Yara Khoury-Mikhael is late. I’m sitting in her manager’s east Beirut apartment, trying to ignore the increasingly menacing growls emanating from a small, white dog concealed under the coffee table.
I wonder what’s keeping her. She’s a 19-year-old media student and it’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday. In summer. What can she possibly have to be late for?
In her defense, Yara’s not your average student. And, after last Sunday, she’s probably going to be late for appointments for the rest of her natural life. She’ll be demanded for photo shoots, civic openings and graduation ceremonies – photographed at every opportunity and scrutinized by a braying public. So the story behind her tardiness can be summed up in the following five words: Yara is Miss Lebanon 2011.
The first impression made as she finally glides into the room is that Yara is exceptionally tall. She towers loftily above me, ably assisted by a pair of vertiginous high heels.
She apologizes profusely for the delay, flashes one of those judge-swooning smiles and collapses into her seat with the look of someone who’s been interviewing pretty much non-stop since Sunday evening.
The past four days have been the best – and most challenging – of her life, she says.
“It’s not easy to have everyone talking about you. There are a lot of people criticizing you, but at the same time you have a lot of people supporting you, so it’s weird. You walk into places and people know you. Not everyone is used to my face yet, but people are like: ‘I know her.’”
It’s not full-on Beatles street mobbings yet, she admits, but in 2011 there are other ways to gauge a girl’s appeal.
“I’ve had about 1,000 Facebook friend requests a day. I think my phone’s going to explode,” she giggles.
She is, as far as I can tell, the first Miss Lebanon to fully embrace social media, even answering a question about Twitter during the final pageant. The obvious benefit of this is that she seems accessible to her fans; she can remain closer, somehow, to the normal people. But there are downsides.
Online criticism of Yara ranges from the ridiculous to the downright personal. There is a Facebook page claiming that she didn’t deserve the crown that has thousands of “fans” taking jabs at her physical appearance (although support for her official appreciation page is far greater).
Then there is the argument made by some that beauty pageants are inherently sexist and reductive, not just objectifying women but cheapening them, whittling the female sex down to little more than Maybelline and hairspray.
“There are different tastes,” she says. “Miss Lebanon has a title; she’s representing the country all over the world. It’s a very respectful title. I don’t think a Lebanese person would like to watch [Miss Lebanon] only to see women in that way.”
But is she aware that a lot of people will judge her only on aesthetic criteria? There are, rightly or wrongly, certain expectations that come with the Miss Lebanon brand. No more popping to the shop for some milk in her pajamas.
“Maybe. But I don’t wear heels and get my hair done every day. I’m an ordinary girl now you know. I have to be presentable. I’m not going to go out wearing tank tops. But it doesn’t change me. I’m not going to change because I’m Miss Lebanon. I’m going to enjoy this year and the responsibility that will come,” Yara says. “I’m not perfect. I can’t please everyone.”
There’s no hiding the fact that this is a confident young woman, determined to enjoy the spotlight. In fact, once you delve past the prerequisite beauty queen modesty, Yara reckons her self-assuredness was the main reason she won.
“One thing that helped was meeting the judges. My personality was more obvious [than the other girls’]. I was more relaxed, more at ease. And my answers were much better [in practice] than on the night. They asked the girls who was their friend and everyone said me,” she says.
Everyone liked you? Backstage, in a high pressure environment, in one of the most notoriously waspish professions, everyone got along with each other?
“I’m not close to all of them, but most of us [are friends]. That’s very weird. I expected a lot of competitive and self-centered people. There were a few, of course. It’s a competition,” she says.
I’m going to need names, I say. “I can’t,” she squirms. “No. No!” She doesn’t even let me guess.
Moving on, we burrow deeper into the murky and lipstick-smeared world of competitive beauty pageantry.
“My first casting was a bit weird because I didn’t know what to expect. I was wearing heels and a nice shirt, how I am every day. They starting asking questions in Arabic and I’m not that brilliant in Arabic. I’m good, but not brilliant,” Yara recalls. She has received quite a bit of grief for this among online polyglots.
“It was a bit hard, but it was fun. The second casting was the worst. It was very hard. We had to wear swimsuits with heels. And they were judging your body. It’s not nice. I’m not used to posing in a swimsuit and it’s hard.” Did it make her uncomfortable? “I’m just glad it was a one piece and not two,” she says.
She stresses she is a committed student. While that’s hard to verify, there is certainly a thoughtfulness to her in person which may not have translated so well on television.
So why would she want to enter a competition that requires one, among other things, to parade semi-nude in front of the country?
“It’s a dream,” she says before stopping herself. I flash her a look and she drops the saccharine. “I’m a kid. My family encouraged me a lot to do it so I thought I’d try it. I’m very happy with the result and I don’t regret it at all,” she says firmly. She did win, after all.
By Patrick Galey