Miss World finds a politically correct place in the sun

The Seychelles may offer the battered Miss World contest a permanent refuge from its increasingly raucous critics. The condition is that the pageant `reinvents' itself. Mary Braid asks if injecting a dose of feminist values is really the solution
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The Independent Online
As international pariahs go, the Miss World Contest was once almost on a par with the deposed and equally appearance-conscious African dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (he of the fetching leopard-skin hat). An embarrassing relic from the Cold War years, Mobutu, stripped of his Western backers, seemed destined to wander the globe before a merciful death earlier this year.

Miss World, similarly forsaken by the increasingly feminist-influenced West, to say nothing of religious fundamentalists, is suddenly faring better. After years of looking for a place to call home - it was chased out of the Albert Hall by protesters - Miss World appears to have found a permanent venue in the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean.

The contest, run by Eric and Julia Morley, the husband-and-wife team who have provided so much unintentional entertainment, are negotiating a deal with the Seychelles, where the competition was staged on Saturday. If the talks are successful the Morleys will wander no more. Whether that will save the world's most controversial cattle-market is another matter. As "the girls" sashayed their way through Saturday night, the Seychelles was insisting the contest - which caused a protester to burn himself alive last year when it was staged in the Indian city of Bangalore - would be reinvented.

This has been heard before. The Morleys have tried all the tricks to dissuade the critics the modern beauty contest is all about ... well, looks. The glorious fib has been plied that the beauty that really counts comes from within and that the numbers that matter are a girl's IQ and not 36- 24-36.

When Miss India, Diana Hayden, was crowned Miss World this weekend she felt obliged to quote WB Yeats and insist: "I just read a lot". The contest's intellectuals, however, must have been disappointed that while physical beauty was on permanent display, the old brief conversational section, in which "the girls" get a few minutes to solve global conflict, the greenhouse effect and famine, was axed.

The official reason was that it discriminated against those who were not English-speaking. The cynical and, no doubt, the jealous, whisper that contestants find it difficult to talk at all.

The Seychelles' new idea, according to the President, Albert Rene, is to "reinvent" Miss World as a celebration of woman and what she can do for children. A government spokesman said he hoped the event would boost the image of Seychelles not only as a tourist destination but as a country interested in "the environment, children and welfare".

But it is not clear the Morleys are on the right track when they insist the new Miss World will be about everything but looks. Not everyone in the world is as sensitive as the 2,000 demonstrators arrested at the event in Bangalore last year.

When the Miss South Africa contest was held at Sun City this year the ruling ANC's leading lights - all men, of course, but with impeccable left-wing liberation credentials - were fighting each other for front- row seats. President Nelson Mandela, who at 79 retains an eye for such events, seemed to revel in his annual photo-opportunity with the winner.

This weekend Mr Rene, a left-winger, was also happy to sit in the front row, only driven, it must be assumed, by his belief that the contest will put the Seychelles on the international tourist map.

This year's Miss World was one of the most trouble-free for years. Next year the protesters may regroup and do their bit to make the Seychelles a popular November holiday destination. But the Morleys will plod on.

There is no sign yet suggest Miss World is not yet ready to join the reviled Mobutu.