The ultimate make-over

The losers, in reverse order: feminism, political correctness and good taste. The quest to find `the world's most beautiful woman' is back on TV in a prime-time terrestrial assault

After 10 years away from British terrestrial screens, the politically incorrect, but hugely popular beauty contest is returning with a make over.

The great whirligig of time has turned and now another media bygone is about to re-emerge - post-Modern, post-feminist, and impervious to irony. Channel 5 has announced that it has won the bidding contest to screen Miss World 1998. Adam Perry, Channel 5's Programme Controller for Special Events, said that he was "delighted to have beaten off two other mainstream broadcasters to screen the show on 26 November".

Miss World 1998 will be transmitted via satellite from the Seychelles and marks a return to British terrestrial television for the pageant which has been an annual event since 1951. Originally screened by the BBC, and then ITV, the show fell out of favour in the late Seventies when it was seen as an increasingly controversial exploitation of women and became a target for feminist demonstrations. Since 1988, the event has only been available via Sky TV in this country. Protests have continued. When the pageant was staged in India in 1997, a massive police presence was required to stave off threats by fundamentalist women that they would burn themselves to death outside the theatre. They claimed that the section of the pageant requiring women to appear in bathing costumes was indecent.

C5 expects a certain amount of controversy following yesterday's announcement, but Adam Perry believes the social climate is now right for its return. "We are confident we can refresh the show, and bring it to a new generation of women, and men, who weren't exposed to the feminist backlash 20 years ago." Perry hopes that changes in public attitudes to beauty and a woman's right to capitalise on her physical assets will allow people to watch Miss World 1998 without seeing that there is any exploitation of its contestants.

Meanwhile, a public relations assault is under way to rehabilitate the politically incorrect reputation of the Miss World beauty contest in the British media. Media pundits have been lured into considering covering Miss World 1998, by the prospect of celebrity presenters, and top-class musical acts, taking part for the first time in years. (There are rumours that the pageant might attract the former Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell, out of hiding to compere the stage finale, or that her former colleagues, The Spice Girls, might even appear.)

C5 are also expecting a large audience for Miss World 1998, and points to the success of Mr Gay UK screened in May. It drew an audience of a million to the channel which is often regarded as having little mass appeal. "This will be a bigger draw," says Perry, "and we are delighted to have Malcolm Gerrie, the MD of independent television company Initial involved, having worked successfully with him on such programmes as the Pepsi Chart Show and London Fashion Awards." However, the signing of Gerrie is the most striking indication that the contest will enjoy a spectacular revival. He has a reputation for razzmatazz, with other successes such as The Brit Awards, the British Fashion Show and Evening Standard Film awards.

Gerrie is upbeat about the task at hand. "Miss World is the last sleeping giant in television terms," he said. "Like the Eurovision Song Contest, it's a show which everyone loves to hate, but handled in the right way it can draw a massive audience." Gerrie and his co-producer, Julie Cave, know that Miss World certainly needs a face-lift. One of their innovations announced at the London press launch is to dispense with the pageant's always embarrassing parade of contestants in national dress.

He is convinced that: "the zeitgeist is right for Miss World's return. We can produce a television show which will not be a succession of women trouping across the stage in stilettos. I've been promised access to the girls back stage, without any of their make up on, and hope to make the whole thing a lot more visually dynamic."

Gerrie acknowledges that he was uncertain about taking on the project at first, admitting that he turned it down twice before finally accepting. "There is an underlying irony about the event, that's what makes it fun."

He also draws parallels between the media's re-examination of the issue of beauty contests and the emergence of "lad culture", the explosion in men's magazines and the marketing of classic kitsch.

Certainly, Sky Television, who have broadcast the event for almost a decade, were convinced until now of the show's drawing power. Even without a mass British audience, the show is reckoned to draw worldwide television figures in excess of a billion viewers. In Latin America, and Eastern Europe, in particular, with their different attitudes towards political correctness, the show always has been and still remains a huge success.

The concept of a Miss World contest has proved enduring ever since it was first launched in 1951 as part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain. Now, as then, the driving force behind the Miss World Organisation is Eric Morley, who will be 80 years old this month. "There's life in me yet," says Mr Morley, "and I've already booked the Albert Hall for the Millennium Miss World in the year 2000."

British hopes rest with 18-year-old Emmelene McLaughlin, a florist from Manchester, who was crowned Miss UK in Blackpool last month.

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