Photo via: The Argentina Independent

Despite its name, the City Center Hotel Casino and Conference Center is right on the edge of town, with easy access to the motorway to Buenos Aires, so you can go to Rosario without really having to go to Rosario. The sign above the place says City Center in lights that glitter like the cheap plastic spangles on a dyed-blonde middle-aged Mancunian’s best dress. Old women in similarly comfortable clothing file into the casino to feed chips into a morass of TV-and-film-themed slot machines, of which the biggest draw is the glamorous Sex and the City one-armed bandit, promising a top prize of ‘Mr Big’. A billboard proclaims the coming of Pimpinela as part of their 30 Years of Music Anniversary Tour in July. Pimpinela, comprised of Joaquín and Lucía Galán, an aging brother and sister duo singing romantic duets of betrayal and love lost in an ‘I Will Survive’ theme. In short, a band made for the Argentine casino circuit.

As impressive as City Center tries to look from the outside, inside it looks rather like a shopping center without shops. There are grand-looking staircases which on closer inspection turn out to be quite cheap-looking staircases, which along with the escalators are all cordoned off. This is not looking promising. I eventually find a lift and, squeezing passed another cordon, am greeted by a worried-looking security guard who greets me in the interrogative.

‘¿Buenas noches?’

‘Buenas noches. Tunnard. Press. I’m on the list.’  

He checks his list. I’m not on it. He’s looking at the wrong list. It’s a list of invited relatives of Miss Mundo Argentina candidates. Do I look to you like the relative of a Miss Mundo Argentina candidate to you? (I actually know one of the beauty queens competing tonight. Miss Entre Rios is the beauty queen of my wife’s home town of Concepción, a woman of many friends. You might say yeah, she’s got loads of friends because she’s a beauty queen, but that’s just a popular Miss Concepción.) (I’m just kidding.)  

The security guy gives me an orange press bracelet and I’m inside the inner sanctum of the Miss Mundo mundo. Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl in the World’ is pumped out at a surprising volume. The carpet is black with a garishly jagged motif, like an angry bird, vomiting. Miss Folklore Nacional breezes past, looking radiant. I am surrounded by middle-aged women with dyed blonde hair and shiny tops and tight skirts. The Miss World moms. The Mrs Worlds. They’re a world apart from the slatternly locals shuffling into the casino downstairs.  

As an honorary porteño with my honorary entrerriano application in the post, I’m torn between Miss Capital Federal and Miss Entre Ríos, so I go for a wildcard bet instead, sight unseen: Miss Formosa. God knows, Formosa never asks for much. I can just see Miss Formosa now, tiara’d and sash’d, giving an impassioned plea for justice for the Qom people, then launching into a heart-rending performance of a traditional Qom song. Not a dry eye in the house.  

The techno music builds to a climax, like a robot ejaculating in your ear, and then suddenly it’s show time! The stage is awash with dancing girls in spangled jumpsuits, doing their funky swing, miming to Alesha Dixon’s ‘The Boy Does Nothing’, which might be the Miss World anthem but probably isn’t, while the Misses line up behind them, looking lovely, dancing self-consciously. Miss Chubut is not the world’s most confident dancer and is grateful that she isn’t being assessed on this part of the pageant.

That Verónica off the telly, our hostess for this evening, interviews the star-filled panel of judges you’ve never heard of. Nequi Galotti says ‘There’s some great energy here. I’m telling you, it’s magic’. She’s lying. Miss Argentina 1980 says this pageant is a ‘trampolín importante’. For a moment I have images of various Miss World beauties bouncing on a trampoline, in slow motion, on a cloudless summer’s day. It’s a lovely image until I remember that ‘trampolín’ means springboard. That’s still a lovely image. Miss Tierra del Fuego in ball gown and tiara, vaulting a pommel horse.

Just then I spot her, sitting in the front row across the runway: Miss Argentina 1955, the star of some of the most bizarre 1960s soft-porn erotica, and the oldest woman to ever inspire masturbation in the present author. Coca Sarli (real first name: Hilda). La Bomba Entrerriana. I am ecstatic to be in the same room as her, but contain myself, like a Victorian gentleman.

Verónica asks Miss Mundo Presidente whether Miss Argentina has a chance at the final in Bali, even though we don’t even know who Miss Argentina is yet.

