I had been working at Premier Models for a few months when an email came through from a small production company in Lebanon. They were planning what they described as an International Model Competition and asked if one of the team would consider an all-expenses paid trip to be a judge at the final. There was derision among the staff and the idea of anyone from the agency flying out was dismissed. Never one to turn down an opportunity to experience a new city, I told them I would gladly accept. The owner of the agency, Carole, agreed on the sole condition that I signed any future supermodels to Premier on my return.
Nobody knew a great deal about the competition. There had been no industry announcement or press on the event, which caused a little worry among the Premier management team. To ease any concerns, I arranged a call with the production team in Lebanon. I was assured it was sizable production with an extravagant budget. That was all I needed to hear.
I arrived in Beirut, my case did not. I suspected my case was somewhere between London and Abu Dhabi, but tried to stay positive in the hope that it would arrive at my hotel before sunrise.
On the first night, a dinner had been arranged for the contestants and fellow judges. Having no doubt in my ability to spot the next Cindy or Naomi, I sent an email to Carole saying she shouldn’t get her hopes up. I sat next to a charming fellow judge, a successful businessman named Karim who clearly appreciated a designer label. I loosely commented on his striking Hermes watch as we discussed which of the girls would most likely make the final.
Nearing the end of the dinner, a fracas could be heard at the entrance of the restaurant. The contestants were visibly upset. Through the animated diners, I could just make out that Miss Holland was shouting aggressively at the hotel manager. It transpired that all passports had been stolen from the girls rooms. Panic among our group ensued. Most were either crying or in mild hysterics as the hotel management hurriedly ushered them into a side office. During the commotion, the main event organiser was seen suspiciously sloping off to a nearby exit. Assuming it would only be the contestants passports that had been taken, I headed to my room to find mine had also been on the hit list. I was surprisingly calm at the news my passport was no longer in my possession. Being in a strange city, with complete strangers, no case and no assurance that I would be getting on a plane as planned in 5 days was quite exciting. That is the benefit of youth, seeing otherwise alarming news as an adventure.
The next morning my case still hadn’t arrived at the hotel, but a familiar orange bag had been left outside my door. I opened the bag to find Karim's Hermes watch and a note saying it would be better suited to my wrist. Without suspecting an ulterior motive, I slipped the watch on and admired how it really was better suited to my wrist (Karim would later accuse me of stealing £5000 from a hotel room in Paris. But that's another story).
Still in a robe, I knocked on the door of one of the girls in the room next door hoping to borrow a few items of clothing. My usual look was YSL and Givenchy, but without my suitcase, desperate times called for compromise. A bedazzled Cavalli shirt and embellished jeans would have to do. Thankfully my case showed up that night. It had clearly been rifled through and I was now without two beloved dresses, but at this stage I was just happy to have most of my belongings back.
Each morning a hair and make-up team arrived at my room, along with a vast selection of breakfast options. I would consider myself minimal on the make-up front, but relinquished all control over my look. With a loaded brush, the make-up artist used extreme quantities of product on my face, leaving me barely recognisable. I looked not unsimilar to a late night cabaret act.
My day started at a reasonable 10am. The call time for the girls was considerably earlier at 7.30am. All contestants were rushed to the hair and make-up suite before their daily routine commenced. From the stories relayed by the girls, the routine was relentless. Dancing, walking, clothes fittings, another hour in hair and make-up. It seemed nothing like any model competition I had be involved with before.
For the duration of my trip, I felt obliged to be overly enthusiastic while attending any production meeting concerning the event. At any rehearsal (and there were many), I reminded myself to look as enthralled and excited as the rest of the team were at the beauty that stood before us. The girls were pretty, but it was difficult to imagine any of them landing a Gucci campaign.
It became clear early on that this was not going a Vogue level production, so I let go of all expectations and began to enjoy the experience. I watched as the faces of those around me lit up as I regaled them with tales from the heady world of high fashion in London, New York and Paris. My ego was satisfyingly inflated.
Each day leading up to the event was a repetition of the last and I began to lose the excited momentum of the event. That was until the day of the final arrived.
The 6am wake-up call saw everybody fly into action. Dresses were wheeled in, TV crews started to arrive, as did the journalists. Event sponsors and the elite of Lebanese society had been granted exclusive access. I thought I may have escaped any involvement in the morning’s drama, but soon realised I would have to cancel my spa plans.
