First came complaints that the winner of the Miss World Fiji pageant looked too Western to represent her country. Then her age came under scrutiny. And now, with the 16-year-old's crown lost, one of the judges says the contest was rigged from the start.
The pageant has turned into a fiasco in this South Pacific nation of about 900,000. The pageant's director is avoiding questions as fans of the fallen beauty queen, Torika Watters, flock online to support her.
Watters was crowned Miss World Fiji last month by an international panel of judges led by New Zealand supermodel Rachel Hunter, winning the opportunity to represent the country at the world competition in China in August.
Soon after, however, dozens of people posted messages on the Miss World Fiji Facebook page questioning whether Watters, who is of mixed racial heritage, represented Fijian beauty or was simply a mirror of Western ideals.
Two weeks after she won, Watters wrote on her Facebook page, pageant director Andhy Blake told her she couldn't compete for Miss World because she is too young. The international competition requires contestants be at least 17 years old, but Watters said Blake previously assured her "it was fine" because he had received prior approval for her entry from international organizers.
Organizers of the Fijian event over the weekend announced a new winner: Koini Vakaloloma, 24.
A message on the Miss World Fiji Facebook page Tuesday said that Watters had voluntarily stepped down and that reports connecting the decision with racism or her age were "untrue."
"Despite all the negative hype surrounding our event, we continue to defend against all allegations and accusations," the message said. The Facebook page appeared to have been removed by Wednesday.
Blake could not be reached Wednesday. A message on his phone said "Sorry, I've taken a short break after a very successful show."
Neither Hunter nor the Miss World organizers returned messages Wednesday.
Another of the six judges, Fijian fashion designer Hupfeld Hoerder, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the judging was a sham.
He said there was no note-taking or judging criteria during the competition and that from early on, Blake had pressured the judges to name Watters the winner. Hoerder said that he tried to argue with Blake to no avail and, in protest, refused to attend the final night's crowning ceremony.
Hoerder said the contest has painted Fiji in a bad light and that the country shouldn't send any representative to China.
"Everyone is playing the race card, saying it's racism," Hoerder said. "But this is about ethics, and an event that was unethical."
Watters, who couldn't be reached for an interview this week, said on her Facebook page that she left Fiji's capital to be with her mother in the town of Nadi and wants "to get on with my life."
"I left Suva and the entire pageant fiasco ... because I was becoming very uncomfortable with the situation," she wrote. "I was worried about the lies, the deception, the lack of transparency and the lack of professionalism."
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