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
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'