And the winner is...

WHAT has happened to the beauty contest? During the 1970s, my family would sit religiously in front of the television to view the annual spectacles that were Miss Great Britain and Miss World.

People watch beauty contests for different reasons, but the contestants all have one thing in common - a desire to win. The lure of fame, and perhaps fortune, at least in product-sponsorship terms, means big business for the organisers. The hundreds of contestants in the Miss Universe state finals currently pay an average 1,000 each for the privilege of participating. Most of them are never heard of again unless they win the coveted Miss Universe title. And the struggle for the crown can be tough.

For the contestant, at least, the beauty contest has a sense of fiction and fantasy. The victor’s coronation evokes the romantic fable of winning the crown, as well as the hearts and minds of ‘the people’. The trappings of the contest reinforce this notion: in the early 1900s, Britain’s carnival queens were crowned and draped in a long gown of silk velvet, trimmed with ermine. Rather theatrically, the runners-up to the carnival queen were dubbed her ‘court’, and the ‘princesses’ were dressed accordingly in the medieval tradition.

One of the first beauty contests may have been staged in the west African country of Niger. There, the Wodaabe, a 50,000-strong group of cow-herding nomads, consider themselves to be the most beautiful people on the planet. Beauty isn’t, of course, characteristic only of the female form. Once a year the tall, elegant Wodaabe men engage in the geerewol, a ritualistic competition in which the contestants paint their faces and bodies with bright colours and don elaborate costumes. Using wet, ground charcoal, the men outline their eyes and blacken their lips in order to exaggerate the whiteness of their eyes and teeth, considered a measure of erotic allure in the Wodaabe culture. During the seven-day celebration, clans of painted, costumed dancers parade in single file, catwalk-style, and dance before women from other clans, who judge them, awarding points for looks, personality and sexual magnetism.

In medieval Europe, May Day and the subsequent crowning of the May queen brought together elements of both high and low culture. May Day is traditionally associated with spring fertility rites. The festival also signifies the rite of passage from youth into adulthood. Young men and women would venture into the local woodlands overnight to greet the May sunrise, making flower garlands to take back and decorate the village. But the popular forest ‘sleepover’ was banned by in the mid-17th century, owing to the number of young women returning home pregnant.

A few centuries pass. Beside the wave-lapped shores of imported artificial sand, the world’s most beautiful women gather for a photo shoot. The location is the lavish swimming pool of the Palace of the Lost City hotel, in Sun City, Bophuthatswana, South Africa. It’s the setting for the most enduring of international beauty pageants, the Miss World contest. It has come a long way in its half-century history. In the summer of 1951, the British government staged the Festival of Britain to display the latest offerings from British industry, technology and the arts. Organisers asked the dance hall company Mecca to devise a promotion for the festival. Their public relations director at the time was Eric Morley, and the festival’s organisers readily accepted his suggestion of an international beauty competition. Morley wanted the pageant to reflect the times and planned to have the contestants judged wearing a recent French creation, the bikini, and it became the Festival Bikini Contest. He ended up with only five foreign contestants and supplemented the line-up with 21 British girls. The world’s press unanimously welcomed the spectacle and referred to it as Miss World. Morley promptly registered the name as a trademark and the international beauty contest was born.

The idiosyncrasy of the Miss World contest is that despite being a truly international competition, it has retained much of its Englishness. This may be due to the legacy of Eric Morley’s deadpan delivery and his unique and almost military-inspired majority vote system, which ensured dishonest judges could not manipulate the winner.

From the start, the concept of parading women on stage - fully clothed or not - has always been a contentious issue, making Miss World a prime target for negative media attention and the scorn of puritanical groups. Adversity and gossip dog the international contest and fill the headlines. In 1953, during the swimsuit section of the competition, Marina Papaelia, Miss Egypt, refused to come out of her dressing room and held up the show. Convinced from the beginning she was going to win, she sensed that things were not going her way during the finals of the competition. She finally emerged, but when the winner was announced she lost control. As Denise Perrier, Miss France, was crowned, Papaelia screamed, "I think she stink." She collapsed on the stage, writhed about in frustration and lost consciousness.

The controversy didn’t abate in the 1960s: nude photographs of two Miss Worlds were unearthed and Miss South Africa was arrested when she returned home for failing to appear in court on a parking summons.

In 1970, as veteran American comedian Bob Hope made his appearance on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London to crown Miss World, he was greeted by deafening whistles and shouts of "Women’s liberation!" and "Ban this cattle market!" The 5,000-strong audience booed the demonstrators as the burly pageant officials ejected them. Hope returned to the stage, quipping, "Anybody who would try to break up an affair as wonderful as this, with these wonderful people and wonderful girls from the entire world, has got to be on some kind of dope, ladies and gentlemen." But protest groups are as enduring as the contest; there may always be cries of female degradation and exploitation from the public and the media. It’s easy to forget that within this maligned environment is a contest that personifies theatre.

It’s inevitable that these days the worldwide web plays a part in the resurgence of beauty contests in countries where, in the past couple of decades, the concept of parading the human form was deemed outmoded and passe. There are myriad sites with offerings such as Miss Net 1999, presenting a homespun collection of inanimate, pixilated beauties. In 1999 the title was won by Patti O’Donnell from Florissant, USA. The official Miss Net website lists her vital statistics, her favourite music and food, and hobbies which include working out and shopping. Given the chance to write a few words about herself, she said, "I’ve already graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. I will be appearing in two issues of Playboy." Related sites include Miss Plump UniverseNet, the home of such positive advice from past contestants as: "Being large has never stopped me from reaching my goals... Anyone can be thin but not everyone can be happy and proud to be who they are and what they represent."

The internet is also the place to find the Miss@NetWorld website, claiming to be the first national beauty contest run entirely on the internet and spanning more than 30 countries. The home page reads, "We want to find the most beautiful, unknown modelling talent in every country on God’s green Earth. Beautiful girls everywhere who find the idea of existing in a whirl of champagne, private jets and the world’s richest men proposing daily are getting closer to the final prize of a six-figure modelling contract."

While the future of website contests may be robust, virtual pageants cannot replace the real-life (and televised) experience of the mainstream international competition, which runs the whole gamut of national contests from the obscure and satirical to the mainstream. The enduring histrionics of the beauty contest are here to stay because, if we’re honest, we’ll admit we just love watching crowned and uncrowned queens (and kings) journey through the mixed emotions of hope, disappointment and elation on the catwalk to glory.

Pageant: The Beauty Contest by Keith Lovegrove, is published in December by Laurence King, 19.95