My Miss Universe Journey and One Year On

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What does it mean to be confidently beautiful? This is what Miss Universe stands for and it’s an organisation where my values align. However, for some, they might think that a beauty pageant is contradictory to what I believe in. Or for some, they might have been thinking: what exactly was a Muslim hijabi doing in Miss Universe New Zealand?

On December the 17th 2018, was the 67th Miss Universe pageant which will be held in Thailand. Although I won’t be representing New Zealand on the international stage, last year I was fortunate enough to experience the Miss Universe journey as a hijabi.

Growing up I was the shy, quiet girl and I rarely saw someone that looked like me or I could relate to. Therefore, identity has always been something that I have struggled with. I have a clash of Eastern and Western, Malay and Indonesian, a student and a factory worker, Islam and being a minority. However, growing up I also always wanted to help change the world in some way but never in my life have I thought I would do so through a beauty pageant.

When I first entered the competition all I had thought was: ‘What would happen if I entered Miss Universe New Zealand?’ And I can tell you that the journey was a surreal and unique life experience.

The journey began with Stiletto Camp, a weekend where 50 semi-finalists participate in interviews, photo shoots and video shoots and of course walking and dancing in stilettos. At first, I was nervous as I never competed in pageants and I had no idea what I was doing. I was even more nervous when I found out that most of them were dancers, models or even won pageants in the past. Not only was I the odd one out in experience but I was also the odd one out because I was wearing the hijab.

A couple of weeks has passed and the wait to see if I was one of the 20 finalists was nerve-wracking. It was possible that if I were to make it into the finals it could be a pretty big deal since I would be one of the first hijabis to make it into the finals for one of the biggest pageants in the world.

And it did turn out to be a pretty big deal. A month after I was announced as a finalist, somehow someone in Malaysia started a Twitter thread about me and I went viral not just in Malaysia but also in Indonesia. I found out through a friend that I was trending and I literally became famous overnight.

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I remember the moment I went viral as my whole body was shaking. My face was all over the internet. I made headlines and front cover pages in major news outlets. People wanted to know who I was or they already ‘knew’ everything about me. People wanted to claim me, they wrote comments or they shared my story. Everyone was talking about me.

At the time I went viral, the Miss Universe New Zealand girls and I were on our way to a retreat in Thailand. I made the retreat an excuse as to why I couldn’t be interviewed by the media just yet. Instead, I lived in the moment and enjoyed everything about the retreat. It was like we were in a movie- I was on a tropical getaway with nineteen beautiful girls. We relaxed in luxury and pure bliss, we were treated like celebrities with people always taking pictures of us, we ticked so many things off my bucket list and contrary to pageant girls not eating- we ate constantly and the food was divine. During this time, we also had our calendar shoot as part of the ‘swimsuit’ section. And the swimsuit section was what everybody wanted to know about.

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It was a big deal in Malaysia because beauty pageants are a fatwa (religious ruling) for Muslim women. This meant that I made history by being the first Malay to ever compete in a competition like Miss Universe. It is a fatwa because as there is a belief that if you are in a beauty pageant, you would have to expose yourself in a bikini and let people judge you by looks. But I didn’t enter Miss Universe for validation as I know my own self-worth and I can vouch that the culture of pageantry has changed- especially in Miss Universe New Zealand.

Nonetheless, the organisers had always been respectful and accommodating to my faith ever since the very beginning. From having halal food available to ensuring that I am covered up during photoshoots, I always felt comfortable and I never felt left out. The other contestants were also respectful and understanding. Again, contrary to pageant girls being catty, these girls were some of the most amazing and loveliest group of women that I ever met. We supported and lifted one another and they were so genuine and down to earth.

Once we got back from the retreat we all had to get down to business- literally. The contestants all had to do an Entrepreneurial Challenge to raise money for charity and for New Zealand it was Variety- the children’s charity. This is because being Miss Universe you have to be an all rounded woman and so it is so much more than just a beauty pageant. If it was just a beauty pageant then it would be against my own values and I would have not competed in the first place. 

