IT’S A warm evening in early summer and inside the carefully decorated bar of a Glasgow private member’s club, the smell of fake tan almost knocks you flat. Under the hot lights, a line of primped and polished girls streams on to the runway, each one with a cardboard number tied around her wrist. The crowd – made up mostly of family, friends and uncomfortable-looking boyfriends – claps and cheers wildly. “Ladies and gentlemen,” says the compere, “your beauties with a cause!”
What that cause is, as the 16 young women line up for inspection, does not immediately make itself clear. Shoes with higher heels? More organza for babydoll dresses? Fake nails are better than real? Not quite. For this is the Glasgow heat of Miss Earth, an international beauty pageant that claims to play a part in preserving and protecting the environment.
This is the first time there has been a Miss Earth UK Scotland, and as well as this Glasgow heat there will also be a round held in Edinburgh later this month. There have been delegates sent to the contest’s grand final in the Philippines from the UK before, usually selected by photograph alone, but given that Miss Earth is the third largest beauty pageant in the world, it was only a matter of time before a proper contest hit Scotland’s biggest cities.
But if the fact that Miss Earth is an environmentally centred beauty contest has you imagining that this might be a knit-your-own-yoghurt and cardigans sort of affair, then you are woefully wide of the mark. Indeed, the amount of perfume in the air alone might be enough to puncture a hole in the ozone layer. The contestants, who range in age from 17 to 26, must never have been married and must never have given birth. Some already model part-time, while others have acted, danced or sung, and still others declare on their application forms that they want to be “famous”. All of them are pretty, with megawatt smiles and carefully made-up faces, and are certainly no strangers to a set of hair-straightening irons. So far, so average beauty contest. Where, then, is the environmental element in all this?
“All the girls have to come forward with a project they intend to follow through with if they’re successful in making it to the Miss Earth Scotland final,” Jim Ramsay, Miss Earth UK Scotland’s organiser tells me. “They’re encouraged to have an environmental project they would like to be involved in which uses the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.”
Miss Earth is big on the three Rs. The Scottish girl who makes it to the finals in Manila will be expected to plant trees, attend various environmental seminars and educate people on the three Rs, as well as (of course) totter around in a bikini and high heels. She will also spend 12 months campaigning on her project, raising awareness and, where applicable, funds.
Kate McPhillimy, 20, a biomedical science student at Dundee University, was entered into the contest by her boyfriend. “It didn’t sound like a normal beauty pageant,” she says. “It tied in a lot with my university work so I thought I might as well go for it. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
McPhillimy’s project concerns raising awareness of India’s Gangetic delta, an area of mass biodiversity that is home to 400 Bengal tigers – the largest number anywhere in the world – and is often prey to natural disasters. She contacted a charity, Whatever the Need, which focuses on water sanitation, and told them what she was doing and that she’d like to get involved. She even convinced Scottish & Southern Energy to sponsor her through the competition. She says she wouldn’t have entered if it had been a “normal” beauty contest.
“I don’t know if I’d be interested in doing something like that, prancing about in a bikini,” she says. “I would have thought twice about that. But it sounded like something different and when it said there was an environmental cause and what I’m doing at university ties in with it so well that, I thought it might help my university too.”
On the day, though, she had her doubts about some of her fellow contestants’ motivations. “It was a good night, but I kind of felt there were a lot of the girls who weren’t really there to do the environmental aspect,” she says.
“I had nothing in common with any of the other girls really. When we were sat downstairs they were all taking about their boob jobs and I thought, ‘oh no, four hours of this’. They were all nice and friendly, but it’s not my kind of thing, I have to say. I did feel rather out of place.”
Having been presented to the crowd, the girls file out and then come back up the catwalk individually to tell us who they are, what they do and where they come from. This is the easy bit. Later on, dressed in evening wear, they will have to trot back and tell the audience more about their environmental project, and what they personally want to do to improve the environment. Some of the girls are nervous, some over-excited. One who stands out is Stacey Grant, a 26-year-old Amazonian blonde from Ayrshire. She is confident, smiley, and it comes as no surprise to learn that, as well as a techer, she is a former top 20 finalist in Miss Scotland.
