Iman Oubou is the first Moroccan ever to sit on the Miss Universe 2018 selection committee and was one of the judges who today named Miss Philippines Catriona Gray, as Miss Universe 2018 in Bangkok, Thailand. Gray’s long list of prizes includes a year-long salary as Miss Universe; a luxury apartment in NYC for the duration of her reign, including living expenses; a personal appearance wardrobe and styling; fitness membership; haircare; a modeling portfolio; dermatology, skincare, and dental services; and health and nutrition consultation as she embarks on extensive travel representing sponsors and charitable partners and attends events like movie premiers, Broadway shows, and launches. Oubou, a former Miss New York, USA (2015), is an entrepreneur and founder of a women’s digital platform. Vogue Arabia speaks to Oubou to learn more about this year’s competition.
This year, Miss Universe was embroiled in controversy, notably with Miss USA being accused of xenophobia. Are there any positive takeaways from this experience?
The process starts off with interviewing each one of them for the first two days where we have a chance to learn about their upbringings, struggles, successes, achievements, platforms, and cultures. While we have no outside interaction with the women, we are able to connect with them through the various interviews. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a couple of times as they got emotional sharing their stories with us. These women are truly exceptional, strong, and ambitious. The outside world loves to think that the delegates are out to sabotage and diss each other, but to us, we get to see first hand the power of their sisterhood. It certainly reminded me of my days competing and how pageantry provided me with the perfect platform to become the woman I am today.
For the first time ever, men were excluded from the selection committee. And yet, men are part of the fabric of society; why have their voices been omitted?
It was never about “omitting” men’s voices or intentionally removing them but rather about showcasing a panel that reflects the organization’s commitment to improving opportunities for women personally and professionally. The organization is also focused on picking a group of women that leads by example and can be role models to the young women competing. The Miss Universe organization is a company run by women for women and I think that this historic move is meant to encourage more women to be inspired and empowered by one another.
I gave this a lot of thought when I first heard about the change, and then I remembered one of my experiences while raising money for my media company. I met with a (male) investor and as we were talking about my background and achievements, I brought up my proudest moment of winning the title of Miss New York US and how that quite literally changed the entire course of my career and helped me find my purpose. Then he interrupted me and said that I should refrain from mentioning and speaking (so passionately) about my pageant history and experience because it would work against me and people won’t take me seriously as a businesswoman. This is just one of many examples throughout my career, where I realized that some men sometimes just don’t get it. After all we are picking the next most suitable woman to represent the Miss Universe organization with both beauty and brains. And as women – we get it and some of us have been through it.
How have you personally observed such competitions evolve in order to remain relevant today?
Perhaps many years ago, pageants have been more focused on beauty and appearances but in this day and age, beauty is just a part of what the selection committee and the organization is looking for. These competitions have evolved to become more about social change, leadership, community service, and being a voice for the voiceless. Titleholders are chosen based on their career aspirations, their achievements, and their ambition to use their title to drive change for national and global causes they are personally passionate about. During our interviews with the delegates, we heard about the campaigns, initiatives, and advocacy work they accomplished in many areas like women’s health, access to proper healthcare, cyberbullying, innovation, and entrepreneurship… and it was all truly impressive, especially for how young they are.
This shows you how these competitions have evolved and while “beauty” is still part of it, it’s so much more than that. As the president of the organization says, a titleholder is someone who can get your attention and hold it. It’s about having the whole package, which includes poise, confidence, and ambition.
What is your favorite segment of the competition and why?
My favorite segment is the interview portion. Unfortunately, this is a segment that the public doesn’t get to watch and that’s probably why many people have the misconception that pageants are “degrading” or “shallow.” I have been saying this the entire time I was interviewing the delegates but if pageant critics could experience the caliber of these women from where I was sitting this week, they would finally understand why pageants provide such an empowering platform for women to grow and blossom into powerful leaders.
The interview portion is I would also say the most important part of the competition (speaking from a judge’s perspective) because as you can see all of these women are beautiful, fit, and gracious but the interviews are what determines whether or not they are able to hold meaningful conversations and positively influence the young generation.
Do you have the stats on Arab women’s participation in Miss Universe throughout the years and who is participating this year from the Arab world?
I can’t speak to the stats on Arab women’s participation (although from my experience watching it for the past 18 years, it’s been quite minimal). There are only two countries that competed from the Arab world this year and they are Lebanon and Egypt.
I personally would love to see more Arab women represented on this global platform and I’ve been talking with a few people from the organization to learn more about how I can get involved to help make that happen, especially when it comes to having a Moroccan delegate in the competition one day. But it’s up to these Arab countries to take the lead and throw their hats into the ring.