More wardrobe than Ikea

Since 1972, the Alternative Miss World has mocked the original pageant, while celebrating the brave, the bizarre and the beautiful. It's an extravaganza of style, sex and cheap sensation. And Judith Palmer took part

I've spent 300 hours making these," sighs Burnel, trying to ease a 20-ft padded applique Christmas pudding over his head. "Now I've got flu, and a little piece of glitter stuck under my eyelid," he adds tearfully. "There's just no space, backstage, and by the time you've squeezed past everyone to get on stage, all your costumes are completely ruined."

Last year, Burnel (known among the world of clubland costumiers as "Transformer") achieved a certain notoriety as Miss Moneypenny, standing against Martin Bell and Neil Hamilton at Tatton in the general election. Tonight, he's squished into the vestry of a high camp neo-Gothic church in east London, in the hope of retaining his title as the reigning Alternative Miss World.

Created by Andrew Logan, a sculptor-jeweller, in 1972, the Alternative Miss World Contest is an occasional spectacle of costumely ingenuity and performing brilliance, teasing out the talents of drag queens, artists, fashion designers and sundry folk of large personality in a gigantic, surreal art event said to have been modelled more on Crufts than on the Eric and Julia beauty pageant. That didn't stop the original Miss World organisation from serving Logan an injunction in 1979. Lord Denning wisely decided in Logan's favour, suggesting it was unlikely that anyone was in any danger of confusing the two events.

Logan's ruder, sparklier and wittier alternative does, however, share the same sections of daywear, swimwear and eveningwear, with catwalk promenade plus personality interview. Open to contestants of either gender, it's been won only once by a woman (Jenny Runacre, Miss National Geographic, 1986). It has, though, been won by a robot (Bruce Lacey's Miss Rosa Bosom, 1985), and, in 1975, by Derek Jarman as Miss Crepe Suzette.

"It's to do with what you can create, rather than how you were created," explains a first-time contestant, Piers Atkinson (assistant to designer Zandra Rhodes in his day job). "You can take beauty into your own hands," he explains, unsnarling a clump of black wig from his severe, plug-hole- shaped swimwear outfit. "I presented the orb to the winner last year," he confides, describing Burnel's previous flaming triumph as Joan of Arc, "so I'm hoping I took off that energy."

"Get back!" screeches a stage manager, grabbing a megaphone. "Big cossie coming through!" Number 18, gold-painted Miss Natasha Narcotica (Anna Zolotuhina, a young theatrical costume maker) is attempting to negotiate the cage of her huge wicker crinoline tail through a very small door. The wafts of frankincense billowing round her opium-poppy-decorated dragon's head have stopped her noticing the twin obstacles up ahead of a Mad Max warrior wielding a pointy metal weapon (made, I hazard to deduce, from a Philippe Starck lemon squeezer) and an activated gas-powered flame thrower.

Number two, Haick, an exquisitely delicate lad from Armenia, is getting twitchy. Slinky metal shower-hosing, entwined with roses, encircles his head like a bridal coronet, and his fragile wire mesh gown floats off into a 10-ft train. The slender yellow feathers glued to his eyelids quiver in anticipation, and he gesticulates frantically to his attendant, who rushes over to give him a spray of Guerlain. Around his throat hangs a necklace of silver roubles dated 1861. "Imagine how special I feel, walking around with something of such value," he whispers.

Crispy, a tall, skinny Tellytubby dressed in a yellow rubber, flare-cuffed, all-in-one bodysuit, canters past on his flowery scooter, almost crashing into the chain-mailed roller-skating Miss Bermuda team. "I thought it would be much more cut-throat, with everyone concentrated on their own thing," says Rochelle, steadying her towering raspberry ripple Mr Whippy pompadour. "But everyone's so helpful, and having a laugh. This old lady doesn't speak English," she says, pointing at a gurning 75-year-old woman with a quiff in a frothy ballgown. "But we've been smiling."

"It's still every bit as chaotic as the first one," explains Logan's sister Janet, who has entered each of the 10 AMW contests (Logan's mum is always among the judges). Tonight's overall theme is "The Void", and Janet has come in purdah as Miss MT Place. "At first it was a matter of what you could do with what you had in your wardrobe, and a packet of crepe paper. In 1981 we were in the Grand Hall in Olympia, when the contest was won by Miss Aldershot (Michael Haynes). He was supported by the BBC Chorus and the band of the Irish Guards. And now, of course, there are all these Russians..."

There are five Russian entrants (plus one Finn and one Irishman) among the 22 contestants. Like everyone else, they are responsible for all their own travel and costume costs. This unlikely invasion is largely due to the prior success of Andrey Bartenev, a Siberian avant-garde artist (and reigning runner-up). Bartenev, who does not believe in travelling light, has come with eight wooden crates full of giant papier-mache wearable objects. Miss Help Russia is, like many, no single person, but a team tableau. Beachwear involves four rigid 8-ft mummy-cases, painted like demonic jelly babies and stuffed with bouncing claustrophobes; for daywear, a sublimely gorgeous 24-year-old cartoonist called Volodya is strapped on all fours into a scale model of the Kremlin; when eveningwear calls, Bartenev himself staggers out under a blue-and-red, butterfly-winged construction, studded with cigarette-puffing lips.

"To work with Bartenev, you need courage, happiness and a clear mind," grimaces Volodya, as a buckle catches his nipple. The costumes are hysterically funny and radiantly colourful, but have not been selected for ease of movement, and need on-stage helpers to stop them from toppling over. This is why I now find myself prancing up the runway towards the judges (who include Brian Eno and Anita Roddick) trussed up in a blue Cellophane cosmonaut outfit, wielding a heavy, star-topped staff in one hand while supporting Bartenev's codpiece in the other.

Dignified, dukely, dressed in his traditional half-male, half-female robes, Logan brings on the shimmering crown jewels... and awards them to the grinning 4-ft-tall 75-year-old from Moscow, Miss Pani Bronya.

"I was looking for something sexy and funny at the same time - that's the biggest turn-on of all," explains the judge, Maggi Hambling. "But that extraordinary grande dame signified everything best in the human spirit. That's what the Alternative Miss World is all about. Joy."

The next Alternative Miss World is due in 2001

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