This article focuses on the links between political discourse and feminine beauty in one of Romania’s first national beauty pageants. By selecting its “Miss Romania” in March 1929 and sending her to compete in the international “Miss Universe” pageant in Galveston, Texas, the popular magazine Realitatea Ilustrată sought to affirm its role in creating a visible symbol of the Romanian nation. “Miss Romania” was promoted and legitimized as an incarnation of national unity capable of assuring internal cohesion and external renown. In this way, the idealization of the national beauty winner and her transformation into a symbol of collective virtue translated political and propagandistic ambitions in terms of feminine identity.
Keywords: beauty pageants, feminine identity, nation-building, symbolic politics, Romania, Greater Romania, popular magazines, Realitatea Ilustrată
In March 1929, Realitatea Ilustrată [The Illustrated Reality], Romania’s most successful illustrated magazine, elected Magda Demetrescu, as its first “Miss Romania” national beauty pageant winner. The 17 years old native of Bucharest was not the first woman to hold this newly created title. The distinction had been already given by the daily newspaper Universul to Marioara Gănescu, a 24-year-old elected in January 1929 ([UNIVERSUL] 1929, 3). However, Magda Demetrescu was portrayed as the feminine ideal that highlighted the political aspirations of Greater Romania, following the territorial enlargement of the state in the aftermath of the World War I. The sumptuous election of “Miss Romania” from over 2,500 candidates from all corners of the country mobilized vast financial and intellectual resources. At the same time, it concentrated the discursive efforts of Bucharest’s press to give a concrete expression to its political ideals.
As other historians have pointed out (Banet-Weiser 1999; Ballerino Cohen, Wilk & Stoeltje 1996; Savage 1998, Watson & Martin 2004), the abstract symbol of “the nation” does not guarantee the cohesion of individuals or communities in the absence of visible expressions of collective solidarity. To coagulate as a “legitimate institutionalized system of beliefs and practices” (Banet-Weiser 1999, 8), the nation needs symbols of its unity and identity. To this end, an idealized image of womanhood is created as a national symbol in order to express “the collective sense of national purpose” (Mosse 1985, 90). Modern beauty pageants offer new ways of exploring the complex, diffuse, and unstable nature of the discourses that, on the one hand, pertain to the nation, helping to shape the criteria by which membership to this “imagined community” (Anderson 2006, 5-7) is ascertained, and, on the other hand, define the attributes needed for a woman to be designated as a legitimate representative of the nation’s qualities, virtues, and political ambitions. Nations are not necessarily only geopolitical realities (i.e., clusters of people and institutions grouped in a sovereign territory), but also concepts that are discursively created and consolidated through symbols and rituals (Gellner 1983; Greenfeld 1993; Smith 1991; Smith 2000). In other words, from an abstract, imagined construct, the national community becomes a “nation of flesh and blood” (Hogan 2009, 1), a tangible reality that assumes different public appearances. In the space of interwar Romania, one of the most expressive avatars of the nation was “Miss Romania” – the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.
Sources and directions
In this article I argue that feminine beauty was discursively constructed as a political symbol of national cohesion through one of the first “Miss Romania” national beauty pageants. More specifically, I explore how Realitatea Ilustrată created this feminine image of national pride and unity, as well as the ways in which “Miss Romania” presented herself in the USA during the “Miss Universe” international beauty pageant, which was held in the coastal resort city of Galveston, Texas.
The research used printed media as primary sources, with a focus on the Romanian publications that organized “Miss Romania” (Realitatea Ilustrată), as well as on the largest newspaper in Galveston at the time (The Galveston Daily News). For Realitatea Ilustrată, which was the best-selling weekly illustrated magazine throughout the 1920s and 1930s, I analyzed 48 issues between November 1928 and September 1929. In addition, I looked at two other publications – Dimineața [The Morning] and Adevěrul [The Truth] – that belonged to the same media holding headquartered on Sărindar Street, an important center for the development of modern Romanian press (for more on their history and relevance for the Romanian media landscape during the Interwar period see esp. Hangiu 1996, 360; Petcu 2012, 469; Avramescu 1982; Samson 1979; Bârna 2014; Hangiu 2008). For Dimineața, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers, the issues under scrutiny span from March to September 1929, while for Adevěrul, a major daily political journal, the issues range from December 1928 to March 1929. For The Galveston Daily News, one of the most read daily newspapers in Texas at that time, I selected the period January-June 1929. From these four publications, I identified and analyzed chronologically a total of 42 news articles that tracked the unfolding of “Miss Romania” and “Miss Universe.” The fragments included in this article from the three Romanian periodicals are all in my translation.
The study aims to contribute to and conversates with an already existing body of scientific literature on the ties between feminine identity and political discourse in modern Romania, especially works that integrate gender identity into the complex processes of redefining the social and political landscape of the 19th century and the efforts of nation building (Băluță 2000; Băluță 2003; Băluță 2008), women’s political representation (Cosma 2002; Petrescu 2003; Petrescu 2005; Petrescu 2008), feminist ideals and organizations (Mihăilescu 2002; Mihăilescu 2006), or emancipation (Bucur & Miroiu 2002; Dragomir & Miroiu 2002).
