It was over when the fat lady cried.
Miss Fat Israel was crowned on Saturday night in Beersheba in a beauty contest of epic proportions. The 20 finalists came in all shapes and sizes: large, larger, zaftig.
How do you get in shape for a contest like this? You guessed it: "I ate," laughed Anat Peretz, who didn't chow down enough to make the final five.
A buffet table, set up backstage for the girls, was picked clean. Mind you, they didn't nibble on carrot sticks or peck at lettuce leaves: this was a full-force pig-out -- a vat of cholent, halla, mounds of cake and salads heavy on the mayo.
"The stress here is fat," said Yehudit Karman, a wide 30-year-old blonde. "Beauty is secondary. As you can see, fatties can be pretty."
"What you see here is the antithesis of classical beauty," said Daniella Shamgar with admirable diplomacy, considering her foxy figure. This woman had a lot of nerve coming here: Shamgar, who made aliya five years ago, was Miss Holland in 1987, and still looks it.
Shamgar was one of the 17 judges. Yeah, 17. (They could have downsized the jury to just one, me. I picked the winner the moment I laid eyes on her.) The panel included the requisite officials from sponsoring companies, lawyers, local dignitaries, plus actor Ze'ev Revach, celebrated fatty Fanny Rachi (sadly down to 108 kg, from a proud 123) and Miss Israel 1997, Mirit Greenberg.
The jumbos on stage had no reason to be envious of Greenberg, who looked ridiculously out of place among them. Greenberg, a sexless, waiflike string-bean who looks like a preteen, weighs in at 54 kg, almost half the magnitude of one contestant, the very scenic Yafit Ohayon (105 kg).
For many of these lumpy lovelies, winning would be a mere bonus: the real victory was standing on stage, proud and dignified, basking in the applause and wolf-whistles of the packed 700-seat cultural center. Bolstered by each other's support, reveling in their good humor and warmth, no one here felt shame or humiliation or disgust at being fat. And while they paraded about in their portly splendor, their husbands, none of them Adonises themselves, had to appreciate them for being precisely what they are.
Fanny Rachi (a name that, you should pardon me, seems to mean "soft tushy") was resplendent in a large, slinky, yellow pantsuit for which there was apparently not enough material to reach her upper chest. Nevertheless, what she concealed that was of interest to this journalist was her judgment. "OK, I'll tell you. Number 20 [Miri Levy] is too thin. Number 12 [Ohayon] is gorgeous. Number 14 [Gila Mamo] has personality."
So that none of the paying public should go home disappointed, there was plenty of flesh on show: pupiks and pulkes and cleavage. But that was entirely the property of five lithe showgirls who punctuated the program with dance numbers ranging from bellydancing to cabaret. (In addition, a man and woman performed some wondrous tumbling acts -- with her as the tumblee. The woman, a tall, sexy blonde, freaked out the contestants with incredible contortionist moves, prompting Ohayon to mumble, "Oy, I gotta try that tonight.")
The contestants themselves were modestly dressed. Sorry, guys, no bikinis, no swimsuit competition. They started out with rose-patterned loose frocks, changed into pantsuits and then later, lacy white evening wear. The idea was not to hide the girth, but not to let it all bust out either.
Esterika Nagid, the dynamic impressario who put on this show, described how it came to be. "I organize lots of beauty contests and fashion shows, but always I knew something was missing. In my gut I knew that beauty was not only for the thin. As I see it, beautiful women are either fat or thin; nothing in between."
Proud of her discerning eye, she consented to guess the frontrunners: "Iris Gur, Sitvanit Slik, Gila Mamo, Ruti Peretz, Yafit Ohayon: one of those will win."
As the clock ticked down to the start of the contest, tension gnawed at the contestants. They paced, preened, noshed, joked. Two ladies, worn down by the excitement, yawned. Others practised their smiles. "Oh, God, I'm so nervous I can feel myself getting thin," Bela Beri moaned.
Anat Peretz and Ruti Peretz responded to the onstage music with a spirited dance. "What great fun," Anat said to gales of laughter that broke the tension, "two fat ladies dancing together." (The music was naturally selected to theme, but although they did play "I Love You Just the Way You Are" regrettably they chose for the crowning "Isn't She Lovely" rather than the more obvious "Big Girls Don't Cry.")
