profile of their projects and garner public support.
“People do not want to see shocking images. You need to talk about solutions to generate empathy and support,” she says.
Terre des Hommes acknowledge that roping in Guarino and Sallin to elicit interest in their projects was a good move. A recent press release on the organisation’s work in Mosul in northern Iraq was viewed around 300 times but the one about Sallin’s visit to Brazil got around 1,300 views, according to spokesperson Ivana Goretta.
“People are saturated with photos from Iraq or other troubled regions of the world. Having a photogenic celebrity like Miss Switzerland helps rekindle interest, especially among the media,” she says.
Beauty competitions have taken place in Switzerland since the 1920s, but the Miss Switzerland competition didn’t start until 1951. Contestants have to be resident Swiss citizens, aged between 18 and 28 years and stand at least 168cm tall. Miss Switzerland 2016 Lauriane Sallin, will get an annual salary of CHF120,000 ($117,951).
In recent years, the competition has suffered significant setbacks. In 2011, public service television dropped the competition in the wake of steadily falling audience figures. In 2012, the pageant had to be called off due to lack of sufficient funding.