Beauties sold to the highest bidder
SO you'd like the Miss Universe contestants to attend the opening of your pizza parlour then, would you, madam? It will cost you . . . but you don't mind, eh? Let me see . . . the date you have in mind is a bit tricky because the girls are already committed that day to make an appearance at a shopping mall, pose for photographs at a department store, turn up at the graduation bash of a congressman's daughter and go to a cocktail party hosted by a five-star hotel. Mmmm . . . did you really mean you didn't mind what it would cost? Well, in that case we might be able to arrange something. But first let me check the official price list.'' Welcome to Miss Universe 1994 in the fiesta land of the Philippines. Where Miss Peru, Hong Kong, Norway, Australia, Japan and India along with 70 other shapely lasses from all points of the compass have discovered fast that beauty has its price - preferably US dollars, but pesos would do nicely, too.
Having forked out 165 million pesos that it can ill afford to stage a spectacle that guarantees 600 million TV viewers worldwide, the Philippine Government - or rather, its tourism arm - has had to find ways of recovering the money. Which, on the surface, is prudent housekeeping.
But instead, what has transpired is the ugly spectacle of the girls being bused around like wares on a relentless round of money-raising capers that have driven some of them to the point of exhaustion.
At a reception hosted by President Fidel Ramos - which was probably one of the rare occasions when the girls appeared free of charge - 21 of the delicate things reported ill and stayed in bed instead.
The going rate for a hotel wanting the contestants to flaunt their beauty by its swimming pool was 150,000 pesos, while for a little bit more they were available to turn up at Manila's discos and dance with selected guests who'd paid for the privilege.
Not that everything always went swimmingly. Manila's cocktail circuit was delighting in the story of one rich blade who'd paid big bucks to get close enough to one of the girls on the disco floor to be able to guess the perfume she was wearing.
''You really are very tall,'' he said by way of an opening line to a Latin American contestant as they swayed lazily to the music. ''That's because you really are very short,'' she countered somewhat wearily.
Other tales abound of wealthy Filipinos allegedly paying to have their children and grandchildren selected as escorts for the girls at the official functions or as Miss Universe Little Sisters at the big night itself which takes place today at the Philippine Convention Centre in Manila.
To their credit, the contestants - including Miss Hong Kong, 24 year old biology research assistant Hoyan Mok - have taken it all in their (although sometimes understandably jaded) stride. Their smiles never failed to activate when the flash bulbs popped or the crowds appeared.
And the Filipino masses, with their infectious charm and unfailing cordiality, have been turning up in their thousands wherever the contestants have appeared, oft times mobbing the girls and reducing the occasions to near-hysteria with, in one instance, a tragic result when a man was stabbed to death after a fracas between supporters of Miss Belgium and local bet, Charlene Gonzales.
Some measured voices sound a less enthusiastic note. ''The government is catapulting itself into the status of a world-class pimp,'' huffed a spokeswomen for Gabriela, a feminist group in the Philippines.
Max Soliven, the country's most influential newspaper columnist, was equally forthright. ''What kind of hospitality are we showing them? These ladies are literally being compelled to sing for their supper so that the government can raise funds to underwrite the Miss Universe pageant.
''The beauty queens are virtually being auctioned off to the highest bidders. It's like an Arab slave souk, if you ask me. And it's degrading.'' There have been other troublesome incidents from the public relations point of view that the host country - which, it must be stressed undertook this exercise with all good intent - didn't need.
Miss Universe contestants are, by unyielding tradition, expected to go into purdah during the run-up to the pageant and speak only from the prepared script.
But, reacting to a story that street children in Manila were being rounded up so as not to spoil the country's image while the world's media was around, Miss Thailand, commented that this was a ''reminder to society that problems need to be fixed and hiding them only makes you think the world is a nice place''.