All of them, from Miss American Virgin Islands to Miss Zimbabwe, smiled their shiny smiles and tossed their big hair. The look of the day was that of a transvestite in a Pedro Almodovar film: scarlet or pink skirt suit, high patent heels and the full-on make-up mask beloved of air hostesses. Under their teased hair and smudgy eyeshadow, the women looked tiredly into the flashing bulbs of the cameras.
"Is there anything you don't like about doing this?" I asked Miss Brazil, an 18-year-old also known as Paula Carvalho.
"Sitting like this, looking like this all the time," she said, and we looked around the press room, where her fellow contestants were all sitting with expectant faces and neatly crossed legs, waiting to be asked boring questions. "It's not really me."
Once upon a time, Miss World was something to get angry about. In August 1968 young women protested against Miss America by crowning a sheep and throwing bras and curlers and women's magazines into a huge bin outside the venue. In 1970 a bomb exploded in a BBC van outside the Miss World event, and five women were arrested. The protesters' pamphlet, Why Miss World?, put the contest at the very centre of women's exploitation: "We have been in the Miss World contest all our lives ... we've all been through it."
Now, at the age of 49, Miss World looks so frazzled and tired, it is hard to believe she is still going on. A spokesman from the production company Initial tried to turn the whole thing into knowing pastiche by quoting Austin Powers at the press launch yesterday: "Groovy, baby." But it didn't quite work, partly because the contestants are not in on the joke. They make you feel more dispirited than giggly. Because
they are looking for something, but it's something that you know they are not going to get from beauty contests. "Beauty pageants can build up confidence and esteem for young women. I want to be a pioneer for young people," Miss Botswana, also known as Alimah Isaacs, said to me seriously. "Young people need role models in life that they can look up to." Yes, at least 94 young women the world over still think that the way towards confidence and esteem must involve pouting your stickily glossed lips at the Miss World judges, or that being a role model must mean frolicking in your silver bikini to the accompaniment of "You Sexy Thing". Still, at least the contestants, not one of whom is older than 25, will grow out of Miss World. In 10 or 20 years most of them will be leading lives in which beauty contests look as they do to their audiences: hilariously uncool attempts at creating glamour in a television studio. But what can you say for the people who mastermind it, judge it and bring it to our screens? The judges include Lennox Lewis, Eddie Irvine and Terry O'Neill. Oh, boys, boys, boys, what a time you will have of it. And there are no excuses for Dawn Airey, director of programming at Channel 5. Let's hope she has some sleepless nights wondering how she could have got up on a catwalk to say: "Miss World will be the last great television event of the millennium", or to claim that Miss World is not only glamorous and exciting but relevant. Ms Airey, why don't you just say that you are screening Miss World because you hope it will make you some money? Or did you keep stumbling over your words because your tongue was so firmly pressed into your cheek that you could hardly speak?