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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition