Feminism And The Beauty Pageant: An Interview with Deborah Henry (Miss Universe Malaysia 2011)

A few months ago, a few feminists took to their keyboards to talk against the existence of Beauty Pageants – especially after the Steve Harvey debacle.

As this is an annual competition and will stir up a bigger army of protesters as the years go on, I thought it would be enlightening to view it from a different perspective: a feminist & former beauty pageant winner herself, Deborah Henry – former Miss Malaysia World 2007 & Miss Universe Malaysia 2011, now Co-Founder of The Fugee School for refugee children from Myanmar.


What does Feminism mean to you?

I think people are so scared of this word. it’s so charged with crazy people, extremists, the right wing, the left wing and all that. History shows us that women have fought – especially many decades ago when women did not have the right to vote, when women were obviously discriminated against for being ‘female’. Women had to become very tough and very extreme in order to fight for what is right.

But I believe today in the 21st century, everyone should be a feminist. Because feminism is basically asking for access and opportunity for all men and women, and that makes everyone a feminist.

You, I, every man and woman who wants to fight for equal access and opportunity for all, regardless of their gender or their sexuality, their race or their religion.

But it’s been so long; many generations of women have been considered ‘second class’ citizens, their work place having been considered to be in the bedroom and the kitchen. It’s been generations that women have been viewed as not as smart, not as deserving. There’s a certain emotion that comes with it, and if you look at it, it hasn’t been that long ago when we have been given our rights. When was it that women were given the rights to vote, a basic human right?

It’s not been a long time, actually quite recent.

And so, I think that people need to understand the past and history in order to understand the present. But you also need to let go of certain things to move into the future.


Did you always want to participate in a pageant? Why or why not?

To be very honest, no. I  remember I started modelling when I was fifteen years old, and I was fine modelling. I had a lot of friends who were former beauty queens and who insisted that I should join ‘Miss Malaysia’. I swear, I told them,

Hell no! I am not joining any beauty pageant!

Because I think at that time, I was young and I had a different set of opinions. I had not viewed it from different perspectives. I thought it to be derogatory to women and I felt I didn’t need to join a pageant to achieve something or do something. I was very anti-pageant.


What made you finally decide to participate in the pageant?

Once I returned from university, I was approached to join the pageant and it was actually the first time I contemplated participating. After giving some thought to it, it was very clear that for me, joining the platform was never about just becoming a beauty queen and being beautiful. Nothing is wrong with that, but that was not my goal.
My goal with the pageant was:

 I’m going to use this as a platform to further things that are important to me, and to further my passions.

And I felt I could see ahead, to the extent that if I win this, I get media attention, I get a bit of a spotlight. My position as just a model changes, so if I were later to be interviewed of what I think of certain situations, I could share my opinion.

I studied Economics & Political Science at University so I wanted to focus on Children’s Rights, Development, Education and Poverty. I wanted to use it for that.


What’s your opinion to society’s opinion of “Women parading one’s self”?

The big push for feminists and equal rights is that it is also my right to do what I want. I have the right to be on a stage and wear a bikini and walk around – I can do that. If I want to join a pageant – I can do that.

But if I don’t want to, I also have the right to not do it; so it really comes down to individual choice. No one is forcing me, no one is pressuring me, no one is stopping me. So I understand it, I am informed, I am educated, and based on this I am making a decision.

I think an important thing to be stressed on with the pageant is, yes, I am on stage, I will do a bikini round, a small dance – but people like beautiful things. I mean, is a fashion show parading?

If I am a model and walking down a runway, is that me parading myself as a woman?

Guys do fashion shows too. Are they parading themselves? There is also a Mr.World, it’s a male pageant – are men parading themselves? It is choice. And these participants, men and women, work very hard for their bodies.

I was working out like crazy. Every week I would do six hours, going to the gym, practising. This is a commitment. It’s dedication to your body to be able to achieve something. And during the pageant at no time did I feel that I was being paraded or objectified.


Were there any struggles you had to face during the pageant as a feminist?

If at all, I have issues when people try to take advantage of me. I am not sure if this is a cultural issue, because I have modelled in London, Australia and many Asian countries, and I have felt this more in some countries than in others. I think you have to be smart enough in any sort of job, as a woman in this world, to know when someone is trying to take advantage of you, when someone is trying to exploit you. And that is something I faced in the industry itself as a model, not so much as in the pageant.

But as people treated me like the pretty girl, the challenge for me is to be taken seriously, without taking myself too seriously.

That is to say, I want people to know I am serious, a hard worker, committed.

But the problem most girls fall into is taking themselves too seriously, having to justify themselves and ask people ‘do you know who I am?’, ‘I am smart, I went to university’, and so on. That becomes the other extreme.

So you need to find that balance of being comfortable with your own skin, who you are and what you do. People will always have an opinion, but you don’t have to prove yourself to them – that was my challenge.

Because I don’t want to be known as just a pretty face. Even in the newspaper interviews, the headlines would read ‘Not Just A Pretty Face’.


Do you think the pageant empowers feminism in any way?

Well, times have changes and things have changed, and I think that the pageant should also move forward with time. I am not saying they are not doing enough, I am just saying there are readjustments that needs to occur in pageants.


