Step down, Page 3 girls: The tabloids now court Supermodels, not topless pin-ups. Janice Turner reports

NO ONE who is anyone was at the Sun's Page Three Girl of the Year Party last Wednesday - not even many of the contestants.

'It's a poor show,' said Maria Whittaker, a former winner herself. 'Only five of the girls have turned up. They ought to have made an effort.'

The Princess of Wales declined the Sun's personal invitation to 'forget your problems for the night . . . dance to your favourite Duran Duran and Chris de Burgh hits'. Britain's 179th richest woman, Sam Fox, remained in her Wood Green semi. Even The Currant Bun's editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, didn't show.

Apart from the not-so-famous Right Said Fred brother, everyone else at Stringfellows on Wednesday night seemed to be a Page Three Girl. Or at least looked like one. Five-foot-zilch with sequinned cleavage, fishnet tights, major hair and giving a unanimous snub to the longer hemlines. Wonderbras buffeted as they crushed onto the dancefloor for the result of the contest, decided in a phone vote by Sun readers.

Tracey Elvick's huge bump was strapped gamely into a lycra mini. Those who voted her into third place might have been surprised to know she is seven months pregnant. The crowd made sympathetic ahhs. Second-placed Kathy Lloyd, twice winner in previous years and the favourite, sent apologies. 'She thought she was going to win, so she didn't come,' someone said.

Then Garry Bushell, The Sun's TV writer, announced the winner . . . 'Sarah Jaffer]' The response was flatter than the one complimentary glass of Bucks Fizz. Who is she? Then the mumblings began. 'I demand a stewards' inquiry,' called one bow-tied lush. 'She looks like a bag of coat hangers tied together.'

The biggest complaint was that Sarah, 21, a former shop assistant and complete unknown, had only won because her picture was printed in the paper far bigger than those of the other 11 contestants. But that would make Sun readers stupid, wouldn't it?

The Girl of the Year winner receives no cheque or Caribbean holiday - the title is supposed to be reward enough. Because it is supposed to make her a star. Throughout the Eighties it did just that, turning winners Linda Lusardi, Maria Whittaker and Sam Fox into national celebrities. 'Sam Fox could charge pounds 1,000 an hour for personal appearances, and 3,500 people turned up on a wet Wednesday morning to watch Maria open Top Shop in Oxford Street,' recalls Yvonne Paul, a glamour model agent.

No longer. Few people now recognise the current top names Kathy Lloyd, Helen Labdon, Lisa Forward, Gaynor Goodman . . . just members of a daily parade of Mouthwatering Michelles and Delicious Debis, interchangable and anonymous.

The lucrative personal appearance market has dried up - 'There are no nightclubs or supermarkets opening now,' says Sam Bond, another glamour agent. 'Maybe we should send a Page Three Girl along to close factories and hand out redundancy cheques.'

Today's models are, in all senses, scaled down versions of their Eighties counterparts - less rich, less famous, less pneumatic. The evolving shape of Page Three could be plotted as, well, a curve. In 1970 the first Page Three girls were fashion models, small-breasted, androgynous. Then in 1983 the Sun discovered Sam Fox - 16 years old, 5ft tall and 36D - her shape considered too freakish and overtly sexual by other papers. Her shock value appealed to the Sun and other similar typessoon followed - Lusardi, Whittaker and Donna Ewin.

Now glamour models are much as they began, slim and modestly proportioned like Helen Labdon, a teacher's daughter from Lancing, West Sussex. When she began modelling in 1988 her 34B was considered too modest for topless work. Now she is a Page Three favourite but far from rich and famous. She is recognised sometimes in pubs, can afford nice clothes, and is saving to buy a flat.

'Models just want to work these days,' says her agent Sam Bond. 'They know that Page Three isn't going to turn them into a superstar or an actress or Madonna.'

Without star girls there are no star fees and morale is low among the agencies. 'Companies used to fly eight girls to Barbados for a calendar shoot,' says Yvonne Paul. 'Now they use two girls in a studio in Wandsworth.'

The malaise began three years ago when the Daily Mirror dropped its topless model after Robert Maxwell - reportedly under pressure from his wife - declared his paper a nipple-free zone. 'We were worried,' says Sam Bond, 'because the Mirror was our biggest client. Then rumours began to filter down that the Sun was going to scrap Page Three.'

Certainly the Sun seemed suddenly indifferent to its bosomy figure-head. She was relegated to page seven or five, the photos used smaller. On busy news days she disappeared entirely. Then, without explanation, the 1991 Page Three Girl of the Year competition was cancelled. 'Kelvin (MacKenzie) had grown bored of Page Three,' says one Sun executive. 'He had enjoyed fighting with Clare Short when she tried to ban it - he made Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi into huge stars partly as two-fingers to the feminists. But once the censorship hooha died down he lost interest.' By now the Page Three queens who had retired to be 'taken seriously' as actresses or pop stars looked like scuffed micro-celebrities: Maria Whittaker with her thin list of light entertainment walk-on parts; Sam Fox mobbed as a popstar in Bulgaria and Columbia but ridiculed at home.

The tabloids began to look around for a fresh source of glitz and found the new Supermodels - sleek, fabulously glamorous, and - hey] - they have big breasts too. 'No one used to know the name of a model on the cover of Vogue - whereas they knew the Page Three girls and every man had his favourite,' says Yvonne Paul. 'Now Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford are marketing themselves as personality pin-ups. They have their own posters and calendars. Just look at the poses - piles of hair and one boob hanging from under a towel - they are straight off Page Three.

'The papers write about their boyfriends and diets now. My girls can't hope to compete. I mean, who's interested in some girl from Nottingham or Cardiff outside a premiere, when you can have Cindy Crawford flying in for a personal appearance in the West End?' An averagely successful Page Three girl can now expect to earn pounds 20,000 a year - far from the annual pounds 150,000 of Fox and Whittaker in their heyday.

So what can feminism claim in Page Three's demise? 'Well, there's no question that Clare Short was great for us,' says Sam Bond. 'The girls were on TV all the time, the phones never stopped ringing. I wish she'd bring in another Bill . . . yes please]'

Yet it has probably helped change the climate - also confirmed by the parallel decline of the girlie calendar. Last year, of the 400 calendars entered for the National Business Calendar Awards, only 20 featured naked women. Eight years ago it was nearer 80. 'Only the tyre companies who send out to solid male bastions like garages still use girlie pictures now,' says panel chairman Julian Royle.

Sarah Jaffer has little chance of becoming a star, but Page Three will probably still be in the Sun for years yet: not the main attraction but part of the furniture. 'I've thought about scrapping it,' MacKenzie mused recently. 'But people expect it - Page Three is the Sun.'

(Photographs omitted)

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