Ten minutes to showtime. Iris Gur, tall and big-boned rather than plump, announced that "If I win, I'm going on a crash diet." A couple of others razzed her, and a skinny flower girl said, with little sincerity, that she wished she were fat.
Ohayon, a sumptuous raven-haired beauty, nodded in the direction of Mamo. "She's going to win. She's beautiful inside and out." Ohayon, a favorite herself, admitted she didn't want to be fat.
Five minutes to go.
Joe Lev, one of the tuxedoed chaperones, evoked fantasies in every woman there. However, the tanned 22-year-old Italian-Israeli, blessed with wit, charm, intelligence and Romeoesque beauty, was unavailable. "Let's be honest," he said in an undertone. "They're fat."
He picked Kalanit Rakovsky -- probably the thinnest of them all -- to win. "She's the most beautiful. Fat with a figure. But Ruti Peretz has the sweetest smile."
Lev said it had been hard to work with them "because they're not professional models. They've never done this before."
An official hurried in. "Alright, ladies, this is it. Everyone shut off your cell phones!"
The ladies marched out on stage and the crowd went nuts. It soon became apparent why: Ruti Peretz had filled the hall with her entire clan -- every time she moved, she got a standing ovation. Nobody resented her, though, because she was such a sweetie.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the five finalists!"
Iris Gur, 31, 1.75 tall, green eyes, curly brown hair, a full-bodied beauty.
Fabiana Birendorf, 28, 1.78, big brown eyes, short brown hair, svelte with padding.
Gila Mamo, 29, 1.70, dazzling green eyes, red hair, every bit of her huggable.
Ruti Peretz, 35, 1.70, crisp blue eyes, blonde hair, ultimate proof that fat people tend to be jolly.
Yafit Ohayon, 23, 1.72, exotic brown eyes, a cloud of black hair, a veritable eyeful.
Peretz, from nearby Lehavim, brought the house down when she was named Miss Congeniality.
And finally ... Miss Fat Israel 1997 ... Beersheba's own pride and joy ... Gila Mamo!
You've never seen anyone so proud as her husband Yehuda. "That's my queen," he said with a broad grin. Their three young sons gawked in astonishment at the fuss surrounding Mommy. "People need meat on them," Yehuda said, and laughed, as he shot a glance at Mirit Greenberg. "Nebich."
Gila, who might have won Miss Thin Israel if she'd entered, divulged her 94-kg secret (an exclusive for this reporter): "Pasta. I love pasta. And bread and couscous. Best way to get fat."
Nineteen hefty heartthrobs converged on Gila for a huge hug-in. Behind them, on the stage wall, was a most appropriate tribute: a poster of the most beautiful fatty of them all, Mona Lisa. She was smiling.
What next, Esterika?
You drive through the drab dun of the desert, into the stony grays of the city, make a right, a left, step into Esterika Nagid's home and SHAZZZZAM!! You're assaulted by a visual lashing, a mad melee of colors that must be against the law.
Esterika is outrageous. Everything about her -- where she lives, how she dresses, what she does -- screeches psychedelically.
Just say "Esterika" in Beersheba and you get a response: people chuckle, roll their eyes, shake their heads in disbelief. "What will she think of next?" they say; one woman described her as a "bulldozerit."
Esterika loves it.
She's an impressario in a region not exactly brimming with dynamic showmen. She pulls off extravaganzas like a Miss Fat Israel competition, and most recently, a beauty contest for elderly women. She stages fashion shows, runs a modeling school, cultivates Miss Israel winners. She's always planning, plotting, concocting.
"Now I'm doing a Miss Elegant, for women who dress well, have taste, even if they're 80, 90 years old. I want to do something with identical twins, and Ethiopians -- they're so exotic, so beautiful! Ah, people will cry 'racism!' -- so what? I organized a Tunisia Night and we had a contest, no one said that was racist."
In August, she'll be staging a Miss Pregnant pageant, but this one won't be in front of an audience: just for TV. "It takes a lot of planning, and with pregnant women, you never know what's going to be in another hour. We can't afford to take chances.
"Watch the show and you'll see: some of these women look like a million dollars." Her voice rises a notch. "Anyway, who says you have to be thin to be beautiful? I put fat women on the runway, and kol hakavod to me, no one else makes them feel pretty."