With a population of over 18 million of which 80% were classified as rural population ([Romanian Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Protection] 1931, 31), post-WWI Romania was a country of deep social, economic, and cultural contrasts between the cosmopolitan, industrialized large cities and the autarchic, conservative villages and provincial towns (Murgescu 2010, 212-374; Boia 2011, 65-68; Hitchins 2013, 374-413). The need to create a unified Romanian nation that mirrored the geographical and political unification of “Greater Romania” (ro. “România Mare”) stemmed from the fact that over 28% of the population was not ethnically Romanian. Moreover, in Transylvania and Banat the majority of the urban population was Hungarian or German, while in Moldova and Bessarabia it was Jewish (Hitchins 2013, 377). Even though they made almost 72% of the total population, Romanians amounted only to 58,6% of the total urban population and approximately one third of the urban population of the recently unified provinces (Ibid.). Demography thus hints at the perceived need of the central press to construct a symbol of Romanian unity and cohesion.
The political dimension of organizing “Miss Romania”
Early in November 1928, in a passionate and expressive article, Realitatea Ilustrată announced that it was accepting submissions for the nation’s first beauty pageant, open to all young women who wished to contribute to promoting Romania’s international reputation (Pas 1928). This noble goal was necessary because “foreigners only know us thanks to a few good people, a legion of crooks and our women, whose grace they recognize and compliment” (Ibid.). Realitatea Ilustrată’s pageant is presented as having given women the chance not only to embark on an unforgettable voyage to faraway lands, but more importantly to fulfil a moral duty – to represent their country with dignity on the international scene and to put their beauty in the service of national interest: “It is the duty of each Romanian woman, knowing herself to be beautiful, to take part in this beauty contest” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1928a). The inclusion of women in the act of consolidating Romania’s external reputation is explicitly articulated by the fact that “this race between you and the rest of the world” represented “a duty that you need to fulfil for the homeland” (Ibid.). The employment of a militant discourse reveals the magazine’s plan to include feminine identity among the cultural “weapons” used to promote the country’s interests, “because a beauty among other beauties, it is certain that she will defeat the representatives of other countries, contributing thus to Romania’s fame” (Ibid.). On another occasion, the magazine justified the need to host a national beauty pageant as a measure to reduce the cultural gap between Romania and the West: “In all Western countries, specific organizations chose the most beautiful of their nations’ girls and young women to send them to compete against each other, to obtain the title of ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1928b). Informing its public about the annual competition that bestowed the title of “Miss Universum” (sic!), Realitatea Ilustrată deplored the fact that “only our country up until the present time has stood away from these aesthetic competitions, because nobody had an interest for ‘such trivialities’” (Ibid.).
To vouch for the success of this initiative “that will place us one hour earlier in line with the West” (Ibid.), the magazine will announce in early December 1928 the creation of a central committee charged with coordinating the pageant ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1928c). The members of this committee were well-known figures of Romanian public life, led by Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș, art critic and professor at the prestigious National School of Fine Arts. He was seconded by one of the most celebrated writers of the day, Liviu Rebreanu, and by renowned feminist Alexandrina Cantacuzino, painter Jean Alexandru Steriadi, sculptor Frederic Storck and by Realitatea Ilustrată’s director, Nic. Constantin. The artistic and prestigious nature of the committee was praised by the local Galvestonian press as proof that the newly introduced beauty pageant was highly regarded in “little King Michael’s kingdom” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929b). In this first occurrence of Romania’s national beauty pageant in American news, the central committee was said to include “no less than a princess and a former secretary of state” (Ibid.). These were direct references to the presence, in the central committee of, on the one hand, Alexandrina Cantacuzino, a member of the aristocracy and the president of the philanthropic society The National Orthodox Society of Romanian Women, whose charitable work and feminist views were well known, and, on the other hand, of Nicolae (Constantin) Batzaria, a journalist of Aromanian origins whose political career included a ministerial post in the Ottoman Empire prior to moving to Romania where he became a member of the Senate.
The politization of an otherwise artistic competition was even more striking with the announcement that the Romanian Minister of Internal Affairs, dr. Alexandru Vaida-Voevod, accepted to symbolically preside over the election of “Miss Romania”: “Moreover, the best proof of the seriousness of Realitatea Ilustrată’s beauty competition, is the fact that our Minister of Interior himself, Mr. Alexandru Vaida-Voevod, has offered it his high patronage” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929b). To cement this idea, one of Romania’s best-selling newspapers, Dimineața, argued that the presence of a dignitary of the highest order elevated the prestige of the competition, proving that it was “more than an aesthetic race, more than a pastime” ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929a). By subordinating the competition to a high-profile political figure, the organizers aimed to popularize and legitimize their competition as a respectable, honorable, and patriotic act: “but the patronage of minister Vaida-Voevod also proves something else: that the Minister of Internal Affairs has recognized the patriotic character of our contest, a contest that will signify a valuable propaganda for our country, across the whole world” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929b). Headed by a central political authority and initially constituted as an intellectual and artistic forum coalesced under the romantic ideal of celebrating the most beautiful woman, the committee conducted its selections under the scrutinous surveillance of a member of the cabinet for whom feminine beauty was a national resource that could and should be exploited. The inclusion of a member of the government conveys thus the paradoxical nature of the “Miss Romania” pageant in its pendulation between the official objective of finding and celebrating a feminine standard of beauty and the no less formal duty of instrumentalizing this beauty to serve national interests and goals.