It was strongly suggested that I should slip on a dress and inform the waiting media just how impressed I was with the event and calibre of contestants. I submitted.
Once dressed and perfected with the assistance of hair and make-up, I was once again unrecognisable, but ready for the waiting cameras. Thankfully the outside temperature had cooled compared to previous days; the 3lb of make-up I was now wearing would not have withstood the heat from the cameras, lighting and 32oC in the shade.
The afternoon press call was the girls’ official debut to the waiting media. Miss Colombia was the first in front of the cameras. Seemingly ostracised by her fellow contestants some days ago, she remained unaffected and gave a flawless performance. Both the organisers and journalists looked on adoringly. Although this was intended as an introduction to all contestants, Miss Portugal was nowhere to be seen. Elsewhere, our Ukraine entrant could be heard screaming hysterically at one of the assistants backstage while Miss Germany sobbed quietly as stylists scrambled around to find shoes large enough to accommodate her size 9’s.
With the press call finally over and just two hours until curtains up, there was a genuine feeling of excitement from all involved. Even me. The girls were animatedly chatting among themselves, except of course for Miss Colombia who was engrossed in her book.
With sunset upon us, the team and I headed back to our rooms to dress for the evening. Due to the press call, the girls were all show-ready and ushered off to waiting cars. There would be one last rehearsal. I’m sure even the National Ballet would feel compelled to complain about this grueling schedule, but it seemed the girls were quite pleased with this opportunity to practice their runway walk one last time. 300 of Lebanon’s elite, along with international media, were expected to be in the audience. The girls were clearly hoping to be discovered for their varying talents, thus catapulted to international stardom.
I took my seat at 8pm. The lights dimmed, ready for the compare to introduce the evening. 20 minutes pass and we were still waiting. Restless sighs were heard from the guests seated behind us. And so we waited. Now almost forty minutes behind schedule, I had been unable to move from my seat due to spontaneous announcements of my name over the loud speakers. At regular intervals, each judge was called out and a spotlight hit the long table, at which point we had to stand and bow to the audience. Tired, hungry and unable to face another bow for fear that my bladder may burst, loud music started to play overhead. The host had finally arrived. It was showtime.
The event itself ran relative smoothly. The girls gave it their all on stage as they were judged on five different categories. The many hours watching Fashion TV (the show was a cult hit in the early 2000’s) seemed to have paid off and their walks were precise and confident. The mere mention of Miss Lebanon sent the audience into a patriotic frenzy, while the other contestants struggled to receive a half-hearted ripple from the crowd. Miss Poland, however, seemed to have one particularly enthusiastic fan who let out a loud whooping sound whenever she appeared on stage. The huge overhead monitors showed that our Lebanese entrant was averaging a score of 9 out of 10 for each round, rivalled only by Miss Colombia who achieved the full ten points consecutively. The Latin spirit had certainly worked in her favour.
Before the overall winner of the competition was announced, we had to acknowledge the winners of each individual category. Miss Holland accepted the first award for national costume. The swimwear award saw Miss Brazil take the honour, while the Italian entrant received full marks for eveningwear. When it was announced that Miss Norway has won the award for most beautiful hair, she tore the microphone from the compare and informed us that she did not travel 3000 miles to be told she had nice hair. The final award was for Miss Friendship and had been voted for by the contestants themselves. When Miss Venezuela took the award, the audience and I were blissfully unaware of the upset this had caused backstage. Not one of the other girls had put the Venezuelan entrant on the voting forms.
And so to the crowning of Miss International Model 2003. Fireworks explode to a delighted cheer from the audience. From behind a mass of sparks I could just make out that one of the contestants had a look of excruciating pain on her face. Her left hand was held firmly over one eye. Nobody had thought to inform the girls of the impending firework display and Miss Austria had been caught mid-explosion.
Unsurprisingly, Miss Lebanon scored high and was chosen as the runner up. Miss Hungary came in a close third. The winner was announced and through another firework explosion that distorted the view of whatever was happening on stage, I could hear on the loud speaker that Miss Colombia had taken the title. The press made their way aggressively through the seated diners to fight for an interview with the victor.
At 2.30am I reached my hotel room, relived to find my passport had reappeared in the safe. Having locked the safe with a personal code when leaving the room 9 hours before, this felt a little intrusive. Happy in the knowledge that I would be boarding my flight later that morning, I chose not to ask any questions.