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Living the dream
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 01 - 2008

An exhilarating international modelling competition held in Hurghada left fashion-world fan Jailan Halawi entirely dazzled
The world of fashion and everything it entails has always fascinated me. As a child, I remember sneaking into my parents' room while they were out to try on my mother's high-heeled shoes and fancy night dresses, not to mention messing with her make-up and revelling in what I thought was the masterpiece I was turning my face into. Growing older, I wanted to be, among other things, a fashion designer, but as the days went by, my passion for writing won the upper hand and that for fashion metamorphosed into an irreversible shopping mania.
So, when I was asked to travel to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada to cover the Top Model of the World pageant this week, needless to say, I was elated. My plane touched down in Hurghada, marking the start of a delightful and unforgettable experience. A ten-minute drive from the airport brought me, along with other delegates and media personnel, at the mega event venue, the Steigenberger Al Dau Beach Hotel, a massive building with Swahili design.
My initial plan was to catch up on some sleep, since, a day before the anticipated trip, not being able to contain my excitement, I had not slept at all. Yet the atmosphere, buzzing with energy, beckoned, provoking my journalistic appetite into getting started at once.
First, I wanted to find out how the idea for such an event was born, so I approached the hotel's resident manager, Karim Boshra, who explained that the one and a half year old hotel had hosted, upon its opening in December 2006, the Miss Deutschland competition, the first ever held outside Germany since 1909. Following the success of the event, the hotel management planned to hold an international event on a larger scale. "It's a chance to grab international attention to the beauty of the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, place it on a higher level in the tourism market and prove to the world that Egypt is capable of hosting such major events," Boshra said.
Boshra commended the support and cooperation they had received from the Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA) and the Red Sea governorate, saying the event would not have been possible without it.
This year's event marked the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Top Model of the World pageant, which began in 1993 in Miami. Held in China for the past two years, it is Egypt's first time to be its host, with delegates arriving in Hurghada from 41 different countries.
My next stop was with the European director and CEO of the WBO (World Beauty Organisation), Detlef Tursies, the man in charge of the organisation's business development. To my delight, Tursies informed me that this year's pageant will mark new standards for modelling. "Our challenge this year is to change the criteria upon which models are being elected," he said. "Contestants no longer need to be very tall, nor skinny. What we are looking for is a face with potential that leaves an impression on stage and we do the rest. We train her and work on her wardrobe."
Now, I've always harboured a resentment towards the larger-than-life and, frankly, unreasonable, qualities that modern-day models need to measure up to. So, it was music to my ears to learn from Tursies that their models no longer needed to starve themselves to death or be particularly tall to be considered. What a relief to finally be able to watch fashion shows with models that resemble people in real life, not in fairy tales. Nonetheless, since contestants needed to be between 17 and 26 years of age, my chances were non-existent, so pushing back the option of a shift in careers, I got down to business and asked what the WBO offers the winner. "We sign a one-year contract with her, take her on trips as a VIP guest at various events and train her to be the best," Tursies said.
The WBO has national directories in 78 countries around the world. Prior to the competition, each country is asked to select one contestant from their country to represent them in the Top Model of the World pageant.
As my chat with Tursies drew to a close, a pretty, tall brunette approached us sporting tight black trousers and a figure-hugging black and white vest that showed off a flawless body. The lady turned out to be 23-year-old Michelle de Leon, the 2006 Top Model of the World. I was charmed; not only by her appearance, but also by her modesty and the way she carried herself.
Speaking of her experience, de Leon explained that being the Top Model of the World made her dreams of touring the world come true. "The WBO took me to places I never dreamed of going, like Egypt, an amazing country with warm people and weather," she recounts. "The WBO also taught me how to strive to be the best. In short, they helped me grow. I had an incredible year, and now it is time to pass it on to someone whose turn is to shine."
The one-hour conversation went great, except for when I asked her how she keeps her figure, to which she gushed that she loves food, especially sweets, and that she hardly works out. "It is all about genes," she boasted. "My mother and all my aunts have the same great figure even after marriage and children." Even though she rubbed it in so unabashedly, I could not hold grudges against such a lovely person. She was kind enough to tip me that the models were, as we spoke, getting ready for their final rehearsal, so we wrapped up the interview and rushed to the scene.