Joining the “International Pageant of Pulchritude” – national pride and responsibility
The most significant moment in the national pageant’s development was the announcement that it was formally accepted to join the “Miss Universe” competition. Officially named “The International Pageant of Pulchritude,” Galveston’s competition was created in 1920 and opened initially to local contestants (McComb 1997, 345-347; Stanonis 2014, 156). In 1926, united as the Galveston Beach Association, several local businesses and NGOs decided to expand the pageant and include its first international participants – “Miss Mexico” and “Miss Canada” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929a). Informally known as “Miss Universe”, the pageant expanded between 1926 and 1931 on a truly global scale with the addition of countries such as Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and, from 1929, Romania. The contest quickly became one of Galveston’s main tourist attractions, with over 100.000 tourists flooding it each year to see the “bathing beauties”, effectively tripling the city’s population (Cartwright 1998). Miss Universe” was responsible for transforming the coastal city into the “beauty capital of the world with girls chosen as the loveliest of a dozen nations and many states competing for the beauty crown of the universe” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929i). The bearer of this crown would be recognized as the most beautiful woman in the world for a one-year term and would receive a check worth 2,000 US dollars (equivalent to almost 33,000 USD in 2021). Just as the Romanian contest wanted to elect a true national representative, “Miss Universe” aimed to select a feminine ideal that would be representative for “a family of nations” (Banet-Weiser 1999, 29).
In its special Christmas edition, Realitatea Ilustrată published a letter addressed to the Galveston Beach Association. In it, director Nic. Constantin reminded his readers that Romania was not invited to take part in the first three editions of “Miss Universe”, notwithstanding that it was “a vast country, which is comprised of 17.000.000 inhabitants and occupies a commanding place among the countries of Oriental Europe” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1928d). According to the journalist, Romania was a privileged land both from a geographical and social point of view, having “tall mountains and wide plains” and “clear streams and impenetrable forests”, as well as hosting “a young nation, which is now assimilating the conquests of civilization” (Ibid.). None of its national resources, however, were more important than its citizens, because here “live the most beautiful women, just like in Italy you can [also] find the most beautiful men” (Ibid.).
Invoking this exceptionality and the necessity to correct alleged past injustices, Nic. Constantin asked the American organizers in Galveston to accept “Miss Romania” as a contestant in the world competition due to be held between the 8th and the 12th of June 1929. The organizing committee’s reply to the letter confirmed Romania’s participation in “Miss Universe”, arguing that the national selection process should take into account “both the beauty of the face and the personal charm and grace of the participants” ([ADEVĚRUL] 1929a). The American organizers also highlighted the political significance of the event – the beauty queen’s photographs will be heavily publicized in hundreds of American newspapers, thus “for your country this will constitute one of the most efficient acts of publicity” (Ibid.). In its reply, the American association pinpointed another significant political aspect of electing a national representative – the role that “Miss Romania” will play in strengthening the cultural and ideological connections between the public and the community of Romanian emigrants. The most beautiful Romanian woman was thus tasked with the symbolic duty of promoting national cohesion both inside and outside of the kingdom’s borders. An early proof of this diplomatic duty was the fact that, upon reading that a representative of their nation was bound to appear in the international pageant, two fellow countrymen, C. Detmar and George Vasilescu, “have offered to provide all the help they can get so that ‘Miss Romania’ will reach us safely” (Ibid.).
Once “Miss Romania” was formally affiliated to the prestigious international event, Realitatea Ilustrată increased the quantity and frequency of its calls for application. From that moment onwards, the magazine’s discourse had even more political tones, the pageant winner being portrayed as a public feminine symbol of the Romanian nation, of the unity of the state, and of national solidarity: “Mothers of beautiful daughters have a duty to bring their girls to the competition, in order to not blame themselves for warding off the good fortune of their offspring”; “[m]others have to urge their daughters to show up for the contest”, because “it is obvious just how important it is for a country; her representative should be present among all other countries” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929a). These types of patriotic calls are recurrent throughout December and January. Even the action of “provoking an invitation” to Galveston was presented as an act of patriotism: “just how much efficient propaganda would be made in foreign lands for the good name of Romanians, through the participation of a representative of our country in Galveston’s competition” (Ibid.). In addition, “Miss Romania’s” duty would be to reaffirm the importance of national unity. In particular, she would be tasked to bridge the gap between emigrants and the homeland: “Miss Romania is expected to receive a very warm welcome by the two million Romanians that live in America” (Ibid.). To support this claim, the magazine published a letter signed by one of the members of the Romanian diaspora in Texas, G. Vasilescu, who expressed his opinion that the act of sending a beautiful young woman to represent his country in the international pageant was “the biggest happiness and the most useful propaganda that could be done for our country”. He added that, accompanied by other patriots, he will send photographs and invitations “to all Romanians in America, so they can come here and see her” (Ibid.). Credited with reuniting in Galveston disparate Romanian communities “that want to see a Romanian girl winning the special beauty prize,” the national representative would be rewarded by “finding herself among us like a princess” (Ibid.).
