Alicia Machado, Miss Universe 1996, is 20 years a veteran of having her body be judged by the public eye, which may be the only job experience that can prepare a person for seeing a discussion of her weight impact a presidential election. The same year she won, Donald Trump, then in his first year as owner of Miss Universe, Inc., told reporters, “This is somebody who likes to eat” of the 19-year-old Machado and ambushed her with reporters while she exercised. The ordeal triggered eating disorders in Machado for years.
But it was Hillary Clinton who thrust Machado back into the public sphere during Monday night’s first debate by citing Machado as a prime example of Trump’s contempt for women. The woman Trump had called Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping “has a name,” Clinton retorted. “Her name is Alicia Machado, and you can bet she’s going to vote in November.”
The degradation of a beautiful woman is as American as a burger and fries. What’s surprising here is not Trump’s tired racism and misogyny, but rather Clinton’s willingness to seize upon a pageant winner to rally feminist support; rarely has a feminist defended a beauty queen instead of condescending to her. As a feminist and a onetime pageant participant myself—the pageant was Miss Preteen Minneapolis, I was 12, I came in second-runner-up, and (probably because I placed) it was fun—I’ve long been acquainted, and irritated, with the ways those identities have been wrongly framed as mutually exclusive.
The opportunity Machado presents to the Clinton campaign amounts to an intersectional worm upon the hook. As a Venezuelan Miss Universe, a telenovela actress, and a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, Machado is a dog-whistle to Latinos—who despise Trump, but also haven’t forgotten Clinton’s deportation of orphaned Central American refugee children, her backstage support of the 2009 Honduran coup, or her husband’s record of mass Latino incarceration. More subtly, Clinton’s invocation of Machado also recalls the controversy of July 2015, when Trump announced his presidential candidacy by accusing Mexico of “bringing their worst people” to the U.S., including criminals and “rapists.” His comments motivated a handful of TV networks (including Univision) to cut ties with Miss Universe; meanwhile Mexico refused to send a contestant to the pageant.
For Clinton, invoking Machado hits a triple by nodding to Trump’s raw sexism, white supremacy, and corrupt business practices. It was also a blatant attempt to energize a Latino voter bloc whose wariness she cannot afford.
Adding to Machado’s value to Clinton is that, like most pageant competitors, she’s poised, well-spoken, and camera-ready. As such, immediately after name-checking Machado at the debate, Clinton’s campaign released an ad in Spanish featuring Machado discussing her mistreatment by Trump. Even more revealing than the insults he hurled at her—”you look ugly,” “you look fat”—is Machado’s recounting of Trump’s violation of her as an employer. “I earned the [Miss Universe] company a lot of money,” Machado asserts. “By contract, I should have earned 10% on all the commercials and work that I did. I was never paid.”
Machado’s grievances are facts too often overlooked by progressives, including Clinton’s own second-wave, old-girls-club feminist establishment: that being a pageant titleholder is a job, and one that deserves the same rights and protections as any other. What’s expected of a pageant winner is basically what’s expected of a presidential candidate, and also not so different from the expectations of a First Lady: to make anodyne appearances, and to run for office again. (Unless you’re Miss America or Miss Universe, and especially if educational aid is a goal, there’s always another rung of the ladder to clear.) She travels, she shakes hands, she delivers speeches about her chosen platform. Little wonder that, as the sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman notes, beauty queens have often run for office themselves.
Machado kept her job as Miss Universe despite any alleged changes to her physical appearance because such changes did not violate her contract with the organization; what did violate that contract was her employer’s failure to pay her. Where were the feminists to demand Machado’s equal pay in 1996?
Liberal dismissiveness toward pageants has tended to obscure the fact that they can be a powerful engine of class ascension.
This specific brand of liberal condescension toward pageant culture even pervaded Clinton’s allusion to Machado in the debates: “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them.” Her implication was clear: People who engage with beauty contests are stupid, shallow, and corrupt. Plenty of evidence applies those descriptors to Donald Trump, but what of Nina Dalavuri, Miss America 2014 and the first Indian-American woman to hold the title, who used the $50,000 she won to pay her medical school tuition? What of Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, a Stanford undergraduate when she was crowned Miss America in 1989, who also refused to abide her employer’s misconduct? What of a young serial pageant winner from Houston named Beyoncé Knowles?
What of my own pageant history in 1996, the same year Machado reigned as Miss Universe, and also the same year I placed in the top ten of my regional spelling bee? There’s a reason I don’t usually tell people about my pageant days, and it subsists in a particular arch of the eyebrows, a familiar smirk, and “Oh.”
“Public pageantry is hard work,” Friedman writes. “Maintaining poise and composure is hard work. Dream-fulfillment is hard work.” Pageants are intrinsically sexist, yes—they unfairly valorize thinness, whiteness, and other narrow definitions of beauty. They also school their contestants in the firm handshake, the concise answer, the thick skin. Liberal dismissiveness toward pageant participants often obscures the fact that—especially for the young woman who lacks the kind of privilege that might bequeath a child $14 million to start a company like Trump, or a Wellesley College education like Clinton—pageants can be a powerful engine of class ascension. Pageant titles can be leveraged into college educations and upwardly mobile careers, and for girls I knew from low-opportunity areas like the rural Midwest, these assets had real strategic value.
Nonetheless, there was little feminist outcry when Miss Universe Honduras Sirey Morán was stripped of her title after allegedly being physically and verbally attacked by the director of the pageant. Or when seven-year-old Jakiyah McKoy was relieved of her Miss Chiquita Delaware title after being deemed (wrongly, according to her family) not Latina enough to compete.
In the opportunism of Alicia Machado, Hillary Clinton’s campaign trades as overtly in the economy of pretty flesh as does any pageant, and while the Machado allusion is a canny stunt, it’s a stunt all the same. If it spotlights Trump’s past, so does it spotlight Clinton’s: In the exhumation of Machado’s humiliation for political currency, Machado is initiated into a growing coterie of scorned women of the 1990s now being given renewed consideration, like Marcia Clark, Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, and indeed Clinton herself. Convenient though it may be politically, that new consideration allows for greater dimensionality in these women: to be both sexual and serious, to be both an aspirant and an achiever, to be both a pawn and a player.
What’s most interesting about Alicia Machado is that, despite the current imbroglio, her story was never one of tragedy. She retained her Miss Universe title despite the efforts of its parent organization to dethrone her, leveraged that title into a successful acting career, and now seems to be thriving on the public attention visited upon her by her political entrée. In 1996, feminism might not have considered Alicia Machado and Hillary Clinton in the same sentence. But in 2016, they both demonstrate that a woman possessed of the strength to relive her most public humiliation 20 years later might just have a platform of her own.