She loves people, but they can be a mite difficult. "You know how it is, they're sensitive, or emotional, or shy, everyone wants to win, this one thinks she's the most beautiful, that one thinks she should have won. And if there isn't a person like me in the middle of it all, it's a mess."
She encountered unexpected emotions with the Gorgeous Golden Agers. "We had an old blind woman. She cried, she was so happy to go down the runway in front of spectators she couldn't see. Another thing happened that time. I had the women line up and I put contestants' numbers on them, and some of them refused. They were in Auschwitz. They said it's enough we have numbers on our arms."
She toyed with another idea, but you know this one's in really bad taste, because even Esterika backed down: a Miss Ugly (and Mr. Ugly) contest. "I decided it's not nice, not esthetic. I don't
want to make fun of people."
She operates throughout the country, from Eilat to Tiberias. She once traipsed to Bethlehem with her models for a fashion show -- at the height of the intifada.
Because she is surrounded by flocks of the most beautiful young women in the South, Esterika, 48, is also beseiged by salivating men desperate to get their hands on her girls. Forget it, guys: Esterika doesn't just manage them, she mothers them.
"I watch over them until they get married. I don't just get their signature on a contract and send them out. I know what's out there for a beautiful young woman. I get phone calls, 'Can you give me the phone number of what's-her-name, this Natalie something-or-other, with the body like this and that?' -- what, I'm going to let these wolves loose on my girls?"
(A few minutes later she says to me, "Want to meet a nice girl?" Coming from Esterika, it's the hechsher from heaven.)
She gets her models work in advertising, promotions, the film industry, doing political gimmicks and, of course, fashion shows. She trains them in the modeling school in her home. "I teach them how to walk, apply makeup, personal hygiene. I think every girl, not just models, should take such a course, to learn to be womanly."
ESTERIKA doesn't exactly mellow out when she's away from the spotlight. This woman leaps out of bed in the morning, and gets cracking: on her home, and herself.
Her home is ...
It's not an environment, it's an impact. When her front door swings open and you get your first look inside, you literally reel backward from the force of tumultuous bedazzlement.
No tacky, gaudy, glitzy bauble or shmontz has ever been created that isn't on display here. The living room is off limits to all but the cleaning lady (a full-time job for this room alone), but that's ok -- there isn't space for an ant to move among the statues, pillows, trinkets, figurines and knickknacks. Absolutely every fabric, style, ethnicity, artistic material and color -- except black or white -- occupy every available inch. You cannot see the walls. You cannot even see what there is to see, because your eyes cannot help but flit from one ostentation to another.
Esterika looks pretty much the same. The day we met she was gussied up in what I can best describe as a dress woven from a New England autumn. The flavor of the day ranged from lemony to tangerine, with glittering rust accoutrements, dangly things teasing her pronounced cleavage, and a motherlode of jewelry.
"I need COLOR. Other women, they can't dress like this. Me, the more mekushkash (ornamented), the more balaganim (chaos), it suits me."
She creates her own clothes, inspired by no known trend of couture. Often, she will assemble an ensemble for women who ask, who want to stand out in a crowd. "But sometimes I tell them, 'Honey, you have to be an Esterika to dress like this.'
"I was in America, people stopped me in the streets and offered to buy the clothes I was wearing." She cackles with satisfaction.
She doesn't jet off to swank fashion houses in Europe or America, or even Tel Aviv. She rummages around the shuk to find what she wants, with a special affinity for cloth from Gaza. She's very much into ethnic, so the nearby Beduin Market is a haven.
Occasionally, she'll go even farther than far-out. She once made a grand spectacle of herself in a dress decorated with lollypops. But the ultimate was -- and if I didn't see a photo, I would not have believed it -- an outfit made entirely of diapers.
That's correct: diapers.
The woman Pampered herself from head to ankle in 850 diapers and diaper packaging. The gown -- in part, tastefully dyed yellow -- included a Baby Dry hat, and a heart-shaped cutout over the chest, with shiny gold shoes. (Also available: panties in keeping with the theme, but I didn't ask about that.)
"I went everywhere with it, I was on TV and I got a standing ovation."
It might not be the best thing to wear in the desert heat, but on the other hand, the dress does a great job of absorbing sweat.
Someday, somehow, she's going to have to top even the diaper gown. The thought boggles the mind -- but then, so does Esterika.