‘Argentine women are beautiful,’ says Nadia. ‘If an Argentine can become Pope, then Miss Argentina can become Miss World!’ Clearly, the elections of Mr Pope and Miss World are the same: a bit of white smoke, coherent Weltbild with platitudes to peace in our time, fancy gown, rapture.

‘¡Qué bueno!’ squeals Verónica, as if this were a fait accompli. ‘¡No lo puedo creer!’ She can’t believe it because it hasn’t happened yet. It is unfair that there are so many videos on Youtube poking fun at the cluelessness of Miss World candidates when the jury and organization behind them are just as dim-witted. Token bloke on the jury says ‘La mujer argentina se está poniendo muy glamorosa’, some one hundred years after Argentine women started becoming glamorous. ‘Nos estamos posicionando a nivel mundial’. Argentina is positioning itself as a global power in glamorous women. Well done everyone.

The twenty-four contestants (any similarity with The Hunger Games is entirely coincidental and unfortunate) representing the twenty-three provinces of Argentina plus the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires hit the runway wearing the traditional dress of their province. Except none of the provinces really have an official traditional dress, and so this interpretation has been left to the remarkable imaginations of the individual designers, many of them Miss Mundo moms. The consequences of twenty-four Miss Mundo moms trying to show the world their perception of their native province through the medium of costume are the main reason why God invented beauty pageants.

Antonella from the province of Buenos Aires is out first, wearing a kind of nineteenth century Rosas-esque military get-up. Buenos Aires, of course, renowned for its military coups. Antonella (please tell me they’re all called Antonella) from Misiones is wearing a red dress to symbolize her home province’s red dirt. Tamara (blanket Antonellas denied!) from La Pampa appears to be dressed as a nun, with nary an inch of flesh to be glimpsed, although this could well be traditional colonial dress. Always leave them wanting more. We get some truly awful folklore-trance mash-up over the PA. María Dolores from Tucumán braves this techno horror show to flash us her glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals. The bikini poncho, or ponchkini. Never an easy look to pull off. María Fernanda from Formosa, my dark house, is wearing a green dress ‘to represent seeds’. Uh-huh. Daiana from Tierra del Fuego is wearing a glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals. I am reminded suddenly of the comic Bernie Clifton riding Oswald. With a little more imagination, Miss Tierra del Fuego could have pulled off a truly award-clinching costume, albeit not for the award she had in mind.

Verónica off the telly is overjoyed with the costumes so far: ‘bien originales’ she simpers; ‘artesanales’ she gurgles; ‘animales autóctonos’ she repeats. Ana Valeria from Catamarca is wearing a glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals. The phrase ‘alpaca pom-poms’ bounces around in my head, rhythmically. To think I thought Miss Buenos Aires looked bad, all those minutes ago. The representative of La Rioja, home to Talampalla and the greatest sideburns to ever grace a president’s face, pulls off the costume coup of the evening with an outfit salvaged from the set of ‘The Mighty Boosh’, her arms extending to reveal a great tapestry of autochthonous animals while a huge lopsided Inca crown, all tassels and jewels, allows the judges to enter deeper realms of perception. Dani from Santa Cruz sports a glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals. It looks like a red candlewick bedspread.

The dreadful music continues to fart from the loudspeakers. Just then I become aware of the lyrics to this one tune, clearly selected for its pounding beat with little attention paid to the lyrics, which are not the most suitable for this pageant of virginal young women, some as young as seventeen.

Face down, ass up, that’s the way we like to fuck!

Face down, ass up, that’s the way we like to fuck!

Over and over again. It’s the first time I’ve blushed at the f-word. Ana Paula wears a swishy textured dress that ‘represents the mountains of San Juan’ but face down ass up that’s the way we like to fuck is still pounding away. María Laura wears a bikini top with a glamorous full-length skirt made by artisans from autochthonous animals. That’s the way we like to fuck. Jacqueline from Entre Ríos, who also holds the coveted National Aviculture Queen crown, has gone for the carnival look of her native Gualeguaychú. What’s that? She’s from Nogoyá? Fuck it, no one’s heard of that, dress her up in a carnival outfit, that’s all anyone associates with Entre Ríos. It’s either that or the battery chicken factories and fields of transgenic soy. She’s all emeralds and feathers and gets a huge cheer from the crowd, in fact at least ten people cheer, but then Nogoyá is only eighty chicken-carcass-strewn miles down the road; this is virtually a home gig.

