She won a regional beauty pageant and was all set to compete for the Miss Canada International title when she was unceremoniously stripped of her crown. Her offense: being a single mom.
Last summer, Kalista Zackhariyas, 24, was allowed to participate in the 2003 Miss Vaughan pageant despite being the divorced mother of a 3-year-old son.
But when she won the title and qualified for the Miss Canada International contest — which in turn sends winners on to the Miss World pageant — she was told to forget about any advancement in the pageant pecking order.
An acrimonious war of words between the deposed beauty queen and contest organizers then followed. But in the end, Zackhariyas was banned from the Miss Canada International contest and made to forfeit the Miss Vaughan title. Nearly a year later, the Toronto-based media consultant is still bitter.
"I thought I was going to be a role model for young women, I thought I was going to make a difference," she says. "I don't understand these rules. If I'm single, I'm single. What does it matter if I'm a mother, a sister or an aunt? It doesn't matter, it shouldn't matter."
But to the organizers of the more than 140 national pageants that lead up to the crowning of Miss World, it does indeed matter. For more than half a century, most of the pretty young hopefuls signing up for regional and national qualifying rounds have had to attest they have never been married or pregnant.
It's a requirement a number of participants in recent years have fought, fudged or fibbed about. But they don't always manage to pull it off. And invariably, tiaras are yanked, sashes stripped, and yesterday's pageant queen is declared persona non grata.
Mixed Message: Be Sexy But Still Pure
The latest pageant scandal emerged earlier this year when Laxmi Pandit, winner of the 2004 Miss India contest, handed back her crown after a controversy erupted over her marital status.
Pandit's abdication came a year after Miss Brazil 2003 Joseane Oliveira was stripped of her crown after pageant organizers discovered she was married.
At a news conference in Sao Paulo last year, a tearful Oliveira told reporters she concealed her marriage to enter the pageant because her father was sick and she needed the money.
While Oliveira admitted to lying about her marital status, the circumstances surrounding the Miss India scandal are murkier. Although she turned in her tiara, Pandit insisted she was still single. She said she pretended to be married in order to rent an apartment in Bombay with her boyfriend.
While the controversy rocked a country that still frowns on unwed couples living together, Pandit's predicament has put a spotlight on the housing difficulties many single working women face in Indian cities.
But for pageant organizers, any misrepresentation of contestants' marital statuses — past or present, necessary or opportunistic — is a serious violation.
A spokeswoman for the London-based Miss World Organization said it was unfortunate that Pandit had to misrepresent her status to secure housing. But, she maintained, as role models, applicants must be truthful in filling out their forms.
But for some critics, the assertion that beauty queens function as ideals of modern womanhood is particularly troubling.
"On the one hand, they sexualize a woman's body, but they want her past history to be pure as snow," says Suzanne Cherrin, a women's studies professor at the University of Delaware. "It's a very, very bad model for young girls, one that engenders the worst sort of stereotypes."
Politically Upgraded Pageants
Beauty pageants and the women's movement have had a very rocky relationship. According to some experts, the modern women's movement began at the 1968 Miss America pageant, when protesters burned their bras, torched an effigy of contest host Bert Parks, and accused the contest of being sexist, racist and pro-military.
Ever since, pageants across the world have made periodic politically correct updates to their agendas.
Nonwhite women have bagged U.S. and international pageant titles in recent years, and contestants now promote a number of causes, from children's rights to AIDS prevention and helping veterans. Some contest organizers are now billing themselves as "scholarship providers," and the reigning motto at most pageants appears to be "beauty with a purpose."
While Zackhariyas believes a beauty queen is able to attract more attention and money for her chosen cause, she bristles at the notion that single mothers can't join their ranks. "The point of the Miss Canada contest is to represent the country, improve tourism, support a charitable cause," she says. "It has nothing to do with not being single or a single mother."
Can Mothers Make Good Beauty Queens?
But according to a Miss Canada International pageant spokeswoman, marriage and babies do indeed matter.
"We do not allow people with children or people who are married to participate, because our title holder travels extensively, and we don't condone a mother leaving her child," says Victoria Neville. "It's a job for a single person, it's not a job for someone who has kids or a husband."
That explanation infuriates Zackhariyas. "A lot of women who have children travel for their jobs," she fumes. "Suddenly, my association with this organization was being reduced to child abandonment."
Cherrin says the seemingly outdated rules do not surprise her. "Pageants are very clever about marketing," she says. "Part of the allure of beauty pageants is the impression that the beauty queen is available. If she's not, if she's married, that would be less attractive."
Nearly a year after she lost her crown, Zackhariyas is finally seeing some changes.
Sylvia Stark, the president and CEO of the Miss Canada International contest, stepped down last July following numerous scandals. Over the course of her tenure, Stark had been sued successfully by another beauty queen and had pleaded guilty to attempting to obstruct justice by forging a beauty contest document.
The Miss Canada International has since fashioned itself into a "scholarship program" and no longer sends its winners on to the Miss World contest. Instead, the Canadian franchise for the Miss World contest is currently held by another organization, Miss World Canada.
But for Zackhariyas, the changes have made little difference. "Had I known then what I know now, I would never have competed," she says. "It wasn't worth it. I just wish they were more upfront from the start."