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Nonetheless, a month before the Grand Finals, I went back to Malaysia and Indonesia to do some media interviews, meetings, photoshoots, video shoots and even be part of television shows. It was two weeks of the fast life where I was constantly doing something back-to-back and I also met a lot of public figures, celebrities and big CEOs. Although those two weeks have left me exhausted, it made me more motivated to continue doing what I was doing as I loved empowering young girls.

The week of the Grand Finals was emotional for all of us. I was torn between having it finally over and done with and for it to never end. During the last week, we made final preparations and two days before the big night, some of us went to Krispy Kreme. I laugh whenever I think about it because we were all well aware of the dresses that we would be wearing and instead of being at the gym, we were stuffing our mouths with doughnuts. And at that moment I realised that this is what it meant to “live your best life” which us girls had always joked and quoted throughout the journey. It is to pursue extraordinary things and making memories with no regrets.

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On the night of the Grand Finals, we definitely lived our best lives. We gave it our all and I had so much fun doing so. I wasn’t nervous when I was on the stage or live on screen for the world to see. I was super excited and happy as within those three months of the competition, I had done everything I could to the best of my abilities. I had faith that whatever happens on that stage, it will happen for the best. 

That night I somehow made it to the Top 5- a feat that hasn’t been achieved yet by someone like me in a Western pageant. I am Asian, a person of colour, short, not conventionally skinny and wearing the hijab with no relatable experience. During the pageant people would also remark that I was ‘biase je’ which means ‘just ordinary’ in Malay. But that was exactly what I wanted people to see while I was on that stage. This is because I wanted other girls to be able to look at me and feel confidently beautiful themselves as I never had someone I could relate to when I was growing up. Also, I realised that what people think of you is a reflection of themselves and so negative comments never got to me. 

Being in Miss Universe was so much bigger than myself as my intentions were to help break boundaries and stereotypes as well as redefining what true beauty is. I hope that from my own journey it inspires other girls to embrace and be confident with their uniqueness and differences because it’s what makes them beautiful. I also hope that girls will learn to love themselves and that no matter who they are or where they come from, they have everything within them to achieve anything and everything that they want. Thirdly, I want girls to live optimistically because life is too short and one small thought had changed my life forever. Lastly, even if you consider yourself as ordinary, you are more than capable of achieving extraordinary things. 

The Miss Universe New Zealand journey was a once in a lifetime experience and I loved every minute of it. Admittedly, I am still at disbelief when I remind myself that I was in a beauty pageant. I would have never thought that I would compete in such a thing. After gone viral, having done countless of media interviews and placing in the Top 5, I still don’t consider myself as a pageant girl but I do know that Miss Universe will now forever be a part of my identity.  

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And now a year has passed but it just felt like yesterday. A lot has happened since a year ago. I managed to graduate university within two and a half years instead of three, I worked in an organisation I really wanted since I started university where I helped empowered individuals with mental health get back into the community and now I am currently exploring my two home countries, Malaysia and Indonesia where I am learning about the language as well as the culture and meeting countless of amazing people and spending time with my adorable baby cousins. But most of all, I’ve been busy focusing on myself learning and growing into the woman that I want to become. A lot has asked will I do another pageant or am I still involved with Miss Universe? For me, Miss Universe was a once in a lifetime experience and I did it, not because I wanted to win but because I just wanted to live my life to the fullest by taking the opportunity. However, I have been involved with Miss Universe as I participated in a charity show to help victims from the Christchurch attacks. Others have asked, what will I do next? I don’t know what will happen for the rest of my journey but I have trust that God will make it beautiful. For now, all I know is that God’s abundance and mercy are limitless, there are so many possibilities out there.

“And hold fast to Allah! He is your Protector-
The best to protect
And the Best to help!” Quran (Al Hajj) 22:78

Nurul Shamsul1 Comment