Saturday 19 October 2019

Sixty years on, how Miss World survived racism, feminism... and George Best

Ahead of the beauty pageant's final this weekend, Joe O'Shea looks at its colourful ups and downs

Rosanna Davison won the title representing Ireland in 2003. Photo: Reuters
Rosanna Davison won the title representing Ireland in 2003. Photo: Reuters
Miss Ireland Emma Britt Waldron 2010
Miss Northern Ireland Lori Moore is also through to this year's final. Photo: PA
Bob Hope hosted the show in 1970. Photo: Reuters
In 2002 a boycott of the event in Nigeria saw Amina Lawal Kurami's death sentence overturned. Photo: AP
Kerstin 'Kicki' Hakansson (centre), the first ever Miss World in 1951

Joe O'Shea

For a grand old dame celebrating her 60th year this weekend, Miss World is wearing it remarkably well.

Still smiling gracefully and earnestly wishing for world peace, our longest running beauty pageant glides on serenely, even as the world around her changes.

Tomorrow night, some 25 finalists (among them two Irish girls) from a starting field of 120 hopefuls, will compete for this year's title at the Sanya Island Resort in the People's Republic of China.

The Communist super-power has embraced Miss World with a fervour not seen since the Cultural Revolution, hosting five of the last 10 pageants.

And the Miss World ethos, which demands rigid regimentation from contestants and enforces a hard-line, beauty-based ideology, appears to be a natural fit with the one-party state.

Joining the beauty contest fans from the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China in Hainan Province this weekend will be some one billion TV viewers around the world, mostly in Asia, the Pacific rim, Eastern Europe and South America.

The pageant, which drew X Factor-level audiences during the '70s, has been largely missing from prime-time TV in the UK and Ireland for almost two decades.

In the less politically-correct '60s and '70s, Miss World was almost always the highest rated programme of the year on UK television, usually pulling in around 30 million viewers.

British and Irish viewers hoping to watch this year's event live on TV will have to travel to the further reaches of their satellite service to find it on The Travel Channel.

However, the good news for Irish fans is that our girl Emma Britt Waldron, a violin-playing, 21-year-old student-teacher from Waterford, has already won the talent section and is one of the favourites for the overall title.

Emma hopes to follow in the elegant footsteps of Rosanna Davison, who won Miss World in 2003, also in Sanya, China.

The smart money, however, is on Miss Norway, who is hoping to make it a Nordic night of celebration on the diamond anniversary of the very first Miss World, won by Sweden's Kerstin 'Kicki' Håkansson.

It's been quite a journey for the world's longest running pageant since husband and wife team Eric and Julia Morley first hosted a selection of lovely girls in London in 1951.

Still run by Julia Morley to this day (Eric passed away in 2000), Miss World has survived the sexual revolution, sex scandals, race riots, religious fundamentalism and George Best.

The late football star was famous for the story, possibly apocryphal, of the time he was holed up in a posh London hotel with the then Miss World. When delivering the champagne to the room, the hotel porter reportedly said: "I have just one question: where did it all go wrong?"

First staged in 1951 as a one-off Festival Bikini Contest (to mark the arrival of the scandalously scanty two- piece), the pageant has also seen off apartheid, the Cold War and the arrival of militant feminism.

In 1976, the organisers tried to get around the apartheid "problem" by inviting two entrants from South Africa, one white and one "coloured" before growing pressure forced South Africa out until the release of Nelson Mandela.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also brought a fresh lease of life for the pageant in the early '90s as Communism's huddled masses, wishing for world peace and Louis Vuitton clutch-bags, embraced the great symbol of the decadent West.

Russia (along with Ukraine and several newly independent Eastern European states) entered for the first time in 1992.

And their rejection of Marxist ideology was rewarded first time out as Miss Russia Julia Kourotchkina won the crown in Sun City, South Africa.

The world's longest running international beauty pageant has also had its moments of farce. At the 1970 Miss World event in London, whistling feminists invaded the stage, throwing flour-bombs at a clearly shaken host, Hollywood actor Bob Hope.

As a live TV audience of millions looked on, Mr Hope (who had earlier said how happy he was to be "at this cattle-market" and moo-ed at the contestants) assured the audience that the protesters "have got to be on some kind of dope, ladies and gentlemen".

Events got more serious in 2002 when the event was staged in Nigeria, shortly after an Islamic Sharia law court in the north of the country had ordered the stoning to death of a woman convicted of having a child out of wedlock.

The organisers and the Nigerian government faced widespread protests against the judicial killing of Amina Lawal Kurami and a number of contestants followed the lead of Miss Norway, Katherine Sorland, in boycotting the contest.

Costa Rica ordered their contestant to pull out and the list of boycotting nations eventually included Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Panama, Belgium and Kenya.

The protests did have an effect; the conviction was eventually overturned and Amina has since gone on to re-marry.

In 1996, conservative elements in India were scandalised by the prospect of hosting a swimsuit competition and the widespread street protests in host city Bangalore actually united hardline communists and Far Right nationalists.

The swimsuit section was moved to the Seychelles while heavy security was placed around the events in Bangalore.

As communists and nationalists rioted in the streets, burning bikini-clad effigies, local organiser JH Patel said: "When I see housewives and other women come out in the street wearing nighties, I don't understand what all the fuss about Miss World is".

Patel, a prominent local politician, added: "Nobody is forcing these opponents to watch the event . . . Some of these prominent opponents are old people with failing eyesight."

Despite the chaos, and JH Patel's robust views on beauty and disability, the pageant's live telecast went on smoothly.

This year's event has also had political problems, this time with eco-protestors who objected to the original plan to hold the pageant in Nha Trang in Vietnam.

When the local organisers bought up 31 acres of land to construct a tourism site and facilities, Vietnamese eco-groups protested that important wildlife preserves were being devastated and local farmers were being forced off their land by speculators.

The Chinese stepped in to offer a new venue and the competition reaches its climax this weekend after four weeks of gruelling preliminary rounds.

However, pageant fans and property speculators in Nha Trang can keep the dream alive. Plans are already well under way to host the 2011 pageant in Vietnam.

Irish beauties

Rosanna Davison was just a humble, 19-year-old UCD student and daughter of a millionaire pop star when she won Ireland's first Miss World title in Sanya, China in 2003.

As dad Chris de Burgh and mum Diane watched from the audience, Rosanna was crowned the world's most beautiful woman in front of a TV audience of more than one billion.

This year, Ireland North and South will be represented in the final 25 competing for the famous tiara.

Waterford's Emma Britt Waldron, who has won the Miss World talent section with her violin-playing, will stand alongside Ulster girl Lori Moore, who triumphed in the Miss World Sportswoman 2010 event.

Lori, a 19-year-old student and the first black Miss Northern Ireland, saw off her competitors in a range of events including the long jump (which she won), swimming and running.

"I'm a triple jumper, so I hoped to do well in the long jump," said Lori after winning the title.

"I'm glad I could stand up to the strong competition in the other events and come through with the medal. I'm in the final! I can't believe this!"

Both Irish Misses have already spent four weeks in China, rising at 5am most mornings to compete in preliminary rounds and various promotional events.

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