It was already past 10pm, yet the place was buzzing with energy and excitement. Everyone was doing their utmost to ensure nothing would go wrong -- be it the girls rehearsing over and over again, tirelessly going up to the stage and down in their exceptionally high heels; the choreographer with his infinite patience and persistence, refusing to accept anything less than perfection; or the dedicated hotel staff and management, extremely focussed on not letting the finest detail go unchecked. A half hour before midnight, they called it a wrap and I crashed into bed as soon as I got to my room.
The next morning was a glorious Friday, sunny and warm. I woke up full of energy, despite not having slept much, in anticipation of the big day ahead. From my balcony, I could see the hotel bustling with action. By mid-day, models were giving interviews on the beach and by the swimming pools to the press and the media.
Despite the efforts exerted, everyone seemed ecstatic. The girls I interviewed all agreed on one thing: that regardless of who wins the pageant, they were all having loads of fun in the sun, enjoying the diversity of cultures they were being exposed to and making new friends.
As 8pm rolled in, it was time for the final selection gala to start. The venue filled to capacity with men in suits and women in elegant nightdresses and the show started with a performance by a folk dance group. The girls made their first appearance, all in blue jeans, fuschia tops and cool sunglasses.
Following was the exotic swim-suit show and the rounds of applause seemed endless as the girls came on to the catwalk in their colourful bikinis. Though they all had wonderfully toned bodies, I was particularly impressed by Miss India, looking mysterious in her zebra-like bikini, Miss Ukraine in her hot red bikini, Miss South Africa, absolutely ravishing in silver, Miss Bahamas, who looked wild in her brown outfit and curly brown hair, the effervescent Miss Brazil, appearing in pistachio and black, Miss Margarita Island, stunning in black with a silk leopard-coloured cap and cheerful Miss Russia in red adorned with a diamond at the belly-button. Both Miss Serbia and Miss Egypt received rounds of applause for their unique suits.
The models' third breathtaking appearance was in night-gowns, and that unquestionably turned heads. It was at this moment that my colleague sitting next to me commented: "It is occasions like these that remind me I need to dress up and visit the hairdresser." She giggled and so did I.
All the girls looked simply stunning doing the catwalk in their exquisitely elegant night dresses in different fabrics and designs; Miss Brazil in her simply stylish colourful lace in bois de rose and pistachio, Miss Belarus in her two-piece charcoal and almost- black silk gown and Miss France in her off- white feather-like tail dress that gave her the look of an angel.
After the jury of nine selected the top 15, star singer Keith Tynes of "The Platters", who came especially for the event, gave an astounding performance and received non-stop applause from the audience, who would not let him go until he promised to sing at the closing of the event. Following his nostalgic show, the jury chose the top five models that included: Brazil, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus and Egypt, all coming out in dresses designed by Egyptian haute couture designer, Hisham Abul-Ela, who once worked with Moschino, the Italian fashion group and design house.
The thrill had reached fever pitch as the choice for number one drew near. Then the winners were announced: the second runner up was Lobna Amin, a 20-year-old Mass Communication student, whose success marked the first time ever for an Egyptian contestant in this competition; the first runner up was from Belarus, 23-year-old Alena Aladka, who also holds the title of Miss Belarus 2007; and the winner was 23-year-old professional model, Alessandra Alores, from Germany, who previously won the title of Miss Germany in 2003.
The winners took their final walk on stage and the grand finale featured Tynes, singing Frank Sinatra's infamous "New York, New York".
In an interview with Alores minutes after the show was over, she said: "When they said my name I was shocked, because I am not that tall, so I did not expect to win the first prize. Yet, I did my best and I advise everyone to always believe in themselves in order to see their dreams come true. It feels like a dream for it is every model's wish to hold such a precious title that opens the door before her to become internationally renowned." Alores had won the top model of Germany title in December 2007.
Ah, what can I say? I am extremely happy for Alores' success, not just because she is not as tall as the other models, but because she actually has to watch what she eats and work out to keep her figure, which made me feel a lot better about the vigorous gym sessions I undertake to keep myself in shape.


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