Miss You World: the broken beauty of Miss World contestants crying
May Safwat likes watching Miss World contestants cry. She waits for the moment when they break — mascara smeared across their faces; lipstick smudged; crowns slightly askew. It’s not a morbid fascination; May watches because she finds their crying moving: “That unfiltered, raw emotion is so telling,” she explains. “They’re not acting anymore: they’re in pain! They remind me of how fragile we all are.”
A filmmaker and tutor at Kingston School of Art and Central Saint Martins, May had the idea to make a magazine out of crying contestants when she was in hospital, recovering from an exploded appendix. “They told me if they didn’t operate I would die.” We’ve met in a pub in Camden, and she is so undramatic about her brush with death that at first she actually forgets the word for ‘appendix’. “I’m always preaching to my students, if you have an idea: do it! So I thought I’d better take the opportunity.”
The resulting magazine is Miss You World, and explosions seem to be a theme here: pictures of contestants crying are juxtaposed with pictures of bombs falling, and apocalyptic quotes from politicians, philosophers, and the Talmud. On one page, Miss Venezuela grips her crown in anguish next to a quote from Voltaire: “‘But for what purpose was the earth formed?’ asked Candide. ‘To drive us mad’ replied Martin.”
It’s funny, but also strangely profound. Sometimes the images and quotes fit together so perfectly it’s a bit disturbing. Towards the middle of the magazine, Miss Teen USA is shown mid coronation, with a sparkly tiara hovering just above her head; on the page next door there’s a quote from Robin Cook about the illegality of the Iraq war, and above it another line, from Yuval Noah Harari: “Free will and individualism are illusions.” Sweet, blonde Miss Teen USA becomes a symbol: she is all infinitely corruptible future kings; the brunette who squishes the tiara down onto her head, just part of the machine.
On one double-spread, a Middle Eastern woman is pictured raising her hands in despair, right next to a picture of Miss America, raising her hands in triumph. It’s quite a shocking contrast. What was your intention with that?
I’m half Lebanese, half Iraqi. My aunts look like that little old lady. Because of the media representation of women from the Middle East, we’ve been conditioned to find this woman frightening. We see Miss America with her beautiful Britney teeth and then we see this old lady and her two teeth on top and feel fear. But as an arabic artist I can put these images together, and reframe the old lady from a different perspective: she is also beautiful. These two women have the same body language, but they come from completely different worlds. One is crying because her son got killed at war, maybe; the other is crying because she has just become Miss America, but ultimately they’re so similar in the fact that they’re both feeling pain in this moment. They are both feeling an emotion. There is the same essence in their souls.
But then again, Miss America is feeling elation; the old lady is in despair. So it’s different? Or are you suggesting that the relief you can feel in letting go when crying out in protest or mourning, and the relief you feel crying when you win, is similar in a way?
Well, the mask cracks, doesn’t it. Before I made Miss You World I had written a short film called Virtue about the corruption of power. I was reading a lot about Angela Merkel and her body language. Her background is not in politics; she is a scientist, and when she first came to power she used to stand really awkwardly. They had to get someone in to train her to stand with her hands clasped in a triangle in front of her. But what drew me to the body language of these Miss World winners, is that it is so unposed.
So it’s about the construction of power, and what our bodies do in moments of absolute powerlessness? When we no longer try to hide our fragility?
Exactly. When I see them crying, and the mascara running down their faces, they are so human. They are suffering! They aren’t performing anymore and that moves me. I make a lot of jokes in my work, and of course I do still find some of these images funny: what are you crying for love? You knew what you were getting into! You’ve won! But I like that you can react to it in such different ways.
Yes, and I think you can find these images funny and moving at the same time.
There’s this quote by the poet Rumi I like: “Explanations by words make many things clear, but love, unexplained, is clearer.” I think about that quote in relation to the different ways people can respond to a work. As an artist, you can drop a little seed, and let people interpret it. Some people when they see these women crying will find it funny. Some people are shocked. But for me the magazine is about what we share. About the fact that we are all fragile, and we’re all ultimately quite nice people.