This review was first published in The Star on 31st July, 2011
(I’d forgotten about this YA novel and that I’d reviewed it until the all-female remake of The Lord of the Flies was recently announced.)
By Libba bray
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 396 pages
A PLANE full of teenage beauty queens crashes on a tropical island en route to the 41st Annual Miss Teen Dream Pageant. There are 14 survivors, including Miss Texas, the super-efficient and scarily perky Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins; Miss New Hampshire, razor-tongued Adina Greenberg; Miss California, super-assimilated Shanti Singh; and Miss Nebraska, secret wild-child Mary Lou Novak.
The stress and hardship bring out the worst and the best in the girls. You don’t look the way beauty queens do without being hard as nails (Miss Mississippi is initially gleeful about the lack of food on the island, immediately thinking in terms of weight loss rather than starvation), and one broken nail too many and even the most disciplined beauty bot might blow a fuse.
Still, the girls eventually rise to the occasion, turning their beauty apparatus and pageant-wear into tools to help them survive. And as the girls dig latrines and spear fish together, they learn to trust one other and let their guard down.
The demons each one privately wrestles with range from the usual teen problems with self-esteem and body image to sexuality, gender and race issues. While some of the girls come clean with their new friends, others are not yet ready to be honest with themselves, let alone the other girls.
Shanti Singh finds denial the most comfortable stance to take and copes quite well with the nagging doubts she has, but Taylor’s obsession with perfection tips her over the edge, turning her into a horrifying yet comic caricature of herself.
It’s obvious that Libba Bray had lots of fun writing Beauty Queens. All the dodgy things you’ve ever heard – about pageant contestants and the lengths they go to in order to look perfect – are in this book.
I’m sure Bray will be accused by some (teen beauty queens and their parents? Pageant organisers?) of being inaccurate and unfair. Whether or not the tales of perpetual hunger, back-stabbing and obsessive parents are true, they make for a good story. I mean, it would be great if beauty queens were all thin, toned and stunning without constant dieting, exercising and beauty treatments, and it would be awesome if pageants were not a hot bed of jealousy and emotional abuse. However, natural, happy and well-adjusted are just not the stuff that bestsellers and reality telly are made of.
Unlike the producers of reality TV shows, Bray’s purpose is not to shock, scandalise or titillate but to criticise the public’s voyeuristic partiality for shocking, scandalous and titillating content, and the willingness of TV stations to exploit man’s prurient tastes.
Beauty Queens is structured like a reality telly series, complete with product placement (Bipolar Bears, “a combination of vitamin and mood-levelling drug”; Discomfort Wear, innerwear “designed to eliminate rolls, ripples and muffin tops. In some cases known to eliminate circulation and breathing.”), commercial breaks (cream hair-remover Lady ’StacheOff: “Because there’s nothing wrong with you … that can’t be fixed.”) and movie trailers (Wedding Day 3: Third Time’s The Charm).
Bray lets it rip writing this, and leaves little doubt about what she thinks about the way women’s insecurities are conditioned and manipulated by the media. These “interludes” are the funniest, snarkiest parts of the book.
While it’s easy to predict the conclusion of Beauty Queens, the route Bray takes to get to the Teen Queens’ final triumph is a hilarious, zany, surprising and original one. You wonder, though, if this really happened, would it end the way Bray wrote it?
In the book, Mary Lou says: “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.” What happens when they leave the island, though? In reality, how many of these beauty queens would have the strength to still be themselves once the whole world starts watching again?