Bring your tiara and sash, apologetic Toronto tells Miss Universe

Natalie Glebova, 23, a citizen of Toronto who won the Miss Universe contest in Thailand in May, was to open the festival in Nathan Phillips Square, in front of City Hall, last Saturday. But officials said she would be allowed to participate only if she ditched her tiara and sash and other beauty queen regalia. An almighty row predictably followed.

The officials were only doing their job. A 1990 by-law forbids any activities on city property that may "degrade men or women through sexual stereotyping, or exploit the bodies of men, women ... for the purpose of attracting attention".

Apparently, beauty queens carrying out public duties, however good their intentions, fall within the parameters of said law. Or so the officials thought. But the Mayor of Toronto, David Miller, has begged to differ.

"It's unfortunate and silly," he told reporters. "It's certainly not the way I read the by-law. She should have been allowed to come."

Ms Glebova thought she was making Toronto proud. She is an accomplished classical pianist, who studied in the city, who promised to use her year-long reign to raise Aids- and HIV-awareness around the world. Since this brouhaha, she has been gracious but sad.

"I was a little bit hurt by the whole thing. I love Toronto. It's my hometown," said Ms Glebova, who was born in Russia before becoming a Canadian citizen.

Nor does she miss the more serious point - that there are people out there who are not fans of the beauty pageant thing. But she is not about to agree with them. "I definitely don't think that the Miss Universe title is any kind of sexual stereotype," she said.

A little miffed also is the Miss Universe organisation. Ms Glebova was told to stay away from the festival because of "a strict reading of the by-laws," President Paula Shugart noted tartly.

"According to those conditions, a beauty contest cannot even be held in Toronto." She said the decision had been an "insult" to Ms Glebova and to the government of Thailand that had named her an honorary ambassador after her victory in Bangkok in May.

The city, meanwhile, comes off looking more conservative than it would like to. Toronto is arguably the most cosmopolitan and open-minded of Canada's cities with a huge diversity of ethnicities, a thriving gay and lesbian scene and a tradition of tolerance.

Oddly, though, this is not the first time that the 1990 by-law has been used in such fashion and produced similar waves of negative publicity. In 1992, the then Mayor of Toronto, June Rowlands, refused to allow a concert by the Barenaked Ladies in Nathan Phillips Square on the grounds that the band's name was somehow degrading to women.

Mayor Miller said he thought the by-law had simply been applied too strictly by some overzealous officials. He made no promise to rewrite it, however.

"The by-law says that there won't be any beauty pageants in Nathan Phillips Square and that's appropriate, that's not a right kind of use for Nathan Phillips Square," he said. "But it doesn't say Miss Universe can't be honoured there."