ST. PETERSBURG -- When the winner of last week's Mrs. World 2006 pageant in the Oktyabrsky Theater was announced, cannons pounded out the climax of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a cherub descended from the rafters with a diamond encrusted tiara, bursts of confetti shot across the stage, and Hollywood has-been Alan Thicke (the dad in Growing Pains) named the winner. One of the organizers placed the Mrs. World sash on Mrs. Costa Rica, and the other 31 contestants thronged her with congratulations. It was easily the most impressive stage moment of the otherwise threadbare evening.
Moments after David Marmel shoved a woman off the stage, Mrs. Costa Rica (left) sensed something was amiss. (Photo by Eddie Opp)
There was just one problem: Thicke had just announced that Mrs. Costa Rica was the first runner-up, not the winner. Mrs. Russia had won. It'd be tempting to say something was lost in the translation, except it was one of the American organizers that erred.
Even after my four-day Mrs. World Pageant binge in St. Petersburg, it was immediately clear from my front-row seat in the jury box that someone had seriously screwed up. The sash-bearer, an Israeli woman whose sole responsibility was to place the sash on the winner, muffed it. But since the announcement was made in English, half of the contestants and 99 percent of the audience had no idea that it was all wrong, that Mrs. Costa Rica wasn't the real winner. Cheers erupted, tears flowed, the music kept crescendoing, and total chaos erupted. Mrs. Russia rushed off stage to her waiting body guards (she was always followed by two flatheads with earpieces), as shocked by the results as Marcellus in Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis didn't take the fall. She apparently had good reason to believe that she was a shoe-in.
Alan Thicke: Still paternal after all these years
David Marmel, the American organizer and creative genius behind the Mrs. World pageant, jumped on the stage with an urgent "My Empire is crumbling!" look about him. The Moe Greene/Meyer Lansky look-alike had been at it for 30 years and there'd never been a mix-up like this. So he ran around frantically, intercepted a middle-aged woman climbing onto the stage to give Mrs. Costa Rica flowers, and pushed her down a small stairwell. Literally pushed her. She fell hard and landed on her butt, looking more shocked than hurt.
"Nobody's allowed on stage! Do you hear me, Bob!" he shouted at his Smithers-like assistant, just about the only one in the Oktyabrsky Theater still listening to him. "Nobody on stage!"
Mrs. Russia gets what's coming to her.
Bob positioned himself to intercept any other potential well-wishers, and David, an overtanned Floridian, tried to manage the disaster. By the time he was able to reclaim the tiara from a devastated Mrs. Costa Rica (using Mrs. Bolivia as a translator), the gig was up: more than half of the crowd had left and most of the contestants ripped their sashes off in anger at the total incompetence of the organizers. When they re-filmed the finale award ceremony, there were only 11 contestants of the 30+ left standing on stage behind Mrs. Russia, and runner-up Mrs. Costa Rica was long gone. The confetti was spent, the cherub didn't get repositioned in time for another drop, and the remaining audience was muttering about conspiracies and hurling abuse at the stage. It's hard to imagine how the We (Women's Entertainment) Network, where the competition is scheduled for broadcast starting May 20, will be able to edit it into anything but a complete fiasco.
The Americans were clearly freaked out by the outcome. In the aftermath, Bob shook his head and, referring to the Israeli sash-bearer, said, "That was her only job, that's what we pay her for!" None of them made it to the after-party.
Bob: Smithers wannabe
Afterwards, in the bus that was supposed take the Mmes. to the after party at Jet Set, but ended up ferrying almost all of them back to the hotel, the contestants complained to me about just how horribly wrong everything had gone. Until that moment I'd spent too much time drinking and hanging out 'til dawn at Zabava, a strip club on a ship on the Neva, with the Russian organizers to take much notice of the event. I'd had a few insights into the world of Russian event management, but wasn't planning on writing anything about Mrs. World.
That all changed when I learned that, as incompetent as the Russian organizers can be, it was the American side who were the real culprits. The Russians' shenanigans were simply business as usual, the result of too much drinking, disorganization, and the belief that everything's for sale. "The most laudable thing on the Russian side would be if Mrs. Russia hadn't won," Kommersant photo editor and fellow jury member Eddie Opp told me. "Unfortunately, the Russians didn't surprise me." The Americans, on the other hand, were surprisingly crooked scumbags trying to use these unwitting women to make bank.
Their disrespect of Russians was most clear in the way they failed to provide adequate translations for the Russian audience. Since the event was getting filmed for an American audience, they had to give the impression that the audience understood Thicke's stupid one liners. Therefore, he talked extendedly without a pause for translation. It was so wrong that the Russian crowd mutinied, shouting Thicke down until a translator jumped in.
