Is Miss Universe Miss World’s Boss?

Which beauty queen reigns supreme and where Miss America fits in.

A pageant primer

One hundred ten young women are touring China in preparation for the Miss World beauty pageant, to be held Dec. 6 on the island of Hainan. What’s the difference between Miss World and Miss Universe, and where does Miss America fit into the pageant puzzle?

Miss Universe and Miss World are separate business enterprises, with the former far more successful at the moment. Miss Universe is a joint venture between real-estate tycoon Donald Trump and NBC, which began broadcasting the annual contest this past June. (The reigning titleholder is 6-foot-1-inch Amelia Vega of the Dominican Republic.) Prior to NBC’s involvement, Trump partnered with CBS, which co-owned the business with the Donald until NBC bought its rival’s share in 2002.

Miss Universe makes considerable money off TV ads and international broadcast rights, but it also rakes in franchising fees; countries or states that wish to hold qualifying pageants must pay for the privilege. This year’s Miss Venezuela almost didn’t make it to the finals in Panama because her nation’s franchise, the Miss Venezuela Organization, couldn’t come up with the necessary $80,000 fee. (Fortunately for fans of Mariangel Ruiz, a good Samaritan stepped in at the last second to pick up the tab.) In the United States, state franchises raise the cash by asking hopefuls to pony up a $695 fee, and some franchises additionally require that their families take out a $350 ad in the pageant program.

The Miss Universe contest, first held in 1952, has experienced something of a renaissance of late; last year, for example, the finals even beat an NBA playoff game in the Nielsen ratings. Miss World, by contrast, has been having a tough go. The most high-profile incident was last year’s debacle in Nigeria, when news of the pageant’s arrival inspired mass riots in the Muslim north. The London-based Miss World Organization also had its assets temporarily frozen last year, during a legal dispute with a Nigerian promoter. Confusingly, American delegates to both international pageants are called Miss USA.

Until this past September, there hadn’t been a national qualifying pageant for Miss World in the United States for years, and the franchising situation was a mess. Last year, an American franchisee named Miss World Holdings Inc. summarily crowned Rebekah Revels, 24, as Miss USA and shipped her off to Nigeria. (Those who follow minor scandals may recall that Revels is the 2002 Miss North Carolina winner who lost her title—and thus her slot in the more prestigious Miss America pageant—when an ex-boyfriend revealed that he had nude pictures of her.) This past June, the U.S. franchisee, renamed Horizon Talent Inc., issued a press release stating that it would hold a Miss USA contest in Las Vegas in September. But Horizon couldn’t find anyone to broadcast the pageant and was forced to move the event to smaller digs in Los Angeles. The winner, now the U.S. representative in China, was Kimberly Harlan, a red-haired Georgia native and former “prize girl” on the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune.

As for Miss America, it has absolutely nothing to do with either Miss Universe or Miss World. Rather, it’s run by a not-for-profit organization that prefers to call the contest a “scholarship competition” rather than a beauty pageant. There’s no international division for the winner; it’s strictly a domestic affair.

Bonus Explainer: International pageant hopefuls who don’t make the cut for Miss Universe or Miss World needn’t despair. There’s also Miss Earth, founded in 2001 by Carousel Productions and ostensibly dedicated to promoting worthwhile environmental causes. This year’s finals in Manila attracted a fair amount of publicity, largely because of the controversial participation of Miss Afghanistan. Like Miss World, Miss Earth has hit some rough patches: The 2002 winner, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Dzejla Glavovic, was dethroned six months into her reign, after she failed to show up at several environmental fund-raisers.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Jean Renard of Horizon Talent.