Jacqueline is followed by Sofía from Corrientes, Corrientes of course being renowned for its own Carnival, so Jacqueline is instantly outshined by Miss Corrientes’ even more over-the-top outfit (the further north you go here, the tackier things get). Miss Corrientes’ costume is reminiscent of my Nanna Marie’s silver Christmas tree, gaudy years before it was kitsch to be gaudy. That’s the way we like to fuck. Teresa, with the evocative title of Miss Federal Capital (that’s Buenos Aires City to you) wears a big black feather hat, possibly made by artisans from autochthonous birds, possibly made from pigeons, and carries a cigarette in a black cigarette holder which together give the impression of a magician’s wand. Pigeons, fags and magic, that’s Buenos Aires all over, really. She couldn’t have summed up the city better if she’d dressed as an obelisk. That’s probably been done before. Luciana from Salta wears a simple costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals and something to do with Wichis, but Miss Federal Magic Pigeon Capital was a hard act to follow. Miss Salta should be applauded for showing such restraint in a sea of excess, but she might be at the wrong pageant.

Cecilia from Chaco is a picture of simple unsophisticated loveliness, doing a little dance along the runway in her poncho-corset get-up. Alan from Jujuy (I may have misheard the name, it’s hard to keep up, not least with the pounding techno spewing foreign-language profanities) wears a loose-fitting red dress that wouldn’t look amiss on the slovenly-dressed casino-goers downstairs. Magdalena from Río Negro wears a glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals. She looks about fifteen. I’ll wager the autochthonous animal was older than her. Daiana from San Luis is a mess of tulle and feathers and long legs, although there is a rare non-mention of autochthonous animals. María Alicia from Neuquén has come dressed as La Dama de las Nieves, the Snow Queen, replete with thick white snow boots. I tremble. Vale from Mendoza is wearing a glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals and raises a swoon from the audience as she steps on the hem of her dress in six-inch heels and almost tumbles into Coca Sarli’s heaving cleavage.

Daiana from Santa Fe, who is about seven foot tall, has made the brave decision to come dressed as a gaucho, all hat and boots and bombacho, carrying a milk urn full of wheat. Lovely idea, but a tad mannish for a pageant of these characteristics. Zaida from Córdoba wears a short black dress with shiny stones and white details. ‘La tanguera’ says Verónica off the telly. I beg to differ. Zaida is clearly, and rather cleverly, dressed as a nice cool glass of Fernet and Coke, the official booze of Córdoba. Noelia from Santiago del Estero rounds the freak show off neatly with a glamorous costume made by artisans from autochthonous animals. And that, dear reader, is Argentina’s glorious twenty-three provinces and autonomous city in a wonderfully autochthonous nutshell.

The incessant music finally lets up and we see a brief compilation of how our girls got on over the last week, in the four categories no one cares about: social responsibility, talent, sport and rhea farming. There they all are, smiling away in the grounds of the City Center ‘Bigger than Las Fucking Vegas’ Hotel Casino and Conference Centre, painting, dancing, discussing important social issues, perfecting their under-arm tennis serve, wearing swimsuits, practicing walking down a runway, smiling, skinning autochthonous animals, walking some more down the runway. Most of it is practicing walking down the runway. Verónica off the telly says we’re going for a commercial break. ‘When we come back, we’ll be talking to a legendary woman. Who hasn’t dreamed of being her?’ Either they’ve flown in my mom for a surprise appearance, or my dreams are being ignored and it’s time for the homage to Coca Sarli. I look across the runway at this legendary screen idol. She looks bored off her legendary tits. She fidgets with her capacious handbag, rummaging for a mint imperial. Poor old Coca.

The middle-aged woman next to me asks me whether I know if it will be possible to buy a DVD of this event. In my capacity as a pretend member of The Press, I tell her I imagine a recording of the event will be available from the relevant media outlet, yes. It turns out she’s Miss Tucuman’s mum, who designed and made Miss Tucumán’s dress. I compliment her on it, then check back over my notes to see what she wore. Ah, the ponchkini.