With the translator, unfortunately, things were only marginally better. The co-host, Tanya Gevorkyan, an MTV vee-jay, had a poor command of English and was regularly translating the exact opposite of what Thicke said. Her low point was when two black choreographers were rearranging the contestants' positions and she adlibbed, "Girls, watch your jewels!" To make up for the lack of laughter, during intermission the audience was asked to applaud and fake laughter, which would then be cut into the show during the edit.
To me, the idea of a Mrs. World had a Bible Belt twang to it. When I first arrived in Petersburg last week, I assumed it was a Family Values type competition, emphasizing inner beauty, personality, and women who'd popped out several kids. Most of the representatives of English-speaking countries clearly so too, that this was a beauty contest for women in their 30s who worked hard to stay fit in between their kids soccer games and choral recitals. According to Mrs. New Zealand's husband, she thought taking part in "this pageant when in her 40s and after 8 children would be recognition and appreciation of her life." And Mrs. America was shocked to find out she'd be competing against teenagers. Incredibly hot teenagers. Like the one representing Russia.
Mrs. Costa Rica's rude awakening
In a slimy Hollywood twist, the American producers, who included Jeff Androsky, a producer from a show on the new Fox Reality network Reality Remix, announced that that contest was going to be a reality show just three days before the pageant started. All the preceding contests were just a fodder for the reality show, not competitions they'd be judged on. It was even rumored that he was thrilled after the screw-up, because it'd make for better TV. As it was, the reality TV angle was mimicking Miss America's attempt to stay relevant, which it announced it was going reality TV this year. But, like everything else in this contest, it was done in a Mickey Mouse way.
For example, there was one part where they tried to pressure the women into voting one off their fellow contestants off, although Mrs. Australia told me that the women refused to take part.
This didn't stop the Americans. They simply pretended that the contestants played along. With 11 contestants left, Thicke said that the contestants had voted either Mrs. Ukraine or Mrs. Thailand off -- a lie -- and brought them both to the mike. The suspense was undermined by the fact that Mrs. Ukraine didn't understand him when he asked who would want to vote her off, so she answered in a non sequitur. It got uglier when Mrs. Thailand gave a teary answer that she hadn't signed up for a reality TV show and that everyone was a winner in her eyes. Her words went untranslated for the Russian audience, but the entire hall burst into the loudest cheers of the night. And Mrs. Ukraine got the boot.
One thing the Americans couldn't stop was certain interested Russians' attempts to stack the pageant's jury. Clearly, the Russians had spent enough money that the Americans were willing to compromise on the (now former) tradition that the host country's Mrs. never wins. The Russians nominated five members of the jury (myself included), while the Americans brought only four members. Of the Russian nominations, which included last year's Miss Russia, an Olympic staking champion, Moscow's most famous tailor, Eddie Opp and me, I can only vouch for Eddie's honesty, because I was sitting next to him and saw how he voted. I am pretty sure, though, that the American delegation didn't vote for Mrs. Russia.
The contest itself flawed from the start. Contestants ranged in age from 18 to 40 and had anywhere from zero to eight kids. Mrs. China, an impossibly tall and thin 19-year-old, just got married this January. Mrs. New Zealand has eight kids and crow's feet. While she'd probably out duel Mrs. China in a battle of wits (although I can't be sure, since Mrs. China didn't speak English or Russian), they were in different leagues during the bathing suit competition. In general, the Anglo-Americans tended to be homemakers, the Latinas were rocking the slutty housewife look, and the Slavic and Asian contingents were professional models.
Married women in swimsuits
The only rule, it seemed, was that the contestant be married to qualify as a "Mrs." It didn't matter to whom. Mrs. Russia, for example, is married to a 50-year-old biznesmen, Sergei Veremeenko, a former presidential candidate for the Republic of Bashkortostan, a bigwig in Russian Coal and onetime managing director of Russia's fourth biggest bank, Mezhprombank. He's ranked #82 on Oligarch.net's Golden 100 ranking of rich Russians, worth $560 million. He's also a real Casanova, in spite of his funny mustachio and short stature. Just a year and a half ago, in August 2004, Russian Forbes reported that he was simultaneously married to two women (neither of whom was the future Mrs. World). His first wife Alla Vermeneenko, in whose name the biznesmen's stake of Mezhprombank was registered, claimed that they were still officially married. However, during an interview with the magazine, he introduced Marina Smetanova as his wife. Just a year later, he managed to wed a 17-year-old babe.