In an article that includes the explicit subtitle “The patriotic duty of taking part in the competition”, Realitatea Ilustrată argued that the most efficient way to increase Romania’s international prestige among “foreigners that don’t know us well enough” and to rectify “the errors that they sometimes make regarding us” was to demonstrate “that Romanian women are incomparable in their grace and spirit” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929b). To fulfil this “patriotic duty”, the nation had to become aware of her incommensurable aesthetic resources: “we do not know that, gifted with so many treasures, we possess another one whose reality and value we are not aware of: the beauty of women” (Ibid.). The set of qualities of the Romanian people would be thus reflected through feminine beauty, which is portrayed as surpassing that of other nations: “women of other countries have one or two charms, but all traits together constitute the appanage of the Romanian woman” (Ibid.). The magazine’s national pageant aimed, on the one hand, to promote national feminine beauty on an international scale, and, on the other, to rally Romania’s population under the noble ideal of recognizing, celebrating, and instrumentalizing what was framed as a national treasure: “our contest wants not only to harness Romanian beauty beyond our borders, but also to edify our people on the riches of grace that it possesses and that it is not aware of” (Ibid.). These two goals converged towards the idea of correcting “laughable and saddening” errors that other countries were propagating with regards to Romania (Ibid.).
One day before electing its winner, in an article in which he was admonishing the voices raised against the national competition, Realitatea Ilustrată’s director Nic. Constantin was claiming that the initiative was a success (Constantin 1929). Referring to the critics of “Miss Romania” as “liars, surly, and mean,” he contrasted them with “the people, with its deep spirit of observation,” whose collective consciousness captured the political significance of the election. Opposed to these unpatriotic critics, popular sincerity was proof of the noble origins of the nation: “Roman rulers, when the people were unhappy, appeased them with bread and free shows. Are Romanians not descendants of Romans?” (Ibid.). This noble ascendancy assured that the public was capable of uniting to fulfil a common national goal: “Our competition, in which the most beautiful of the beautiful [ones] take part, should preoccupy our country […], because it will make us forget our sorrows and troubles, it will tame our anger and it will sweeten the bitterness of our daily lives” (Ibid.).
From Magda Demetrescu to “Miss Romania”
On the front cover of its issue from the 23rd of March 1929, Realitatea Ilustrată printed a large-scale portrait of the beauty pageant’s first winner, miss Madga Demetrescu. She had been elected on the 17th of March, in Bucharest, from more than 200 candidates. Born and raised in Bucharest, her election made the president of the jury, minister Vaida-Voevod, to emphatically announce that “I no longer have one daughter, but two!” (Morariu 1929). This paternalistic statement encapsulated the political significance that the contest had obtained, an idea repeated by one the first articles produced in honor of the charming young woman with black hair and dark eyes that was destined to represent the nation with pride and dignity: “Magda Demetrescu. A name. An epoch and an event, for she shall be the first representative of Romanian national beauty that will prove to the international community that our country has the most beautiful women in the world” (Ibid.).
The election of Magda Demetrescu was communicated to the Galveston Beach Association by telegraph a couple of days later. Authored by Nic. Constantin, the message read that “the girl was selected from 216 contestants representing seventy-two districts of the nation in Bucharest” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929c). The cable message described her as “truly representative of Rumanian beauty and comes from a family that is held in high regard” (Ibid.). The Galveston Daily News described in detail her election, in an article that boasted how “a world capital virtually went wild as ‘Miss Rumania’ was elected from a bevy of girls” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929d). The newspaper noted the solemnity with which the election was conducted, highlighting the fact that “Dr. Alexandru Vaida Voevod, home minister of little King Michael’s realm, was patron and he gave six hours of his valuable time to the selection of ‘Miss Rumania’” (Ibid.). Combining politics and art, the beauty contest’s winner was “sponsored personally by one of Rumania’s outstanding political figures, a physician of great renown whose political power as home minister, which corresponds to a cabinet portfolio in the United States, is far-reaching and important”. As for the winner, she was characterized as “the select characteristic representative of the Rumanian race” (Ibid.). This is a classic example in which the concepts of “race” and “nationality” are used interchangeably. As Eric Hobsbawm put it in relation to other illustrations, “what brought ‘race’ and ‘nation’ even closer was the practice of using both as virtual synonyms, generalizing equally wildly about ‘racial’/ ‘national’ character, as was then the fashion” (Hobsbawm 1999, 108).
The same article also signaled the presence of beauty representatives from all of Romania’s historical provinces, a powerful symbol of national solidarity and concord in the wake of the kingdom’s unification with Transylvania, Bukovina, Banat, and Bessarabia: “you could indulge with all your heart in this rare sight of youth and beauty representing all the provinces of our country. It was a promise of our young generation that they would further meet in happy contests and throw down definitely those artificial barriers which former geographical locations have created” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929d). Nic. Constantin’s remarks included in the newspaper connects the participation of “Miss Romania” to the process and efforts of building the Romanian nation that took a new impetus post-WWI (for a detailed analysis of nation-building during this period, see for instance Livezeanu 1995). This is an illustration of “state-building combined with national integration and mobilization” (Smith 1991). The importance of collective solidarity was projected into the beauty winner, a unique and indivisible image of the nation. The national beauty contest can thus be counted as an “element of artefact, invention and social engineering which enters into the making of nations” (Hobsbawm 1999, 10). This confirms the observation of other historians that, during the 19th and 20th centuries, nations have constituted and represented themselves “through a world of myth and symbol in which the people could participate” (Mosse 1988, 66). In short, the symbol of the beauty queen became a central figure of the nation’s political panoply.