“Being 26, this is the last year I’ll be able to do this,” she says, “So I just thought I’d send some pictures off and see what the outcome is, and I got an e-mail back saying I’d been accepted as a semi-finalist.”
And is she interested in the environmental aspect? Absolutely, she says.
“At school I run an eco group educating the kids on recycling, tree-planting exhibitions, beach-cleaning projects, that sort of thing. Beauty contests have just changed with the times. Other pageants have fallen by the wayside a bit, whereas this has an element of being involved in issues that are around right now. People can see it’s relevant.”
Miss Earth was launched in 2001 in Manila by Carousel Productions, a Philippines-based TV production company. Since then the competition has grown in stature, first in the Far East and then across the rest of the globe, and is now the third biggest beauty pageant in the world after Miss World and Miss Universe.
Whoever wins the ultimate competition will be expected to become the spokeswoman for the Miss Earth Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as well as other environmental groups. One former winner, Miss Earth 2002, a Bosnian called Dzejla Glavovic, was dethroned for a perceived failure to carry out her duties. The current Miss Earth, a Canadian named Jessica Trisko who is currently studying for a PhD in political science, has already popped up at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali.
This Scottish heat is taking place thanks to Ramsay, a 33-year-old Scot and former model who spent several years working for a hotel in Hong Kong and went to the Philippines to see the contest for himself.
“Having seen a lot of the other beauty pageants, I liked the idea of doing something for the environment,” he says. “It was just something more than a beauty pageant – there was a purpose behind it as well.”
Ramsay moved back to Scotland 12 months ago and started work on a Miss Earth UK Scotland – rounding up sponsors, such as hairdressers Rita Rusk, and promoting the event. He rejects suggestions that beauty contests have no place in a modern, forward-thinking country.
“I would disagree with that: I think it’s coming back into fashion,” he says. “Miss Scotland is more popular than ever. There’s added value for the girls, good prizes and good opportunities for getting into modelling and suchlike, as well as getting involved in environmental projects.” Indeed.
When the girls finally come back out to give their environmental speeches, this time dressed in evening gowns and with fresh clouds of perfume wafting behind them (you will be relieved to hear that the contest has a deal with Carbon Offset Scotland so that the size of its carbon footprint will be repaid through a tree-planting scheme), some of them, including McPhillimy and Grant, clearly know their stuff. Others stumble around the subject, burbling vaguely about “recycling” and “educating the children”.
A few days later, however, Ramsay, who by day is a Dubai luxury property agent, says he thought it went well. “I was very impressed with the quality of the answers the girls had,” he says. “Some of them had really gone that extra mile and seemed to have very good projects.”
Sadly though, only the overall winner will get backing for her project over the next year.
And, after a quick break and a few bad jokes from the compere, it’s time for the crowning. McPhillimy comes in seventh, securing her a spot in the Scottish finals in August, while Grant is placed fourth. The rather cumbersome title of Miss Earth UK Scotland Glasgow is won by 22-year-old Courtney St John, a statuesque Sarah Harding lookalike and part-time model from Milngavie. She is also in the final 18 for this year’s Miss Scotland title.
What prompted her to enter, I wonder?
“A photographer I know recommended it to me,” she tells me. “I worked with him a couple of months ago and he said I’m looking the best I’ve looked and he felt I should go forward for it.”
For her environmental project she wants to raise awareness of a disused bus terminal on the outskirts of Milngavie. “I didn’t realise how big Miss Earth was until I went on to the website,” she says. “It gives you a real opportunity to voice your opinions and make a difference.”
In her champagne-coloured evening dress, adorned with a green silk Miss Earth sash, she disappears, megawatt smile flashing, into the crowd – just another beauty with a cause.
• Miss Earth Regional Semi-Final: Edinburgh is at GHQ, Edinburgh, 7:30pm on Thursday 15 May. Tickets and information from missearthuk.co.uk