To talk about Camp is to betray it, wrote Susan Sontag. But, she did write that a very long time ago. Since 1964, the aesthetic named in the watershed essay Notes on Camp has been talked about and betrayed almost to death.
Thank goodness, then, for Camp’s true survivor. Currently, her name is Stefanía Fernández and she stands at an imposing 178 centimetres.
Camp, wrote the great theorist (Sontag, not Fernández) does not appreciate a woman; it is always a “woman”. Fernández, named Miss Universe yesterday in Nassau, is certainly a “woman”. She wears the rococo quotation marks of Camp as stubbornly as a tiara.
Somehow, the Miss Universe pageant has survived an ironic age. And a post-ironic one, too. Thanks are possibly due to the ministrations of sincerely crass Miss Universe co-owner Donald Trump.
The Donald’s taste in “women” is never too far removed from that of the clientele at my former local, The Imperial.
Trump’s crusade for big tartars notwithstanding, the failed seriousness of the competition is remarkable. Nowhere else in Western culture can we see such a mass, candid display of bad taste. Not even Eurovision. The European institution takes the piss to the degree it can no longer fail to be serious. Miss Universe fails spectacularly.
Where else could you enjoy guileless kitsch of this National Dress Competition?
Even Australia, a country mired in mocking wit, managed to produce this glorious eyesore:
Miss Finch’s costume smells of artlessness; one of the conditions of pure low Camp. It probably also smells a bit like amyl nitrate.
Since Sontag’s famous inventory, Camp has been talked about and betrayed everywhere. From the pop stylings of Warhol to mass revivals of a movie such as Grease, the Western world has shown its appreciation of a knowing so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic. Under these conditions, true low Camp cannot be expected to survive.
But it does. Like a Carry On film stripped of its “Oo, er, Vicar” asides, Miss Universe is over-full with Camp. Chintz and chicken tikka tans are met with some of the oddest commentary you’ll ever hear.
“She always washes her feet thoroughly before bed,” said host Billy Bush of our own Lady Macbeth, Rachael Finch.
The best double entendre, however, came from incumbent Miss Universe. “I loved the Bahamas! I spent a lot of my time catching local crabs.”
But where, after all, does Dayana Mendoza not have a wonderful time? She famously described a trip to Gitmo as “relaxing, calm and beautiful”.
There are those who charge Miss Universe with sexism. This strikes me a bit like calling Australian Idol “manufactured”. Duh, to employ the parlance of the young.
Once, brave feminists opposed beauty pageants. As well, once, they should. Today’s Miss Universe, however, inspires no rancour in this feminist. It’s just a delightful, Camp antique. I like it for the same reasons I like pictures of mid century pin ups. It’s a relic. It tells us more about a past that we have conquered than a present we endure.
Plus, the chicks are hot.
Importantly, though, this is Camp.
Somehow, thousands of people assemble and produce a moment of consensual naivety. This is shocking and endearing. How does it survive?! This is the unanswerable question that keeps me watching every year.