Wednesday, December 23, 2015


A funny thing happened last Sunday night.

During the Miss Universe pageant telecast, master of ceremonies Steve Harvey made the kind of mistake anyone who has ever spoken in public has nightmares about.  The field had been whittled down to two contestants, Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines.  It was time for Mr. Harvey to announce which one of them was voted first runner-up by the judges, and which one was voted the new Miss Universe.

“Miss Universe 2015 is…..,” Mr. Harvey says, pausing for effect, “...Colombia!!!”  

The requisite wild applause, crying and hugging ensue.  Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, is gently nudged aside while Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez-ArĂ©valo, is sashed, and then crowned by her jubilant predecessor, Paulina Vega, also from Colombia.  Ms. Gutierrez stands on center stage smiling and waving for about a minute and a half.  Then, the unthinkable happens.

Mr. Harvey walks back on stage, looking contrite.  “OK folks,” he says, “uh… there’s… I have to apologize.”  Ms. Gutierrez gives him a sideways glance.  Mr. Harvey continues, “the first runner-up is Colombia.”  Long pause.  “Miss Universe 2015 is Philippines!!!”  

In what must be one of the most awkward moments in television history, a bewildered Ms. Wurtzbach haltingly walks back to center stage to stand next to a stunned Ms. Gutierrez, while Mr. Harvey implores, “Miss Philippines, take your first walk as Miss Universe.”  

At this point Ms. Gutierrez still sports the Miss Universe sash and crown.  Neither young woman knows what to do.  Then, Ms. Vega, the 2014 winner who minutes ago crowned her countrywoman, comes back on stage and stands between Ms. Gutierrez and Ms. Wurtzbach, placing her arms around their waists.  In what stands out as a sweet gesture of compassion amid the surrounding madness, Ms. Vega caresses Ms. Gutierrez’s lower back.  The three women stand there while Mr. Harvey takes full responsibility for the error, explaining that the card he was handed lists Miss Philippines as the winner, and he simply read the wrong country.  The statuesque Ms. Gutierrez then gallantly crouches a bit so that Ms. Vega can reach up, remove the crown from her head, and place it on Ms. Wurtzbach.

You can watch the entire thing unfold here.

Ugliness ensued.  Racial slurs were spewed out at Mr. Harvey, who is black.  All sorts of conspiracy theories were bandied about: the teleprompter said Colombia while the card said Philippines, Mr. Harvey switched cards backstage, it was all a publicity stunt.  Colombians everywhere cried foul. Even Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, who certainly should know better, said in a radio interview: “To me, as a Colombian, she is still Miss Universe.  They put the crown on her head. The photos are there to prove it.”  Really Mr. Santos?

The uproar surrounding Mr. Harvey’s gaffe is repulsive.  Yet the conspiracy theorists do have a point: had Mr. Harvey read the card properly, I, for one, would have not even known that the Miss Universe pageant was taking place at all.  But what the publicity surrounding the incident did was remind me that here we are, in 2015, and we still hold contests where we parade young women around like livestock and judge them primarily on their physical appearance.  How can we possibly justify such unabashed objectification of women?  How can we send young girls everywhere such a misguided message?  

So, last Sunday night, a mistake made at a flagrantly misogynistic event elicited racist and xenophobic reactions.

I guess it wasn’t that funny after all.