A 'People's Pageant' Takes Center Stage ; as a Civil War Rumbles on, Women Storm the Catwalk for the Annual "Miss Uganda" Contest

Article excerpt

Rachael Kakungulu, descendant of the ancient tribe of Buganda, sucks in her tummy and teeters down the runway in her four-inch stilettos and black strapless dress, flashing her best Colgate smile.

From the rear of the giant white tent, a thunderous cheer goes up for the sociology major. "They like you, Rachael," quips the emcee, a cellphone-marketing executive who has just completed his first of two costume changes, from full Congolese regalia into a white suit.

Part Cinderella, part Britney Spears, last month's annual "Miss Uganda" pageant has become a national spectacle here. A diversion from the 16-year civil war that rumbles on in the north, Uganda's beauty contest inspires fervor on the level of World Cup soccer matches, and stirs the same controversies associated with its Western counterparts.

In Uganda, where the average income is less than a dollar a day, thousands shell out $15 a ticket for this year's Miss Uganda finals, held at a swanky resort on Lake Victoria. The crowd watches from plastic chairs that stretch so far back from the stage that the contestants are visible only on two jumbo television screens. VIPs dressed in tuxedos and full-length taffeta gowns sit at tables up front.

"This is our Oscars," says Sylvia Owori, the pageant's organizer and a London fashion-school graduate.

This year, Ms. Owori organized a three-week boot camp for the contestants, who come mostly from rural villages. To turn the 21 Eliza Doolittles into fair ladies, Owori and her staff of a dozen drilled them on everything from how to walk and talk to what sort of company a beauty queen should keep.

Among the hopefuls was Leyla Farid, an 18-year-old high school student from the eastern village of Mbale, whose heroine is British supermodel Naomi Campbell. Susan Alobo, who comes from the country's war-torn north, told the judges her ambition was to become a general in the Ugandan Army. …