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The scandal surrounding Croatia's selection of her Miss World representative in 1998 might have appeared, at first sight, to be no more than a petty argument between divas in sashes. Yet to the campaigners who brought the case to public attention, it demonstrated the bigotry which they believed to underlie Croatian nationalism.

Lejla Šehović, a student from Dubrovnik, was elected as Miss Croatia in a close-run pageant on October 11, 1998, televised from the lavish Hotel Kvarner in the Adriatic resort of Opatija. The casting vote on the professional jury appeared to come from the three former Misses on the panel, including Croatian it girl Anica Martinović.

Five days later, Miss Croatia's director Milan Šečković announced that the result had been annulled due to undisclosed irregularities in the ex-Misses' votes. Šehović was replaced by the runner-up Ivana Petković, who had also won the public vote on the night.

Šehović, a Muslim, claimed she had been disqualified in favour of Petković, a Croat, because of her religion, and turned to the Croatian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog. The CHC jumped at the chance to expose the discrimination, in which they reported the state broadcaster HRT had been implicated, well aware that no news editor worth their salt would resist a story that gave them an excuse to run photographs of Slavic beauties in swimsuits across three columns.

Bosnian Croats, whom nationalists argued ought to be part of Croatia, had fought the Muslim Bosniaks during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The two sides had formed an alliance in 1994 to fight Bosnian Serbs, and a renegade Bosniak warlord to boot, but relations had remained uneasy even after the Muslim-Croat Federation became one of the two components of the Bosnian state.

While the CHC enlisted the help of the actress Vanessa Redgrave, Šečković was backed up by the organisers of Miss World, Eric and Julia Morley. The couple accepted his claim that the voting procedure had been altered at the last minute so that the girl with more first places, rather than more points, would become Miss Croatia, but in the light of Redgrave's energetic protests, suggested a re-vote on live TV.

Before the re-vote, one of the former winners on the jury, Branka Bebić, alleged that HRT officials had attempted to influence her and her fellow beauty queens to vote for Petković, naming in particular HRT's head of light entertainment, Ksenija Urličić.

Urličić, an apparatchik of the first order, had turned Opatija's other flagship event, the annual preselection for the Eurovision Song Contest, into her personal fiefdom, and was notorious for turning up to Eurovision itself with her own entourage and a choice of expensive fur coats.

The second vote, on October 25, declared Petković the winner, setting off a media storm papered over by the Morleys with a compromise: Šehović was to attend Miss World that year and Petković the next. Although Šečković initially refused to let Šehović compete as the official Miss Croatia, he backed down before she was due to leave for the contest, held that year in the Seychelles.

HRT, however, refused to give her the traditional coverage of her depature, and the newspaper Jutarnji list reported that she had even had to do her own packing. It's a hard life, when you're a beauty queen.

The Miss Croatia affair proved the most widely publicised example of HRT's role as a mouthpiece for the official nationalism of president Franjo Tudjman, which depended on identifying an enemy within. Denouncing Slobodan Milošević's forces as 'Serbo-fascists' during the wars of the early 1990s, by 1998 HRT's nationalists had little to rail against but a motley crew of homosexuals, Istrian autonomists and a girl guilty of looking too attractive in a tiara.

Ironically, the most famous of the contestants today is the third-placed entrant, Anđa Marić, the flamboyant lead singer of the Croatian punk band Flare: not a bad pay-off when she was only there in the first place to promote the group. Did anybody say 'You go, girl'?

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