Line-up of lovelies proves a hit or a miss depending on your point of view

Old-fashioned sexist nonsense, or celebrating the achievements of modern young women? Anila Baig goes backstage at the Miss Universe GB contest to find out the truth about beauty pageants.

“IT’S all about empowering women, giving them confidence. You know a lot of the girls taking part today have been bullied, but through events like this they get over that.”

I nod enthusiastically. I’m all for empowerment and confidence and anti-bullying. It may be 2011, but women still earn less than men and are bearing the brunt of the recession. We need women to be strong and ...

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My guide turns away for a moment to point at a woman with something in her hand.

“Ooh, look at your bikini, it’s so sparkly!” she says.

I’m not at a conference aimed at raising educational standards and dreaming impossible dreams for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds a la Michelle Obama. Oh no. I’m in Birmingham at the Miss Universe GB final, talking to one of the organisers.

I have been following the progress of contestant Shanna Bukhari, a 25-year-old Muslim woman from Manchester, who has garnered much publicity thanks to the fact that she has received threatening messages from some members of the Muslim community.

Some British Muslims feel it is unbecoming for a woman from an Islamic background to flaunt herself in front of judges. She’s also had racist abuse from white people disgusted that an Asian could represent Britain.

But with the rough, comes the smooth. Such is her popularity that she has received gifts from the former Miss America, a Lebanese woman called Rima, who hit the headlines for being the first Muslim to represent the US, in 2010.

She also, less impressively, made history by becoming the first American not to be placed in the top five of the Miss World contest. But anyway, she sent Shanna a bracelet to repel the “evil eye” and keep her safe.

Shanna, however, seems quite capable of looking after herself and is leading the public “People’s Choice” with about 2,000 votes. Her next rival, also a Muslim, trails with 200 votes. Shanna may well make history as the first Muslim to represent Britain in the Miss Universe contest.

For some, a Muslim woman entering a beauty pageant is anathema. Although there are beauty contests in Muslim countries like Turkey, Muslim women generally dress modestly. Our motto is “If you’ve got it, you certainly don’t flaunt it.”

And Shanna has it. She is stunning. The first time we met, in Manchester, my over-riding concern was that I’d be asked to pose with her. The photographer didn’t mention it and I got all the way home to Bradford breathing a huge sigh of relief – until the picture desk rang and asked why there was no photo of us together and I had to go back.

If being judged for your beauty isn’t bad enough, there is the word that strikes fear in the heart of every Muslim of a certain age. Bikini.

How could a Muslim woman pose in a bikini?

Shanna answered that by saying she’d be wearing a sarong. What’s so wrong about that?

I’m allowed behind the scenes and tap on the first dressing-room door where I accost an Asian girl called Nashrin, a 22-year-old student from London.

“Have you had any grief from the Muslim community?” I ask.

“No,” she says.

“What do you mean, no? No death threats, no horrible messages on websites? No letters to local newspapers, saying you are a disgrace to Islam and should be punished? No blogs set up in your name saying you are a non-Muslim?”

She bats her huge Bambi-esque eyes: “No. In fact, I’ve had so much support. The whole Bangladeshi community has been so excited and so happy that for the first time there is a Bangladeshi girl in the Miss GB final. It’s so brilliant. We’re British and we’re proud of our roots. ”

Her own roots are currently being uplifted courtesy of huge hairbrushes.

But isn’t it bitchy?

“Oh no, it’s so great. Everyone gets on really well and wants to help each other.”

I wander into another dressing room where a girl in her underwear exclaims sarcastically: “Oh, for a moment I thought we had another contestant.”

So much for not being bitchy.

The rest tell me they are all self-employed, or working, or students, and a particularly stunning girl called Emma, 24, from East Kilbride, tells me she was a tomboy.

“I was very sporty and competitive and then someone suggested I try for this. This will probably be my last contest – I’ve been runner-up in a few – and then I will concentrate on my career.

“It’s addictive, once you take part you can’t stop. You get used to the pampering, you see.”

Indeed. The dressing rooms are knee-deep in girls with hot irons, curlers, crimpers and overflowing make-up bags.

Then I go downstairs and discover a huge room where professional hairdressers and make-up artists are at work.

Surely this is the equivalent of tidying the house before the cleaner comes? How much make-up and styling can one person take?

I spot another Asian girl and make a bee-line for her.

Sara Shah, 21, has shoulder-length hair and cool, greeny blue eyes. She’s the sort of girl that all the Aunties want for their sons.

“So where are you from?”

“Luton.”

“Oh, did you get loads of grief then?”

“No.”

“What do you mean no? You must have. You’re from Luton.”

Extremists from Luton have been known to threaten to cart coffins through Wootton Bassett and disrespect servicemen and women.

She fixes me with her glacial eyes and assures me that she’s had only support.

“What about the swimsuit round?” I ask, somewhat disgruntled.

“I’m wearing a sarong, but my family didn’t ask me to,” she replies.

Shanna appears in a bathrobe, her skin a curious orange, and with a Channel 4 film crew in tow. They are making a fly-on-the-wall documentary about her.

“I’ve been spray-tanned,” she says proudly.

An Asian person with a spray tan, I breathe incredulously. The world has gone nuts.

We are ushered into the hall to take our places and I sigh, dispirited.

Maybe it is all about inner beauty. Maybe these girls do have a lot of fun and it is about celebrating their achievements not their looks. Some of them are pretty but not intimidatingly so.

The music starts and the girls, dressed in red, white and blue cocktail dresses, undulate onto the stage. I’m squinting, but shock horror – they have all morphed into each other. It is impossible to tell them apart. They are wiggling their hips and swinging their long hair from side to side as if playing pinball with their brain cells.

I am quietly outraged. It feels strange watching their families cheer them on: my mother would grab me by the ear and tell me to put on some clothes.

Shanna doesn’t place in the top five, but wins the People’s Choice for getting the most public votes and the ‘Not in Vain award’ for defeating the naysayers. How ironic, I muse.

Beauty pageants are like the Great Yorkshire Show: women parade to be inspected and assessed, and are then given sashes.

One of the judges is Nicola McLean, described as a ‘TV personality’. She is most famous for trying to copy Myleene Klass in the I’m A Celebrity jungle shower. She has reportedly admitted to an eating disorder and has allegedly had a boob job. She seems the type to be obsessed with ‘outer’ rather than ‘inner’ beauty.

The winner is a raven-haired young woman from Wales called Chloe-Beth Morgan. She will now go through to the Miss Universe final in September.

It sounds impossibly glamorous, until you hear that one of the prizes is a trip to Morocco – to open the very first Costcutter store overseas.

People ask why beauty contests are still going strong. Indeed, they seem more popular than ever. Maybe we have just got used to ‘judging’ everything – from dogs, to food, to entertainment with shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. As far as beauty contests go, however, I have to say it’s a ‘No’ from me.