AFTER skipping a year due to Covid, Miss World is back – and celebrating its 70th birthday today.
The world’s longest-running international beauty contest will return to the stage in Puerto Rico in December, when reigning queen Toni-Ann Singh, 25, from Jamaica, will crown her stunning successor at the glamorous — though some would say cheesy — coronation ceremony.
The event, which began as part of the post-war Festival of Britain in 1951, has attracted controversy from the start — first for shocking audiences with its bikini-clad contestants, and later for what its critics say is its outdated attitude and exploitation of women.
As competition boss Julia Morley once aptly put it: “Miss World will always have its share of knockers.”
Even so, every year more than a million women still apply to take part in the national competitions, with the hope of being crowned Miss World.
Under its motto “Beauty with a purpose” — adopted in the 1980s, along with added intelligence and personality tests — the annual event has raised more than £350million for charity over the years.
The event’s late founder, Eric Morley — Julia’s husband — came up with the idea of a contest featuring women in bikinis for the 1951 festival and managed to round up 30 contestants to battle it out in their skimpy smalls at London’s Lyceum Ballroom.
It was an instant hit, and the media nicknamed the pageant “Miss World”.
The first winner, Swedish model Kiki Hakansson — who turned 92 last week — was crowned after parading in a bikini.
The revealing two-piece caused outrage around the world and even the Pope chimed in with disapproval.
By the late Sixties, the contest was attracting criticism from another quarter — feminists who felt that it objectified women as sex objects.
At the 1970 contest a group of “women’s libbers” stormed the Royal Albert Hall and flour-bombed the contest in protest at what they considered a degrading spectacle.
US actor and comedian Bob Hope, who was hosting the event, later said: “I thought they’d eat me alive.”
The incident inspired a hit Hollywood movie last year, called Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightley and Keeley Hawes.
But it was not just feminists who were giving the organisers a headache. In 1973, Marjorie Wallace became the first American beauty queen to win the title — and the first contestant to be dethroned.
Her antics with footballer George Best and singer Tom Jones tested the patience of Eric and Julia Morley to the limit, leading to her being stripped of the crown after just four months when photos of her and Tom kissing emerged.
A year later, Welsh girl Helen Morgan took the crown for the UK.
But her reign was even shorter, as just four days later she was cited in a divorce case and it emerged she was a single mother — which was shocking to many people at the time.
After the outcry the rules were hastily changed to exclude mothers from competing — a controversial rule which still exists today, and which many beauty contestants oppose.
The current Ms Great Britain, April Banbury, told The Sun: “Mothers should be able to compete because they’re superwomen. I believe all opportunities in the pageant world should be equal for all.
“I love pageants because they allow women’s voices to be heard in a way that they may not have been before.
“Being crowned Ms GB allowed me to become an ambassador for the charity SEED, or Eating Disorder Support Services, which does brilliant work supporting people with this life-threatening condition.
“It has helped save at least five people’s lives this year. In 2021 it’s about time the competition was open for everyone, not just childless women.”
In 1980, Miss World winner Gabriella Brum, of Germany, had the shortest ever reign.
She quit after 18 hours, at first claiming her boyfriend was unhappy about her win, before it emerged that nude pictures of her had surfaced from a raunchy magazine shoot.
In 2021 it’s about time the competition was open for everyone, not just childless women.
The competition has changed greatly over the years and has weathered many political storms.
Several nations boycotted the 1976 competition over apartheid policies in South Africa, which fielded both black and white contestants.
In 2001 Nigerian model Agbani Darego won Miss World, meaning the contest would be held in the Nigerian capital Abuja the following year.
But in the run-up to the contest — which was controversial in some parts of Africa — there were bloody clashes between Muslims and Christians, causing more than 200 deaths, and the pageant was moved to London.
In 2000 Eric Morley died from a heart attack, three weeks before the 50th Miss World contest. His widow Julia took over his role — and promptly banned the swimsuit parade.
More recently, at Miss World 2005, Icelandic actress Unnur Birna made history by being in the contest for the second time. In 1983 her mother, Unnur Steinsson, was unknowingly pregnant with her daughter when she represented Iceland, finishing fourth in the contest.
In 2014 tragedy struck when 19-year-old Miss World contestant Maria Jose Alvarado and her sister, from Honduras, were brutally murdered by the sister’s boyfriend just days before the show.
Remarkably, of the five British winners, three of them hail from the same county. Ann Sidney (1964), Lesley Langley (1965) and Sarah-Jane Hutt (1983) all come from Dorset.
The fact that the pageant has survived for 70 years — in many different forms — is truly remarkable. It has even survived Covid.
And perhaps a little bit of glamour is what we need to cheer us all up right now — and Sally Ann-Fawcett, head judge of the contest’s Great Britain team, certainly thinks so.
She says: “The women’s liberation movement slammed the contest but to me it remains a celebration of womanhood.
“Growing up, I was captivated by the glamour, the tension, the excitement and the sheer prestige of watching these beautiful women from around the globe vying for that glittering crown beneath the bright lights of London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Win ‘like being a film star’
LESLEY LANGLEY was 21 when she became the UK’s third Miss World in 1965. She lives in Weymouth, Dorset, with her second husband Richard Porter, a retired engineer. Now 77, she recalls how winning the title thrust her into the world of celebrity – and how she narrowly escaped being stripped of her title:
HAPPY birthday Miss World. I can’t believe it’s turning 70 – what a ride it’s been.
I loved my Miss World days. I had no idea I was going to win and couldn’t believe it when they called out my name.
It was the best feeling in the world. Back in my day, the competition was massive. Winning Miss World was on par with being a famous footballer or film star.
I met loads of famous people like actor George Raft who starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock.
‘WE LOVED IT’
But it could have been very different. I’d heard that Eric Morley was trying to get me stripped of my title. There were topless pictures of me floating around from modelling shoots I’d done in the past and he didn’t like it.
But every model was doing glamour shoots in the Sixties and Seventies – it was no big deal.
Anyway, he wasn’t successful and I kept my crown and enjoyed every moment of being a winner.
I would even go on TV and debate women’s libbers about the beauty pageant. I couldn’t under-stand why they were taking it so seriously. It seemed so trivial.
No one was forcing us to do it – we loved it – and contrary to common belief, a lot of us had brains too. The girl who won after me went on to become a doctor.
Like most beauty queens, I didn’t agree with everything the organisers did. I felt desperately sorry for Helen Morgan when she was dethroned in 1974 after it emerged she was a single mother.
I can’t believe that in the 21st Century that rule still exists.
I hope this year will be extra-special. Good luck to all the girls competing.
My advice is enjoy the journey, don’t take it too seriously and have fun – you won’t experience 7 anything like it again.
“Yes, the early pageants were very much all about looks and not much else, but Miss World evolved over the decades and now only women of true substance stand a chance of winning the diamond and turquoise crown.
“The definition of feminism is the right to choose, and thousands of women across the globe want to compete in the most glamorous event of the year.
“Love it or hate it, Miss World is here to stay — and long may she reign.”