Israel's larger ladies jostle to fill the catwalk

A group of women primp and preen in front of the mirrors, adjusting their outfits as they prepare for a beauty contest with a difference: Israel's annual "Miss Fat & Beautiful."

In a cultural centre in the southern desert city of Beersheva, the contestants tweak their hair and apply makeup, laughing together as they sing in Hebrew: "We are the most beautiful women in the world. We are Miss World!"

To qualify for the contest, hopefuls must weigh at least 80 kilograms (176 pounds), and 2011's contest includes several who weigh in at around 120 kilograms (264 pounds).

Unlike your average beauty pageant, which tends to conform to a strict lean-and-lithe standard, here curves are queen.

Ahead of the show, the atmosphere backstage is one of excitement.

"I'm very beautiful and I'm going to win," 23-year-old Tanya Fayman confidently tells AFP.

"I'm very proud of myself and my body and my beauty, and no one has the right to dictate my weight, so why should I be skinny?"

For the evening wear section, Fayman sports a skin-tight strappy dress, high heels and strings of necklaces, her dark hair falling pin-straight to her shoulders.

Proud of her figure, she shows no sign of embarrassment when the side of her top splits open slightly as she talks, simply grabbing a needle and thread to stitch up the tear.

The Russian-born beauty's confidence was well-founded. After two rounds in which the 20 contestants strut their stuff in ball gowns, and a trouser-and-top ensemble, Fayman was crowned the winner.

As strobe lights flashed and coloured confetti rained down onto the stage, Fayman received her crown, and the runners-up got their bouquets.

A political science student at a university near Tel Aviv who works part-time selling shoes, Fayman was delighted to win, but stressed physical beauty was not the most important thing to her.

"The most important beauty is beauty of the soul, and beauty of the heart, not just beauty of the body and face," she said.

The annual "Miss Fat & Beautiful" contest is the brainchild of modelling agent Esterica Nagid, who says she encountered some resistance when she first proposed it in the mid 1990s.

"I launched this competition for the first time 15 years ago, and when I raised the idea people called me crazy," she told AFP.

"But when I organised it and promoted it, even I was surprised by how many women wanted to take part.

"The contestants have to come a long way - practising how to walk on a stage, and practising stopping in front of the camera," she says.

"The idea of this whole competition is to boost the confidence of these women and to let them know that beauty is not only for thin people.

"All of the women on this stage are lovely and magical ... they have to know that all of them are beautiful," she said.

And the competition has become famous enough to attract hopefuls from across the Jewish state.

Adi Isaac, 24, travelled from the northern port city of Haifa some 200 kilometres (125 miles) away to participate in the contest.

As a child, she was badly bullied for being overweight, she says. Since then, she's learned to be happy with herself and to pay no heed to negative opinions about what she looks like.

She didn't win, but has no regrets about joining the competition.

"The important thing is that I took part in the contest and I enjoyed it and I was happy."

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