Realitatea Ilustrată described the election of “Miss Romania” as “a success on our part, a success of Romanian beauty, a success of our country” (Morariu 1929). From the moment she was announced as the national beauty queen, Magda Demetrescu lost her individual identity, her private life translating into the realm of public interest and discussion. From that moment, her role was to give a visible expression to the (real or imagined) qualities of her nation. One of the main ways in which she was consecrated as a public figure was through a series of “official”, high-profile visits that she attended. The first in this series was a reception held in her honor at the Romanian Radio Broadcasting Society ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929e). There, “Miss Romania” gave an emotional speech during which she thanked Realitatea Ilustrată and the central committee for electing her as Romania’s most beautiful woman. At the same time, she stated that she had understood and accepted her duty to represent her nation at Galveston: “For my most ardent wish, is that during the contest in America, to represent Romania as properly as I can and to bring honor to my nation” (Ibid.). To achieve this goal, she confesses that “I started to learn English, so that I can talk about my country on the other shore of the [Atlantic] Ocean, about all the good things that [my country] deserves, and to shatter the slanders that she has had to endure” (Ibid.). Her ambition to speak with North Americans in their own language was not fully fulfilled in three months that separated her election as “Miss Romania” from the “Miss Universe” competition. In the week that preceded the international election, the local Galvestonian media noted that “Miss Romania coquettishly declares that she speaks […] little English but she manages to make herself easily understood, as she gestures with her graceful hands and moves her glorious eyes” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929g).
Another visit that legitimized Magda Demetrescu as a true representative of the Romanian nation was a high-society soirée hosted by distinguished ladies such as Fanny Rebreanu and Claudia Millian Minulescu (Raicoviceanu 1929). Their husbands were both part of the panels of judges that selected “Miss Romania”: the novelist Liviu Rebreanu as part of the central committee, and the poet Ion Minulescu as a member of the preliminary committee that selected three “Miss Bucharest” on the 3rd of March ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929b). On this occasion, a large group of ladies “encircled the one who was destined to wear on the other shore of the Ocean the national colors of the country” (Raicoviceanu 1929), wishing her good fortune and success in the international competition, while also reminding her that in Galveston she was not going to parade on her own behalf, but in the name of the Romanian people.
The first member of the election committee that she visited was, symbolically, the honorary president of the jury. Minister of Internal Affairs Alexandru Vaida-Voevod welcomed her and director Nic. Constantin in his home on the 21st of March 1929, where he was accompanied by his wife and daughter ([ADEVĚRUL] 1929b). The importance of this visit is revealed by “Miss Romania’s” emotional reactions – after she “stepped nervously” into the house, everyone “gathered in a circle around the young flower that will wear the Romanian flag over her tender shoulders, on the other shores of the Ocean.” The minister’s wife “was very keen to know her”, Magda Demetrescu recounting stories of her aunt, Mara d’Asty, a well-known soprano at the end of the 19th century (Ibid.). The Minister questioned Nic. Constantin about the American competition, making sure to also offer precious advice to his young protégé: “Take care of yourself, do not exhaust yourself, stay healthy” ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929d). She then visited Professor Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș on the evening of the 24th of March ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929f). The two-hour conversation focused once again on the political meaning of electing her as “a truly Romanian beauty.” The former president of the jury, in his twofold role of art critic and patriot, rushed to offer her “precious advice concerning the selection of a national costume, for America,” offering his assistance “to guide her towards this choice” (Ibid.).
The final “official” stop was in the palace of princess Alexandrina Cantacuzino on the 29th of March ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929g). Described as “a long visit”, the meeting took place in the presence of Magda Demetrescu’s aunt, Maria Demetrescu, and princess Ioana Ghica, one of the members of the Bucharest preliminary election committee. Invoking the ideological complexities of electing “Miss Romania,” Alexandrina Cantacuzino reminded her guests that “by selecting you, my girl, we have paid a tribute to Romanian beauty” (Ibid.). The duty to represent her nation with dignity and honor was also emphasized: “From the moment when you were named ‘Miss Romania’, you have serious and difficult duties. […] In your thoughts, deeply rooted, there should be the certainty that you are not going to carefree parties […] In Galveston, you will need to prestigiously represent your country” (Ibid.). For the philanthropic princess, beauty, patriotism, and morality were inseparable dimensions of the feminine ideal. The diplomatic assignment was thus explicitly worded: “You will not only be the missionary of Romanian beauty, but also the missionary of Romanian virtue” (Ibid.). This solemn discourse had a profound impact on those present, so much so that the aunt burst into tears and Magda Demetrescu, “with watery eyes, thanked with all her youthful sincerity the distinguished lady” (Ibid.). In short, these visits aligned with the organizers’ intentions to both legitimize the results of the national competition and to confirm the importance of electing a “Miss Romania.” They reflect the ways in which the image of the winner was used for purposes that diverged from affirming an aesthetic ideal, but that served Realitatea Ilustrată’s political outlook and objectives.
