The women on stage could stop traffic. Not just with their beauty, which is plentiful, nor their smiles, which are dazzling. These girls could stop traffic with their bare hands. Because the contestants in Tonga’s Miss Heilala competition are enormous. Many top 6 feet. Some must weigh nearly 200 pounds. I’m sitting so close they could reach out and touch me, or break me in half, since I’ve been roped into judging. “We like our women big,” says a grinning Semisi, a fellow judge and native Tongan. He’s cool. I’m sweating. I do not want to get this decision wrong.
I came to Tonga to write a story about the sunrise. While I walked along the beach, a large man from the Tonga Visitors Bureau caught up to me. “One of our judges for the Miss Tonga contest is sick,” he said, placing a mighty hand on my suddenly small arm. “We’d be so honored to have an English-man judge our queens of beauty.”
The sunrise story would wait.
When the competition starts, it’s immediately obvious that one person stands out in this hurricaneproof hall: me. I’m the only palangi (non-Polynesian) on the judging panel. I feel like Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag, where everyone’s 72 feet tall. I’ve never felt so English, so small in frame and so uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong. The Tongans I’ve met are friendly, but so is a bear in the right mood. Even a former king of Tonga described his subjects as “fairly dangerous people.”
The 14 contestants on stage have come from various spots in the 176-island country that stretches across 500 miles of the South Pacific. Tonight’s event is the tau’olunga, a traditional island dance. “It’s incredibly sexy,” Semisi promises. Each “Miss” wears a traditional teunga dress woven from pandanus leaves, and a sash with island sponsor names like Miss Tonga Visitors Bureau or Miss Good Samaritan Inn. The smooth-skinned ladies are accompanied by men in grass skirts who sing and play guitars. Before they even start dancing, my shirt is sticking to me, heavy with perspiration. It’s the heat of the moment.
The women dance, knees locked together, crouching and rising, arms gyrating in poetic patterns. One by one they walk past me, fingertips outstretched in invitation. More sweat.
Everything inside the venue shines. The ladies are covered in coconut oil, making them gleam like basted poultry. The foreheads of Tongan male dignitaries are moist because the men are enraptured with such quantities of female flesh. Maybe my sweaty underarms will be mistaken for excitement.
By contestant four, the dance stage is drenched in oil. She moves deliberately across the floor, so I give her a few bonus points for being thoughtful. There’s no telling what kind of disaster would ensue should one of the ladies fall.
It’s about this time, on the last night of competition, that I realize I’m out of step with the rest of the judges on the panel. My favorite is Miss Made-on-Earth Leather Gear (tender smile, graceful clapper), but the other judges have her near the bottom of their lists.
“She is the slimmest,” Semisi points out with a shrug. I nod my head, glad to know we’re in total agreement.
“Exactly,” I say, “It’s an easy call.”
But “slim” is Semisi’s way of explaining her fault. You can read it in his scrunched-up face.
“I was brought up on Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss,” I remark, explaining my Northern Hemisphere conditioning as to the ideal female form.
“Stick insects,” Semisi snorts derisively. “With chicken legs.”
I try to change my perspective when the ladies appear for the height of the competition. They are before me in ball gowns, grasping much smaller men for their final dances. My chair shakes a bit as the beauties prance and twirl in unison. After a few minutes they walk off the stage and wait for the scores to be calculated. I turn in my results as inconspicuously as possible.
“The winner,” says the emcee, “Miss Good Samaritan Inn!” The winner is far from being the biggest of the beauties, but she is solid. As I wait to shake her hand, I notice that her feet are bigger than mine. By two shoe sizes. But when the young woman moves closer, I also see that she possesses the eyes and grace of a runway model.
“Thank you for taking part in our festivities,” she says, looking directly into my blushing face. “It’s important that we hold on to our culture, don’t you think?”
I do think. The world needs places where coconut oil is sexy and where award-winning beauty comes in all sizes. The new Miss Heilala puts her hand on mine. Her touch is as gentle as it is engulfing.
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue. Read the magazine in the ISLANDS iPad app.