Things got off to a rough start from the very beginning, when 20 of the 54 contestants (including Mrs. Afghanistan) were denied visas into Russia. Nonetheless, the determined organizers plowed ahead with the abridged contestant list. It wasn't the only time the Russian border gave them trouble -- Mrs. World's $28,000 diamond tiara got held up by customs until literally hours before the contest. In a perhaps prophetic twist, the organizers ordered a second crown made in Moscow, which was delivered a few days prior to the event. Though I'd doubt they'll give it to Mrs. Costa Rica. Mrs. Finland, a curvy model who came in third, received only a commemorative medal that says "St. Petersburg 2006." The husband of Mrs. New Zealand wrote me that his wife had gotten one, too, and said, "I presume they got it at the hotel gift store."
The final humiliation: Mrs. World poses with the author (Photo by Eddie Opp)
Earlier, I alluded to Russian management. As far as I could tell, this consisted of certain organizers drinking at least one bottle of whiskey a day (per person), and occasionally calling over subordinates and harassing them. Somewhere in the evening of the management's fourth day of a zapoi (binge), I witnessed a typical incident at a lobby restaurant in the Pribaltiyskaya hotel, where everyone in the event was put up. Two totally wasted guys representing the sponsors (I'm leaving out their names and organizations for personal safety reasons) called over one organizer after another and asked in bandit jargon, "Nu, chto, gde denushki? Skolko spizdil?" ("Where's the dough? How much have you pocketed?").
The organizers, who had mountains of work to do dealing with problems in the terribly organized event, were obviously anxious to get back to work. Then, when they left, the two drunk guys went on a tirade about how they could tell that they'd pocketed tons of money because the organizers wouldn't look them in the eyes.
It's expenses like taking care of these guys that make events so expensive here. From my perspective in Zabava (the strip club, which is old Russian for "entertainment"), I watched a few grand tossed around every night. Part of it was an attempt to influence my vote, but that was just a fraction of the money at stake here. Other tables at Zabava were filled with the event's Russian management, and there wasn't a judge to be seen.
As an aside about Zabava, it also attracted plenty of Duma deputies, who were visiting the Tsarist capital for the 100th anniversary of the opening of the first Russian Duma. One organizer told me he spent two nights hanging out with deputies there, and on the nights I was there, there were tables full of men in suits who looked like they could easily belong to United Russia.
One deputy evidently let the festivities get the better of him (although I don't know if it was at Zabava), as I found out when leaving my hotel room on the 10th floor on Thursday morning a bit after 11 am. In the hallway, there were three cops and five FSB agents interrogating a weeping woman. I later found out that they were grilling her about Valery Kuzin, a United Russia deputy from the Ust-Ordynsky district in Buryatia whom she'd found dead in his room that morning. Foul play wasn't suspected. I imagine he died of alcohol poisoning, given what I saw at Zabava and elsewhere.
But back to the pageant. However cheap it looked, with decorations that could be bested by most mid-sized high school productions, a lot of money was spent bringing the event to Petersburg. I was too drunk for most of the time to attempt a serious evaluation of what the event cost, but it wasn't monkey change. The rental of the concert hall alone cost $50,000, and I'm sure renting Alan Thicke cost at least as much. The organizers brought over an entire TV crew from the States to film the pageant and put up all 34 ladies at the supposedly 4-star Pribaltiyskaya for two weeks. I assume a million dollars is a minimum.
And it's not like they had any plan to recoup the money. Like most events in Russia, from basketball games to rock concerts, most of the tickets were given away for free. Even so, the theater was probably a third empty.
David Marmel: looking for work
They saved on other things, though, like water. According to Mrs. New Zealand, during filming, which sometimes took all day, they wouldn't be given so much as a bottle of water. "The ASPCA wouldn't let you treat an animal like that," she told me. "We arrived not knowing Russian and they tell us, 'If you want water, buy it yourselves!'"
Here, as elsewhere, it was the Americans who were to blame. Beersheba, the Israeli who screwed up the sash, and Jeff, the reality TV director, shouted constantly at the women and treated the Mmes. like kids. They were forbidden from approaching David Marmel, but saw enough of him so that Mrs. New Zealand came to the conclusion that he was a slime.
While the women were put up for free, they were responsible for paying their way to Russia themselves and buying their own evening gowns. Mrs. New Zealand's husband told me, "Most would still be poorer if they were given $10,000."
As my fellow jury member Kommersant photo editor Eddie Opp told me in the aftermath, "Something this thing showed me is that American producers have no respect for other cultures, treating the spectators like sheep. I also saw how little respect the Russian organizers had for themselves, trying to fix it without any regard to how it would look from the outside. They earned each other -- it was ugly behavior all around."
The Russian side looked at it much more simply. One organizer, looking exhausted after his drinking binge, told me at the after party, "Results are the main thing, and we got the ones we wanted."