September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

This week a new Miss America will be crowned, which will bring up once again memories of history’s less fortunate beauty queens. But if you think Bess Myerson and Vanessa Williams had it rough, consider the plight of Masha Kalinina, 16, who was recently named the first Miss Moscow. A 5’9″, 114-lb. schoolgirl, Masha had every reason to believe she would be the belle of the Baltic, the sweetheart of the steppes. What she was treated to instead was a cold shoulder from the motherland, which, despite Gorbachev and glasnost, doesn’t seem ready to embrace a decadent, bourgeois, Western-style beauty pageant just yet.

More than 11,000 spectators showed up for the contest at Luzhniki Stadium, and millions more watched it live on state TV. “I wasn’t scared,” says Masha, who competed against 35 others drawn from an initial field of 2,700. “I thought to myself, ‘You won’t win, so relaxand enjoy yourself.’ ” Unfortunately, her cool provoked catty insinuations that she had inside information about the outcome. “To be honest,” she says, “I was more nervous about my Spanish and math exams the next day.”

The contest kicked off on the wrong foot with an aerobics competition that drew scathing reviews from some viewers. “That sort of thing’s not Russian,” said one. “They should have been doing ballet dancing.” Masha gained an early advantage in the Simple Harmony category, which required the contestants to appear without makeup; allergic to cosmetics, she already had gone barefaced through the pageant. After she made the finals, the backstage back-stabbing became even worse. “Word went round that the dress I wore had cost my father 200 rubles [about $3,200],” Masha says, “whereas in fact my mother had bought it for 20 rubles in a secondhand shop.”

At first such scuttlebutt didn’t faze her. Nor did disparaging comments from the crowd. “They’re just empty-headed mannequins,” a short, bald man with a watermelon under each arm observed of the contestants. A sturdily built country woman added scornfully, “They’re Americanized beauties—all hair and no bust.” After winning, Masha kept smiling even when a congratulatory shower of red roses descended from the ceiling, knocking off her glittering crown.

Disillusionment, however, soon set in. “I found my crown was made of tin when it crumpled in my bag and the beads fell out,” Masha says. Even the grand prize, a year-long modeling contract with a West German agency, lost its luster when Masha was told to report for duty immediately at the agency’s Soviet branch. “I asked if I needed high heels,” she says, “and they said I needed to type, as I’d be doing office work.”

Of late, Masha’s life has been consumed by bureaucratic hassles that seem vengeful. She has missed four Western beauty pageants because authorities delayed her exit visas. Her application to a Soviet foreign languages institute was rejected because the photo she submitted was two millimeters too small.

Her social life has also become a near nightmare. “My school friends thought it was fun when I first entered, but once I won, some of them turned sour.” At home, she says, “strange men hang around the courtyard, ring the doorbell or stare through the windows at me.” In the marketplace, “people point and whisper. I can hear them talking about what sort of girl I am. I tell myself they’re envious, but it still hurts.” At one photo session, onlookers were so malicious that she fled in tears.

It’s not that Soviets disapprove of the Miss Moscow contest—in that communal society, they just don’t like the thought that somebody has to win. Particularly Masha. Shoppers on Moscow’s Lenin Prospekt carp that she is too young, too slim, too Western and too dark. “She’s pretty enough,” explains one critic, “but it was a Russian contest, so they should have chosen a plumpish, round-faced girl with blue eyes and a thick, blond braid.”

Masha is doing her best to fit in. At breakfast every day now she digs into a meal of porridge, doughnuts and cheesecake, hoping to gain weight.

—By Pat Freeman, with Juliet Butler in Moscow

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