We come back from the commercial break and Coca Sarli gets her Iconic Person of a Certain Age Award, or whatever it is. She doesn’t actually get a physical award, it’s just a ‘homenaje’. Not so much as a lovingly edited short film of her illustrious cinema career. Verónica off the telly just goes. ‘Hey folks, give it up for Coca Sarli’ and we all clap. Verónica off the telly takes the microphone over to the front row. Coca tries to get up, thinks better of it. Poor old Coca. She gives us all a wave from a seated position and tells us all how she was Miss World back in 1955, when General Perón was in government, although you youngsters may know him as President Perón. They docked her points for crying. Miss Mundo is merciless. There’s a round of applause for poor old Coca. ‘The auditorium on its feet!’ squeals Verónica off the telly. ‘So emotional!’ Not really. Some people in a quarter-full auditorium stood up, so we all kind of stood up because the people in front of us were standing up. If there’s one thing that’s lacking here it’s emotion.

That could all change with the bathing suits. Verónica off the telly gets the audience clapping irrhythmically. Some singer who may or may not be famous or may just have won a local talent show in the casino and is woefully underdressed and miscoiffed for such a glamorous event warbles tunelessly from the stage, where she remains for the rest of the bikini parade, tuneless and obtrusive.

The swimsuits could never live up to the traditional provincial costumes. I think about noting down the word ‘trikini’ but I’m not sure it’s a thing. I’m woefully out of my depth here. Where’s my wife when I need her? At home, watching something else on the telly, because she thinks this is being televised tomorrow. Miss Tucumán comes down, looking lovely. Mrs Tucumán gives me a nudge. ‘Esa es la mía!’ she says. I’m not one for telling strangers how attractive their 17-year old daughter looks in a swimsuit, so I reserve judgment and smile what I hope is an avuncular smile.

The singer no one’s heard of is still singing. She really shouldn’t be singing in public, least of all on national television, even if it is only C5N. She’s hogging far too much of the limelight, bopping all over the stage. To think I complained about the techno music. Can we not have a nice 16-piece orchestra conducted by a bespectacled balding man in a tuxedo one size too small? Is that too much to ask? Miss Chaco comes on before Miss Salta has left the stage. Then the long-legged, quick-stepping Miss Río Negro enters far too early. We’re heading for a Miss Mundo pile up, but the girls take it all in their stride. Cool confidence in the face of a good old Argentine organizational clusterfuck, that’s what the judges are looking for. Singing girl launches into her fourth song. It is refreshing in this era of oversinging and autotune to hear someone sing so authentically off-key. Please let this end soon. I’d be useless on the jury. ‘You’re all lovely, could we turn the music down?’

There’s a commercial break and then we watch a short film called ‘Beauty for a Cause’. My view is obscured by Miss La Rioja’s extravagant ball gown. This is the serious part of the evening where they try and do something to stop teenage girls from being kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by making a well meaning but ultimately futile in the face of systemic governmental and judicial corruption video about it. Miss La Rioja says some well chosen but ultimately futile words on the subject and wins a tiara for best video. Adele leads us into another commercial break, and when we come back it’s time for the evening wear. I like to think of myself as more of an evening wear than swimsuit kind of guy. An Englishman is easily flustered.

Miss Buenos Aires strides down the gangway first. Her measurements are 93-66-93. She’s 22 years old, 1 meter 76 and studies social communication. The rest of the information is drowned out by a modern butchering of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’.

Miss Formosa looks divine, but then I’m just saying that because I have a private and very much imaginary wager resting on her 95-centimetre hips. Verónica off the telly reels of long lists of numbers and statistics for all the candidates. Take it as read that they all like singing and dancing and sports.

Then I see her. Miss Córdoba, with the wonderfully Pynchonesque name of Zaida Schoop, a picture of serenity, like a young Princess Leia at a post-battle intergalactic awards ceremony that she knows is hers for the taking, the quiet confidence of a woman who has kissed Harrison Ford and cuddled an ewok. I switch my allegiance from Miss Formosa to the Fernet Queen.

The twenty-four contestants line up on the stage in a horseshoe, right hand on hip, toothpaste advert smiles, and then keep that pose for a full ten minutes while they wait for the deliberating judges to reach their heartbreaking conclusions. I applaud them silently, from the deepest pit of my heart. Mrs Tucumán is nervous.

