It’s been going for over 50 years and has been the target of protests, violence and the alleged cause of mass murders. But despite the controversy, Miss World is still watched, and loved by millions and it returns to our screens this week. Words Matt Pomroy
For some, it’s the epitome of sexism and a ghastly affront to a feminist movement that is fighting for equality. Others say it sets unrealistic aspirations for young women, while there are even those who believe it’s morally corrupt. But for the 100 or so women that take part in the Miss World finals, it’s nothing more than a beauty pageant and a charity event. Or so they claim.
‘It reduces women’s dignity to the cattle market,’ said feminist protesters in 1970, who tried to blow up the BBC outside broadcast van, so the event couldn’t be transmitted. Inside they pelted the stage with flour and smoke bombs, while the host Bob Hope taunted them by saying: ‘It’s been quite a cattle market… I’ve been out there checking calves.’ It was yet another year of protests at the event, which has run annually since 1951. Anyone who would try to break up an affair as wonderful as this has got to be on some kind of dope,’ Bob later remarked in the 70s language of jive.
But while attitudes about what is suitable to broadcast, and the nature of what we watch has changed over the decades, the Miss World contest is pretty much the same event – and the negative attitudes towards it have remained fairly constant over the years too. It may essentially be little more than a cattle show, but that genteel bovine nature now seems rather homely and twee compared to a lot of other televised contests that are currently broadcast. Consider today which is more offensive to watch – A Miss World contestant telling people about her ambitions to do charity work in her spare time or an I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here contestant being forced to eat boiled kangaroo anus?
Despite the fact that any casual viewer of television could rattle off programmes that are ostensibly more distasteful, Miss World has remained a bête noire to millions as well as a staggeringly huge attraction to many more. In Britain, the contest was so complained about that broadcasters stopped televising the event altogether in 1988 (despite still getting millions of viewers), and it vanished from the very country where it had been created. But the world continues to watch…
Organisers expect around two billion people in over 140 countries to tune in this year. We can’t find any official viewing figures to support their claims, but if it’s anywhere near being true then it’s an undeniable cultural phenomenon and significantly more watched than other global events, such as the last World Cup final – a mere 260 million tuned in for that.
Perhaps it’s that vast global audience that keeps women interested in entering something that will make them so disliked by millions. That exposure kickstarts careers. In 1986, Miss USA was a young girl called Halle Berry who shocked viewers with her interpretation of America’s national costume – a bikini made of stars and bits of string. It certainly angered fellow contestant Miss Holland, who complained it wasn’t fair, as she wearing her less than sexy traditional outfit and matching clogs. Halle though, went on to become a film star and one of many Miss World contestants to appear in a James Bond film.
Over the years contestants have argued amongst themselves, fought with organisers and fallen out of favour with the public. Miss Lebanon was accused of ‘collaborating with the enemy’ for standing near Miss Israel one year. One of Lebanon’s top public prosecutors intended to try her for this alleged crime. One winner had to give up the title after it transpired that she was an unmarried mother and this had tainted the event, despite it not breaking the rules. The ethos is that the women must be pure, which is why Argentina’s Norma Gladys Cappagli faced disqualification when it was reported that she drank alcohol, and Marjorie Wallace was stripped of her title for dating too many high-profile men, including George Best, tennis star Jimmy Connors and Tom Jones.
The organisation received many calls in the 70s complaining that in one contest neither the winner nor the runner-up was white. Contestants withdrew in protest and complained that it was also unfair that South Africa were permitted to enter one white and one black contestant to represent both aspects of the country under the apartheid regime.
In 1980, to counter the claims that it was a ‘cattle show’, they introduced a personality round. But when the German entrant Gabriella Brum was crowned the winner, other contestants got their claws out. ‘Gabriella was the most unpopular girl in the contest,’ said Miss Ireland. ‘It was supposed to be a personality contest, but Gabriella did not have any.’ The Irish threatened to boycott future events. Tearful 20-yearold Swedish contestant Maj Christel Johansson summed it up by crying that she was just ‘fed up with people shouting and screaming at me.’
There are hundreds of other controversies that have happened over the years and external protests continued throughout. It reached its lowest point in 2002 while being held in Nigeria. There were protests with people reportedly screaming ‘down with beauty’ and ‘Miss World is sin’ that escalated into four days of rioting where 200 people are known to have died, 1,000 people injured and more than 11,000 made homeless in the clashes.
Despite the horrors of that year, where people had burning tyres put around their necks as thousands rioted, the event simply moved to London and carried on as usual. Another year, another protest, a new woman crowned Miss World in what has become everything from a political football, to one of the campest soap operas out there, depending on your point of view.
And despite what you may feel about the event, in many ways it’s hard not to feel sorry for the contestants who are caught up in the middle of it all. This week, when the name of the winner is announced, she’ll go through the time honoured routine of faking surprise, hugging the runner-up, wiping a tear away and putting on her best smile as she’s crowned Miss World. It may be a cattle show, but if when her reign ends a year later she is still happy and smiling, it would be hard to say that the poor cow hasn’t earned that right.•
From Time Out magazine, November 2007