I wouldn’t normally enter a beauty pageant, but this one is special. It’s a battle for the title of Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, beauty queen of a country that no longer exists. It is due to the country being “no more” that our shoddy little contest is happening in Australia, over 12,000 kilometres from where Yugoslavia once stood. My fellow competitors and I are immigrants and refugees, coming from different sides of the conflict that split Yugoslavia up. It’s a weird idea for a competition—bringing young women from a war-torn country together to be objectified—but, in our little diaspora, we’re used to contradictions.
It’s 2005, I’m 22, and I’ve been living in Australia for most of my life. I’m at Joy, an empty Melbourne nightclub that smells of stale smoke and is located above a fruit and vegetable market. I open the door to the dressing room, and when my eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights I see that young women are rubbing olive oil on each other’s thighs. Apparently, this is a trick used in ‘real’ competitions, one we’ve hijacked for our amateur version. For weeks I’ve been preparing myself to stand almost naked in front of everyone I know, and the day of the big reveal has come around quickly. As I scan the shiny bodies for my friend Nina, I’m dismayed to see that all the other girls have dead-straight hair, while mine, thanks to an overzealous hairdresser with a curling wand, looks like a wig made of sausages.
“Dođi, lute,” Nina says as she emerges from the crowd of girls. Come here, doll. “Maybe we can straighten it.” She brings her hand up to my hair cautiously, as if petting a startled lamb. Nina is a Bosnian refugee in a miniskirt. As a contestant she is technically my competitor, but we’ve become close in the rehearsals leading up to the pageant.
Under Nina’s tentative pets, the hair doesn’t give. It’s been sprayed to stay like this, possibly forever. I shift uncomfortably and tug on the hem of my skirt, trying to pull it lower. Just like the hair, it doesn’t budge. In my language, such micro-skirts have earned their own graphic term: dopičnjak, which literally means “to the pussy”—a precise term that distinguishes the dopičnjak from its more conservative sub-genital cousin, the miniskirt.
Though several of us barely speak our mother tongue, for better or worse all of us competitors are ex-Yugos; we come from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. I join a conversation in which Yugo girls are yelling over each other in slang-riddled English, recalling munching on the salty peanut snack Smoki when they were little, agreeing that it was the bomb and totally sick, superior to anything one might find in our adopted home.
The idea of a beauty pageant freaks me out, and ex-Yugoslavia as a country is itself an oxymoron—but the combination of the two makes the deliciously weird Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competition the ideal subject for my documentary filmmaking class.
I feel like a double-agent. Yes, I’m a part of the ex-Yugo community, but also I’m a cynical, story-hungry, Western-schooled film student, and so I’ve gone undercover among my own people. I know my community is strange, and I want to get top marks for this exclusive glimpse within. Though I’ve been deriding the competition to my film friends, rolling my eyes at the ironies, I have to admit that this pageant, and its resurrection of my zombie country, is actually poking at something deep.
If I’m honest with myself, I’m not just a filmmaker seeking a good story. This is my community. I want outsiders to see the human face of ex-Yugoslavia—because it’s my face and the face of these girls. We’re more than news reports about war and ethnic cleansing.
“Who prefers to speak English to the camera?” I ask the room in English, whipping my sausage-curled head around as my university classmate Maggie points the camera at the other contestants backstage.
“Me!” most of the girls say in chorus.
“What’s your opinion of ex-Yugoslavia?” I ask Zora, the 17-year-old from Montenegro.
“Um, I don’t know,” she says.
“It’s complicated!” someone else calls out.
As a filmmaker, I want a neat soundbite, but ex-Yugoslavia is unwieldy. Most of my fellow contestants are confused about the turbulent history of the region, and it’s not easy to explain in a nutshell. At the very least, I want viewers to understand what brought us here: the wars that consumed the 1990s and their main players Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were the three largest republics within the Yugoslav Federation.
Like many families, mine left when the wars began, and like the rest of the Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competitors, I was only a kid. Despite the passage of time, however, being part of an immigrant minority in Australia, speaking Serbian at home, being all-too familiar with dopičnjaks, I’m embedded in the community. Yugoslavia and its tiny-skirt-wearing, war-prone people have weighed upon me my whole life.
Most of these young women moved here either as immigrants seeking a better life (like my family, who came from Serbia) or as refugees fleeing the effects of war (like the Croatian and Bosnian girls).
“Why are you competing for Miss Ex-Yugoslavia?” I prod Zora. “That’s where I come from,” she says, looking down, like I’m a demanding schoolteacher. “And my parents want me to.”
In the film I will contextualise the footage of the Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competition with my own story. I’ve put together some home-video footage of me in Belgrade, before we moved to Australia. The footage shows me aged two, in a blue terry-towelling romper suit handed down from my cousins. I’m in front of our scruffy building on the Boulevard of Revolution, posing proudly on the hood of my parents’ tiny red Fiat with my little legs crossed like a glamorous grown-up. To accompany these scenes I’ve inserted voice-over narration, which says, The Belgrade I left is still my home. I was born there and I plan to die there. But really, though I like the dramatic way this sounds, I’m not sure it’s true. Would I really go back to that poor, corrupt, dirty place now that English comes easier to me than Serbian?
I am quick to tell anyone who asks that I find beauty pageants stupid and that I’m competing for the sake of journalism. However, I am still a human living in the world, and I would like to look hot. I’ve had my body waxed, I’ve been taught how to walk down a runway, and I’ve eaten nothing except celery and tuna for the last few weeks in the desperate hope that it will reduce my cellulite. I’ve replaced my nerdy glasses with contacts and I’m the fittest I’ve been in my life.
A secret, embarrassed little part of me that always wanted to be a princess is fluttering with hope. I’ve reverted to childhood habits of craving attention and, for a second, I forget all the things I dislike about my appearance. As I observe my shiny, fake-tanned body in the backstage mirror and smile with my whitened teeth, I think, What if somehow, some way, I actually win Miss Ex-Yugoslavia? I allow myself to dream for a moment about being the crowned princess, like the ones in the Disney tapes my dad would get for me on the black market back in Serbia.
This is the opening chapter of Sofija’s latest book, Miss Yugoslavia, available now.