National pride on the stage of “Miss Universe”
The effusion of public emotion following the election of “Miss Romania” was supported by news articles that followed Magda Demetrescu’s voyage from Bucharest to Galveston. To focus on the political dimension of sending a national representative overseas, it is worth mentioning the letter she sent from Venice on the 4th of May and published in Realitatea Iustrată a couple of weeks later (Demetrescu 1929a). The young beauty queen recalls the overwhelming festivities on the night her train left Bucharest’s central railway station: “So, it was not a dream: this crowd that leads me, the flowers offered, the cheers of safe travel, all assure me that I am really setting off for Galveston, for the international contest. I am crossing my country’s borders for the first time” (Ibid.). Her wakeup call corresponded to a collective awakening, materialized by the solidarization of Romanians around a national symbol: “Those that came to lead me, showered me with much goodwill and showed me sincere affection. They are many and I have seen some of them before. Who said that people are mean and can hate each other?” (Ibid.). Although she was supposed to objectively incarnate a depersonalized ideal, the letter conveys her emotions and fears as she is made aware of the symbolic weight that her participation in the international pageant had for her compatriots: “All this extraordinary attention moves me and even troubles me. Why do I deserve it, and, oh, my God!, will I be able to portray in America the entire beauty of my country?” (Ibid.). The strong bond between “Miss Romania” and her nation is illustrated by a scene that took place just before crossing the Western border of the kingdom: “in Jimbolia, in addition to a bouquet of freshly-cut violas, a lady hands me a fistful of soil, to take to the Romanians overseas. She also has a relative that left for America” (Ibid.). “Miss Romania” became thus a material, not just a symbolic binder between the community of emigrants and the people within Romania’s borders.
The fourth “International Pageant of Pulchritude” was scheduled to take place between the 8th and the 12th of June 1929 ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929e). “Miss Romania” and other seven European competitors (from Austria, England, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Spain) reached Galveston by the 1st of June. Their reception was described as conducted “in a manner befitting the station of international envoys” and the contestants as “each typifying the ideal of womanly beauty in her country” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929f). The eight European beauties, as “ambassadors of good will,” received the keys of the city from the mayor, and were escorted in automobiles to Galveston’s most sumptuous hotel (Ibid.).
On the 8th of June, the local press published a detailed analysis of Romania’s first representative in the international competition, accompanied by a photograph of Magda Demetrescu wearing the tricolored sash that she received after winning the national competition ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929h). The article paints an interesting portrait of the young woman that arrived to capture Galvestonian hearts. According to its authors, the 17-year-old came to America “with her smiles, with her winning personality, with her charming dancing and her captivating manner”, aiming to “wrest the laurels of beauty from age-worn European countries and from the broad Unites States”. Her youth was seen as an expression of young Romania’s ambitions, an exotic, faraway country that was nonetheless European. The Galvestonian press noted poetically that “Miss Romania” had “something subtle behind those winning smiles and scintillating eyes that makes one think of artistry, of fine workmanship, of deep intensity, of hidden sorrows” (Ibid.). But the most revealing description was authored by Magda Demetrescu herself while answering to reporters:
"I am truly happy to visit your wonderful country. It has always been my dearest wish to travel, but until the Pageant of Pulchritude invaded Rumania there was little chance of my coming to America. But thanks to the Rumanian jury, I have the honor to present to the new continent a new type of gracefulness. As more than half the population of Rumania is rural, you will see all types of girls. The real Rumanian girl is middle-sized, black-eyed, small-handed like a gypsy, a lightfooted (sic!) and graceful walker” (Ibid.).
On the 12th of June the international jury chose Lisl Goldarbeiter, a 20-year-old Austrian, as the fourth pageant winner out of 44 contestants from 11 countries ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929j). Described as “a slim, ethereal being from gay Vienna” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929k), She received the majority of seven votes to become Europe’s first “Miss Universe.” Magda Demetrescu was honored with the rest of the votes, but after competing in a second round against the other participants she finished sixth ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929m). Her honorable performance was highlighted in an article where “Miss Romania” was characterized as embodying a classical feminine archetype that was opposed to the image of the modern woman: “Miss Rumania, Magda Demetrescu, is rather tall and a decidedly brunette type. She represents the fully proportioned type of beauty admitted in many European countries, more like the Venus De Milo than the John Held flapper. Her hair is very dark brown, wavy and rather long. Her eyes are an unusual hazel” ([THE GALVESTON DAILY NEWS] 1929l). For a lengthier discussion on the context, features and implications of the distinction between various cultural constructions of beauty types at that time see, for instance Melman (1988).
Commenting the performance of Romania’s representative, Realitatea Ilustrată’s director Nic. Constantin excitedly wrote that the young woman had fulfilled her sacred duty: “our success is big: the only award-winning foreigner (sic!) was miss Magda Demetrescu and thus Romania’s name was publicized across America and the whole world” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929d, 16). This statement that contradicts the results was made in the context of mentioning that the majority of the jury’s members would have been of German origin, suggesting thus that the vote was biased towards the Austrian candidate. The same victorious rhetoric can be seen in another article, where the pageant’s result was seen as “a success of Romanian beauty, a success of our country, and moreover a big success of our magazine,” while Magda Demetrescu’s performance being “a beneficial work of propaganda for our country abroad, for her reception in America exceeded the most optimistic expectations and graced Romania with a well-deserved crown of laurels” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929c, 8).