‘¿Estás nerviosa?’ I ask her.

‘Sí’, she nods.

Told you.

We clap along once more to remixed Adele. Here are our five finalists: Miss Salta; Miss Federal Magic Pigeon Capital; Miss Córdoba (Get in!); Miss Neuquén; and Miss Santa Cruz. I touch Mrs Tucumán’s arm in a poorly-executed show of sympathy. It’s an awkward arm-touch. I have scant experience in consoling mothers of losing participants in Miss Argentina pageants. She doesn’t look that arsed, to be honest. It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride and it was nice to get out of Tucumán and soak up the glamor and twinkling lights of the City Center Hotel Casino and Conference Centre on the outskirts of Rosario, right next to the shanty town. Miss Córdoba stands centre-stage, looking radiant. She is the future consort of a minor European noble. A future Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein, say a sometime Countess of Nassau-Orange.

Verónica off the telly interviews the five finalists. ‘Miss Neuquén’, she says, ‘tell us about Neuquén’. Good question, Verónica. ‘It’s got everything’, she claims. ‘Volcanoes. Skiing. Beauty spas. Everything.’

So many words have already been said about the City of Buenos Aires, but what is Miss Federal Magic Pigeon Capital’s idiosyncratic take on The Queen of the Plate? ‘I’m very proud to represent the place where I’m from, the place where I was born and the place where my parents raised me.’ She’s close to tears. ‘All women dream of walking down a runway.’ This is Miss Córdoba’s for the taking. What’s the best thing about her home town of La Calera?

‘The best thing about La Calera is the landscape. Every day I look out on that landscape and feel blessed.’ Well-chosen words, Ms. Schoop. Keep it up. ‘And is it true,’ inquiries Verónica off the telly, ‘that La Calera has the most beautiful stars in the world?’ ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘it’s true.’ You tell her, Miss Córdoba. Never mind the fact that the stars are the same the world over, just put that fact right out of your mind. She’s starting to fidget in the way that some women do when they’re about to burst into tears. She half-sobs that her mom couldn’t be here but she knows she’s watching her. Ah, dead mom. That’s the clincher. If they don’t give it to Miss Córdoba I will not rest until every member of this jury has been hunted down and their throats slit in their sleep. Miss Salta is positively dull after that, an ice queen struggling to evince the slightest hint of emotion. But in a rare act of kindness she holds on to Miss Córdoba’s hand, and Miss Córdoba gives her the loveliest of smiles, the kind of smile that could make your heart soar as only the stars in the La Calera night sky can.

Verónica asks the jury for their final points. Miss Córdoba, center stage, is quite resplendent, emoting majestically, breathing deeply as she chokes back the tears, the steadfast smile of a thousand funerals. A full-volume Lady Gaga and ejaculating robot pulsate in the background.

And here we have it: The first finalist (meaning third place) is Miss Salta! The second finalist (meaning second place) is… Miss Córdoba. Never has this country witnessed a greater injustice. Verónica off the telly tells her to do a little walk down the runway with her tiara and bouquet. ‘Her mother must be very happy, watching at home in Córdoba.’ And with that, Miss Córdoba’s tears are finally ours.

I don’t care who wins now.

I’ll tell you though, God knows you’ve come this far: it’s Miss Federal Magic Pigeon Capital, who of a total of 127 candidates at the Miss World Final in Bali in September won’t even make it to the last twenty contestants. Miss Mundo 2013 will be Miss Philippines if you were wondering.

‘The runway is yours, the world is yours!’ squeals Verónica off the telly. ‘I’m very emotional’, Miss Cap Fed sobs into the microphone. ‘Easy, easy’ says the cold-hearted Verónica off the telly, ‘you’ll have to get used to that, you know Coca said they dock you points for crying.’ What a cruel world, Miss World. Miss Magic Pigeon says she’s speechless and speaks at length about her speechlessness. I make one last desperate bid amid the swarming press pack to get Coca Sarli’s autograph. Coca has left the building. Poor old Coca.

Trainspotting en los ferrocarriles argentinos by Daniel Tunnardis published by Editorial Marea and is available in most good bookshops.