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

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before