Although she did not win the title, Magda Demetrescu fulfilled the task of raising awareness on her nation’s qualities and aspirations. The political goal of promoting Romania’s image on the global stage through the beauty pageant was supported through a series of associated activities carried out in the USA. Among these, Realitatea Ilustrată mentioned the countless photographs of “Miss Romania” distributed across the country ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929d, 10), as well as her appearance in a series of talking movie shots in New York and Galveston. Among the European competitors, the participation to such shots seems to have been embraced only by her, by “Miss Austria” and by “Miss Luxembourg” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929d). She can be seen in a short promotional movie shot at that time speaking both in Romanian and in English: “[orig. ro.] New York’s skyscrapers, the sea and the orange trees of Miami, and Galveston’s palm trees will forever be in my memory. [orig. eng.] I thank the American people for the honor they gave me.” (Fox Movietone News Collection 1929; [REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929d, 16). All these led the Romanian magazine to conclude that “today there is no man or woman, young or old, that has not heard the sweet voice of our country” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929c, 16). Dimineața also mentioned the fact that some high-profile American newspapers such as The New York Herald had considered the fact of sending a Romanian representative to Galveston as “the best propaganda that Romania has ever done in the United States” ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929i). However, the most high-profile activity undertaken by “Miss Romania” was to formally intermediate between the community of Romanian emigrants and their home country.
Visiting Chicago’s Romanian community
A letter from the Romanian Permanent Council for “The World’s Fair” (an organization charged with preparing the Romanian pavilion for the 1933 Chicago World’s Exhibition), which was received by the young woman shortly after arriving in Galveston, illustrates the political role that “Miss Romania” had. The text described Magda Demetrescu as “a beautiful fairy from the cradle of the Carpathians” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929d, 16). She was asked to visit “the Romanian colonies” in Chicago, which was the main urban center of Romanian immigration (Werstman 1975). The letter mentioned that the city hosted compatriots who proved that “the Romanian from America are people who cannot forget their homeland”. The Council, as the representative body of several Romanian associations, submitted the invitation “animated by your beauty and the glory that you bring to our dear country”. The Romanian population of Chicago, allegedly refusing to be assimilated, retained and wished to affirm their national identity: “Not only did they not lose their language and customs, but they have strong national sentiments, which persuade them to manifest their Romanian nationalism each time they have the opportunity to do so” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929e). This obstinacy to keep their collective identity was perceived by “Miss Romania” as proof of the superiority and perennity of her people:
“In Chicago I found families of Romanians who taught their American-born children to speak Romanian. People that had not crossed back the Ocean in decades kept their ancestral customs, they speak with each other only in Romanian, and know better what happens in our country than what happens in the United States. This virtue of our nation must be not only recognized, but also cultivated” (Demetrescu 1929b).
According to Realitatea Ilustrată, Magda Demetrescu’s Chicago visit was commented by American journalists, one of whom, writing for the Chicago Examiner, would have stated that “[t]he Romanians are a nation that cannot perish, a healthy and vigorous race. This is what Miss Magda Demetrescu, the Romanian type of beauty distinguished at Galveston proves to us” ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929e). The political meaning of her visit was apparently also commented by the Romanian-edited America newspaper from Cleveland, which, according to Dimineața, viewed Magda Demetrescu as a symbol of national unity: “The Carpathian fairy came like from a fairytale from another world to see and be seen by her estranged people” ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929h, 9). Nervous but aware of her patriotic duty, Magda solemnly promised that “she will carry back to the homeland the memory of this beautiful gathering of Romanians who even if far away from their country form a wall around the King and the royal family” (Ibid.).
After celebrating her first in a banquet with around 200 notabilities, the local organizers presented “Miss Romania” to the larger Romanian public from Chicago, i.e., to “working-class Romanian, by arranging a celebration in a popular hall.” During this celebration, Magda was “showered with flowers and she was asked to sign hundreds of autographed photos, which she handed out with generosity”. Once again, the young beauty queen proved that she had assumed her symbolic role of representing Romanian fraternity and solidarity: “From the moment I was chosen to represent Romanian beauty, my thoughts went towards the thousands of brothers in America, and I wrote to you, promising that I will bring, along with my love for you all, in my eyes, a ray of the sunshine that warms our country and a part of its soil in my hands,” In a perfect closing of national symbolism, “Miss Romania” presented to her public the bag of soil that she had received before leaving the country, tangibly linking the emigrants with their motherland: “The soil that I have brought with me, I have taken it when passing through Banat. Your mothers, fathers, your relatives have walked on it. Take it, along with my feelings of brotherly love.” The sacred nature of this gesture is emphasized by the reaction of those present: “And everyone in the front rows, with piety, hastened to take, from miss Demetrescu’s hands, a piece of this sacred soil” (Idem, 11-12).
