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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jailhouse Beauty Pageant Captivates Lithuania

PANEVEZYS, Lithuania -- The way Laurinas Sheshkus tells it, the creative types at LNK TV were searching last summer for a gimmick to rise above the airwaves clutter of Lithuanian television when someone proposed staging a beauty contest in the women's prison in this stolid town.

"It was, like, a joke," said Sheshkus, LNK's creative director. Worse still, it was a joke that had the potential to exploit some of the country's least fortunate young women for the sake of a few ratings points.

In short, it was pluperfect television. And last week, the Miss Captivity Pageant became the runaway hit of the Lithuanian broadcast season. Two of every three television viewers sat glued to their sofas as a raven-haired 21-year-old named Kristina won a tiara that, one can be sure, not every beauty queen covets.

But the curious thing about the Miss Captivity Pageant -- aside, of course, from the fact that it occurred behind brick walls and concertina wire -- was that by the time it was over, it didn't matter that other beauties didn't covet it.

Prison officials unexpectedly gave the proposal their blessing. Sheshkus and his cohorts took the high road, deciding that Miss Captivity was not a joke, but a contest meriting top-drawer production standards. And the 39 inmates out of the 360 prisoners who entered the pageant metamorphosed into the sort of polished and poised competitors that Bert Parks might be proud of.

"We were afraid it would turn into a not very healthy competition," said Nejole Martinkeviciene, the prison psychologist. "Even out of 39 who filed applications, only eight were chosen for the final competition. We worried about the aggression, the evil feelings."

They needn't have. "It was as if they realized that it was not just beauty that this was about," said Regina Stankuviene, who runs the prison education programs. "All their behavior changed."

One can make too much of that. The inmates of Panevezys Correctional House who joined the contest are not fresh-scrubbed ingenues, after all, but perpetrators of crimes up to and including murder. Women labor over sewing machines, stitching together uniforms for use in other prisons, and they take classes in crafts that might lead to a trade outside the walls. Seven women are raising young children in the complex.

But if conditions are severe, the wardens take a progressive view of their jobs. So last July, when LNK TV approached the prison's affable director, Kestuitis Slanciauskas, with a proposal for a beauty pageant, his response, he said, was "Why not?"

The contestants were a varied lot. Their ages ranged from 17 to 31. Their crimes, Stankuviene said, were "all kinds, from the smallest to the gravest," though most were crimes of passion, not planned acts.

None was obligated to disclose a name or her crime.

There followed a crash course in the art of beauty pageants: a two-week drill on walking in high heels; personal reviews by a professional makeup consultant; sessions with a psychologist; fittings with a fashion designer; rehearsals with one of Lithuania's most popular singers.

LNK TV took a prison cinema, seating about 150, and built a new stage with soft lighting and glittery backdrops.

The Nov. 14 contest, broadcast nationally the next day, featured eight finalists in typical pageant situations: performing in songs and skits, wearing skimpy swimsuits, slinky formal attire and, finally, wedding gowns. Just as in other pageants, when the runners-up and winner were announced, they hugged and cried, and the winner, a 21-year-old who called herself Samantha, said it was the happiest day of her life.

The similarity ends there. In an interview last Wednesday, the winner said that Samantha was the name of her young daughter, and that her real name was Kristina. She entered the contest so that her invalid mother, who is unable to travel to the prison, could see her on television.

Kristina said she was serving five years but would not disclose her crime; she said she could be freed next year, three years into her term, for good behavior. The money she won in the contest, 4,000 litas ($1,150), she plans to spend on her daughter. It is not payable until her release.

Some people say beauty contests reinforce old stereotypes. Kristina said this one chipped away at them. "I think the people who organized it, they made an excellent move. They gave us the chance to feel ourselves women."