The first and only Arab beauty queen to win Miss Universe, Georgina Rizk talks evading fame, her love for Lebanon, and seeking out true friends and family.
The early afternoon light floods the vast salon. Georgina Rizk is perched on her couch dressed in a sporty yellow outfit, sneakers, and donning a generous smile. She occupies the space effortlessly, offering fresh juice and coffee. Fifty-one years have passed since Rizk was crowned Miss Universe, and yet she maintains the radiance and grace of a beauty queen. She nods to a grouping of framed family pictures and offers, “My Lebanese father was a handsome man, but my Hungarian mother – a baroness – gave me my beauty, porcelain skin, and also my direct character.” She adds, “I hate lies, and I am always open to positivity.” Rizk revealed to the universe the beauty of Lebanon on the night of July 24, 1971, when the 18-year-old model saw victory at the global beauty pageant held in Miami. In the comfort of her home, Rizk, who rarely gives interviews, agreed to open up about beauty, family, and fame.
At the age of 14, the young Rizk was already a rising star. Andrée Acouri, the first Arab model to walk the international runways, at the time ran a modeling school, and took Rizk under her wing. Beholding a natural charisma and impeccable silhouette, she already had everything within her to shine. “My first modeling experience was at the Carlton Hotel in Beirut, and many more followed for both local and international brands,” she recalls. At that time, “Lebanon was a paradise, a golden age, an era of elegance, and chicness, and people were open to the world,” she says of the past glory days. “The war started in 1975, but despite this fact, it was and still is the most beautiful country. It has a magic,” she pronounces, her voice strong with emotion. “I believe in the new generation; for me they will be able to start the change.”
A few years before the war began, Rizk’s beauty journey was well underway. “One day, I replaced my half-sister, the designer and countess Felicina Rossi, who was participating in a TV program hosted by the late Victor Bercin. He spotted me and asked me to run for the Miss Télévision pageant,” recalls Rizk. “I immediately said no. It wasn’t of interest to me, but Bercin insisted. I warned him that should they cheat, I would expose them to the public,” she laughs. What was supposed to be a one-off coronation led to Miss Lebanon. “It was not in my plans. I had cut my hair and wasn’t interested, but once again Bercin insisted and told me that I absolutely needed to run for the Miss Lebanon pageant as Miss Télévision.” After her win, Rizk simply had no choice but to represent Lebanon in the Miss Universe pageant. “I wasn’t aware that I was ‘beautiful,’ but looking back at my school days, I do remember the boys from the school next to mine always looking at me,” she chuckles.
Rizk flew first with her sister and a friend to Houston to participate in a runway show for designer Anna Maria Malek, and then on to Florida. Ten days of rehearsals were scheduled before the big night and candidates were evaluated by 11 jury members. “They were observing incognito,” remembers Rizk. At the time, judges were only veterans, and this, Rizk states, is how she prefers it. French actress Line Renaud was among the 11 judges, and Rizk caught her eye. “She called me and asked me where I got my clothes from. I proudly answered: from where I come – Beirut, le petit Paris.” Rizk, who had effectively been raised in the fashion world, was known for her elevated and specific taste that favored the Seventies styles of the time. On the big night, she made an avant-garde fashion statement wearing “a green outfit embroidered in gold consisting of a halter and hot pants covered by see-through harem pants,” as stated in The New York Times. Her outfit was designed by her half-sister and made by Lebanese designer Pierre Katra.
From 61 global contestants, 10 semifinalists made the cut, whittled down to five finalists. “When the host was saying the names, deep inside, I knew that I would win. I’d received great reviews during the 10-day rehearsals and was highly ranked in the bathing suit round,” she confesses. It was also at that moment that she realized she wanted the crown. “And why not?” she remarks. During the Q&A segment of the competition, ceremony host Bob Barker asked, “If you had a friend who was going to enter the Miss Universe contest, what advice would you give her?” Rizk answered in impeccable French, “It would be a great experience to enter a contest even if you do not win; it is still lots of fun.” Her simple, yet powerful answer reflected her true personality – a fair player and above all, a woman not seeking fame but the truth of the moment. “Just seconds before the results were announced, I glanced at the card in Baker’s hand and knew that I won. It was so quick,” she confesses.
From the beauty pageant, she recalls two anecdotes. “Once, I was asked if anyone had ever predicted me becoming Miss Universe. It took me a while to remember an instance when someone read my fortune in a coffee cup and told me that I would fly in six months and with a crown on my head! The funny part is people in the United States couldn’t understand how one’s fortune can be deciphered from a coffee cup.” Another favorite memory is her time spent with Miss France and Miss Tunisia. The trio, Rizk recalls, were notorious for sneaking out for a bit of fun, denying being contestants when they were spotted. Naturally, Rizk would often be noticed.
The crowning moment was cheered by Lebanese all over the world, and the beauty queen received hundreds of telegrams congratulating her for uplifting the name of the nation. After a year of fulfilling her duties, it was time for Rizk to return to Beirut. Lebanon was so dear to her heart that she couldn’t stay away for longer than a year. She even turned down leading roles in Hollywood movies. “I wasn’t attracted by fame,” she admits, “My only concern was to return home and be with my family and friends.” Rizk was received like a queen by the highest authorities, and an official performance of the traditional Dabke at the airport celebrated her return. Even a postage stamp was issued with her photo in honor of her coronation.
Settled back in Beirut, Rizk was cast in the starring roles in three movies: Guitar Al Hob, Al Malika Wa Ana, and Bye Bye Ya Helwa, and one theater play Singof Singof. “I wasn’t into acting; I just did it for my friends,” she concedes. Her favorite role in life, she says, is being a mother. Rizk has a son, Ali, from her first marriage, and Walid Jr and Nourhan from her marriage to the famous actor, singer, and composer Walid Toufic. The couple met in Syria while attending an event and tied the knot in 1990. Building her own boundaries, Rizk safeguarded her children from the fame of their parents. “I don’t even have social media,” she exclaims.
Rizk also lived in Paris and Cairo, before moving back to Beirut. Surrounded by her support system, she stresses that only true friends are allowed to enter her circle. “Fame never went to my head,” she says. “I am very down to earth.” Despite loving the simple life – the beach, cooking at home – Rizk’s phenomenal taste has never gone unnoticed. Although she is up-to-date on the newest trends, her fashion picks are always timeless pieces that reflect her personal aesthetic. “J’aime le beau,” she smiles. For Rizk, beauty standards are not only about external features but also one’s soul. “Of course, beauty attracts, but the soul, intelligence, knowledge, and good manners are the most important and attractive components for both women and men,” she shares. “Plastic surgery can be used to preserve beauty, but not to change the unique characteristics that make each of us so special.”
Looking back, Georgina Rizk has lived a meaningful life without regret. “I believe I always make the right decisions for myself. I’ve always been free, and I am proud of where I am.” Lately, she dedicates her time to her own routine, taking walks in nature and enjoying being away from the public eye. When asked if she would mind seeing her life transformed into a movie, that trademark Rizk eye for detail makes an appearance once again. “Why not?” she starts, before quickly adding, “I need to think about it and it needs to be under my supervision – and very well done.”
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Wassim Steve
Makeup: Sam Tsan with Charlotte Tilbury
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Lighting: Kishanth Srikanth
Floral: The Flower Society
Producer: Sam Allison
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