Prison is often perceived as a place where already degraded people become even more ugly. But a unique event held recently in the northern Lithuanian town of Panevezys proved that there can be beauty on the inside too.
The Miss Captivity contest, held at the Panevezys Women's Penitentiary on Nov. 14, was perhaps not surprisingly the first event of its kind ever held in the world. Seven contestants aged 17-31 competed in a bikini show, sang, impersonated Hollywood stars, and in a surreal but symbolic finale, held a parade in white bridal gowns.
Although the women were only introduced by their first names, and the crimes for which they are incarcerated were not revealed, they are now big stars in Lithuania. And with reporters from Britain, Germany, France, Poland, Korea and Russia present, the world might come to love the concept too.
"We have received a proposal from foreign TV companies to hold an international Miss Captivity beauty contest. Maybe it will be called Miss Captivity Europe," said Arunas Valinskas, organizer of the contest and a presenter for LNK TV, the Lithuanian network that broadcast the pageant.
The contest idea was the brainchild of LNK. Thirty-nine of the prison's 367 inmates applied to take part - and the enthusiasm was wild. According to Valinskas, one candidate named Laura said that she would rather stay in jail than miss out on the contest, but even though she didn't make the final cut, fortunately the other part of her dream remained unrealized. Her release from incarceration was scheduled for the day after the contest.
Another girl had a less happy ending. Eight hopefuls were initially selected, but 17-year old Viktorija was transported by police to the town of Radviliskis for questioning during rehearsals.
There were no regrets from the other participants. Samanta, 21, was awarded the Miss Captivity title and received a silver crown and a prize worth of 4,000 litas (1,15 euros). Originally hailing from Kaunas, Lithuania's second biggest city, she will finish serving her sentence in two years. She has a one-year-and-nine-months-old daughter and said her dream was to become a photo model.
"I want to turn the clock back and change my past, in which I did the thing that put me behind bars. Freedom is more precious to me than the crown I won," Samanta told journalists during a short banquet held immediately after the contest.
Perhaps a further spur to her rehabilitation is that after getting her crown, she sat on the same Panevezys restaurant chair that rested the behind of India's Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World who visited Lithuania several years ago.
Inga, 31, was elected vice miss and was awarded a prize worth 2,500 litas. She said that she would present this money to her grandparents who are very dear to her, even though she will not see them for another five years, the time still left on her seven-year sentence. She also won the title of Miss Public based on a phone poll by TV viewers, and perhaps this will help her launch a new life - Inga said she wanted to put out a CD with the Lithuanian pop star Gytis Paskevicius. Paskevicius said he was amazed by her strong voice and talent and would take the proposal seriously.
Several Lithuanian pop music stars played at the event. The evening passed in a joyful mood.
"Perhaps for the first time you feel pleasure in being in prison," Valinskas said to the spectators.
The inmates in the hall reacted cheerfully.
The jury was made up of Lithuanian pop music, TV and theater stars as well as human rights officials.
"I'm envious of the participants in this contest. They are so beautiful," said Galina Dauguvietyte, a theater director and jury member.
Inevitably, there was some criticism as well. On Nov. 18, two parliamentarians from the opposition Liberal Union, Raimondas Sukys and Romanas Sedlickas, stated in Parliament that the beauty contest insulted the victims of the crimes committed by the participants in Miss Captivity. They said that they would consider initiating legislation that would ban the broadcast of such contests.
However, Valinskas says that criminals have already been punished with imprisonment, and such a contest is useful for their psychological rehabilitation and in helping them to return to normal lives.
Kestutis Slanciauskas, head of administration of the Panevezys institution, said that he had doubts when the station proposed the beauty contest, because he said he was afraid it would become a parody. But organizers assured him that it would be a respectable event. Slanciauskas said he now thinks that it was a good idea.
"Bad luck cannot prevent people from being beautiful and intelligent. The facts of biography do not change the human spirit," he said.