This emotionally charged episode is presented by Realitatea Ilustrată to indicate the diplomatic value of Magda Demetrescu’s presence in the USA. More specifically, the visit aimed to dispel rumors that “Romania was an unsafe country, that is constantly under revolutions, barbaric and illiterate” (Idem, 12). The presence of Romania among “civilized” countries such as Austria, France or Germany was a tangible proof that the kingdom was part of and visible in Europe. Magda Demetrescu thus showed that her country not only had beautiful women, but it was also a modern state, a bastion of Western values and ideals in the geopolitical ocean of uncertainty and destabilization that was “Eastern Europe”: “In Romania there is no revolution, Romania is a peaceful country, Bucharest has palaces and boulevards, American cars roam the streets, the population is […] preoccupied with things that the Americans thought of as their monopoly” (Ibid.). Furthermore, “Miss Romania” herself recognized and embraced the importance of her diplomatic mission, sacrificing personal gains to the national cause: “Miss Demetrescu shared over fifty interviews during which she spoke more about Romania than ‘Miss Romania’. The competition organized by Realitatea Ilustrată is thus granted a special significance that compensates for the sacrifices that we have done” (Ibid.).
The political character of the visit was further confirmed by the fact that “Miss Romania” was authorized to represent the community of Romanian emigrants in their contacts with Romanian authorities. The Romanian Permanent Council thus named Magda Demetrescu as an Honorary Plenipotentiary Minister, which conferred her “complete authority to invite the Romanian Government, HRH Queen Mary, Art institutions, Universities, Manufacturers, Inventors, Artists and all that the country has the best, the most beautiful and most useful” to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair ([REALITATEA ILUSTRATĂ] 1929f). Having received an official, though symbolic function, “Miss Romania” became a living embodiment of the national will. Her trip back home at the end of July 1929 was celebrated almost as the return of a stately official, Romanian media assessing that she did “for the Romanian country more than what 10 propaganda delegations could have done and which would have cost us many millions” ([DIMINEAȚA] 1929j). Her glorious return fueled the popularity of the “Miss Romania” competition, which continued to be hosted annually until 1933.
Throughout the 20th century and into the present, modern beauty pageants have created a strong bond between beauty and politics, more specifically, between an idealized feminine standard and national aspirations. Constructed as a ritualistic public display of the feminine body and fueled by economic and advertising objectives, these contests nonetheless propose a complex array of political messages and actions that produce and legitimize a visible representative of a nation. “Miss Romania” is no exception to this rule.
From the very beginning, the “Miss Romania” national beauty pageant aimed to present a new symbol of national unity in the public sphere. The symbol of the most beautiful young woman, a unique and visible representative of her nation, had in 1929 a precise mobilizing effect, promoting both internal cohesion and the country’s image abroad. The Romanian magazine Realitatea Ilustrată channeled its resources and journalistic talents in the service of an idea that was considered equally noble and pragmatic – to create an artistic event that had deep political meanings. In numerous promotional materials, the magazine insisted that participation in its beauty pageant was the ideal way in which Romanian women could serve their country’s interests. The formal acceptance of Romania’s winner as a contestant in the “International Pageant of Pulchritude” further cemented the idea that beauty was inseparable from national interest. Magda Demetrescu’s festive election by a committee chaired by the Minister of Interior Affairs proved that the state had accepted the young beauty queen as an informal ambassador. This was also confirmed by the ritualistic visits she was required to make to other poles of patriotic legitimation. Her presence in Galveston was seen as an extraordinary chance to portray the country as a bastion of modernity and European values. Not least, her Chicago tour and mission to link the upcoming World Fair with the homeland transformed the 17-year-old into an embodiment of national pride.
With the organization and election of its first “Miss Romania”, Realitatea Ilustrată created a symbolic space that endowed feminine identity with meanings that transcended the evaluation of physical attributes. In their competition for the national title, young women sought to become symbols of national unity, of the allegedly exceptional qualities and virtues of the nation, and of the diplomatic objectives of the recently enlarged Romanian kingdom. The pageant’s organizers thus created an ingenious interplay between the artistic ideal of celebrating an aesthetic ideal and the political project of affirming internal solidarity and international prestige. In this sense, “Miss Romania” was also a living and breathing avatar of her nation. The importance that contemporaries placed on electing a national representative thus echoes the political ambitions of affirming and assuring a sense of collective togetherness in Greater Romania.
This text was developed from research conducted at the University of Bucharest, in view of obtaining a doctoral degree, which was conferred in 2017.
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Vlad MIHĂILĂ is a historian with a doctoral degree from the University of Bucharest (2017). He has published research articles in academic journals (Anuarul Institutului de Cercetări Socio-Umane “Gheorghe Şincai” al Academiei Române, Studia Universitatis Petru Maior, Historia, Caiete de Antropologie Istorică, CICSA Journal online, Romanian Journal of History and International Studies) and popular magazines (Historia, Historia Online). He is the author of the volume Ziarul „Fulgerul Studențimii” (1915-1916). Studenții Universității din București în anii neutralității (Editura Universității din București, 2018). His areas of interest are cultural and social history, gender studies, corporal representations, the history of mass-media and advertising, microhistory, collective memory and representations, modernity and modernization, sociology of literature. email@example.com
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MIHĂILĂ, Vlad. 2021. “Miss Romania” in the USA (1929): The interplay between beauty and politics. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] 23(1): 59-85. https://doi.org/10.54885/MEPX3457