How has the pageant helped you grow in your career?

It’s a blank canvas, what happens is what you paint on this canvas.

For example when interviewing contestants, I always ask the girls ‘what are you going to do if you don’t win?’ – But what happens if you don’t win? So that is one angle I always throw at the girls.


Source: Unicef

How would you describe your experience?

It’s a good memory, a surreal experience, every year only a set of 100 girls get to win and represent their countries. And for that month that you’re at the pageant, I was not called ‘deborah’,

I was called Malaysia, so it’s a very proud moment to represent your country, to represent women, to represent humanity

People often criticized these beauty queens, but I am sorry, I have been to two pageants and the girls I meet are amazing women. They are young, they are driven – whether she’s an actress, singer, teacher, lawyer, Doctor or Entrepreneur – they are all young, talented and so driven!

And if I come back and ask a set of 18-year-old girls to join a show, how many would actually do so? It takes a lot of strength and I think people also have to recognise that.


Have your achievements in the pageants contributed to the Fugee School in anyway?

For sure – I think so much of what I have done is because I was able to use that platform, from financial support to media attention and more.


What would your advice be for girls interested in taking part?

I think I  speak for most women when I say, it’s fun to dress up. I love fashion, I like dressing up, I love looking good – looking good makes you feel good. It’s an enjoyable experience and there is nothing wrong with wanting that. It’s to have fun, but don’t let that be it. You should desire more from this platform and use it, maximise it – don’t be like the girls who win and nothing comes of it. It’s a privilege.


What is it about the pageant that you would like society to keep in mind?

I think we cannot be afraid of competitions that are based on physical attributes. This is what happens when you go from one extreme to another – behaviour, attitude and personality are important, but there is also that physical aspect.

However, we need to readjust pageants, especially focusing more on women representing their nations. There needs to be more substance, and not so much on how many procedures and surgeries one can do in order to become this Barbie doll that represents one’s country. Otherwise, you lose that sincerity – it’s not genuine and I take an issue with that. I am not against tweaking a bit on your face to make you look nicer, but some girls push it to a whole new level when it comes to getting stuff done. I think that is a bad sign, because these are 20-21year olds, young girls who don’t even realise what they are doing when doing so much to their physical body.

And also, for the people who say that they are surprised that a pageant like this exists today, there is a lot worse that exists today and, as far as I am concerned, these are young, smart and ambitious women.

And guess what? They were born beautiful, they represent their country and are judged mostly by their physical attributes, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Should we then stop modelling competitions, because those are based on looks too? Why is that okay, but a beauty pageant is not? Why is a reality show like the Kardashians perfectly fine but a beauty pageant, which is respectful and honourable, not?

So if someone says, why do we still have Miss Universe on television in the 21st century, well it’s the 21st century and we have Kim Kardashian on television.



Writing and Feature Image: Amashi Marisa De Mel

My interests lie in the 1960s: my heart with Van Gogh, and my mind with Austen.


  • April 28, 2016

    Nabilah Alshari

    I think only articles like these and John Oliver (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDPCmmZifE8) can make me temporarily care about beauty pageants. I must admit, I don’t put much thought into beauty pageants or their participants. Mostly due to lack of interest and I do think that beauty pageant contestants tend to be easy targets so I never wanted to join that bandwagon.

    While I have to respect the woman for ultimately not caring about labels and pursued her goals without caving in to public perceptions, that doesn’t really say much about what some people (thinking people anyway) find problematic with beauty pageants. Of course we shouldn’t assume that the female contestants are brainless bimbos but are beauty pageants actually an effective platform for the women to demonstrate their intelligence? Why blame the women for being defensive? “Being taken seriously while not taking yourself too seriously” is a paradox I feel no girl should have to struggle with. Of course people are still going to take issue with headlines like ‘Not Just A Pretty Face’ because the woman’s identity is hinged upon being a pretty face first, intelligent/committed/hard-working etc. second. And do the organisers and judges actually care about the women’s non-physical traits? Maybe, but is it part of their job? Probably not.

  • April 29, 2016

    Amashi Marisa de Mel

    Thank you for your comment,

    To me it’s okay not to care about beauty pageants, but as a feminist I don’t think we should disrespect another woman’s choice of wanting to be a part of it.

    Also I agree that the beauty pageant being a platform to women does not change the other problems of it, and it is those problems I feel that should be addressed.
    Do I think they should completely scrap the beauty pageant out? No, as what a woman reaps out of this pageant can go miles, not just with Deborah, but also with Sri Lanka’s former Mrs.World, Rosy Senanayake, and more beauty pageant winners. Going the distance after receiving the title is up to the winner, but the fact that a platform like this exists is what I feel should be taken advantage of.

    ‘Being taken seriously while not taking yourself too seriously’, in my opinion not only happens to models, beauty queens, but a lot of women who are intelligent in a male dominated sphere, and until there’s gender equality in this world, I don’t think we’re going to get away from that one. (However this may vary from culture to culture, I speak from mine.)

    I am not sure how you came to the final conclusion, so I have no response to that. Do clarify if you have time 🙂