Is this the first black Miss England? (And do we call that progress anyway?)

Linford Christie's niece Rachel tells Emily Dugan why winning – on the track and the catwalk – matters to her

Rachel Christie is no ordinary beauty queen. After an ice cream breakfast, she is tucking into a chicken and bacon club sandwich for lunch, and enjoying the experience.

But it is not just her appetite for fatty foods that will make Ms Christie stand out from her peers when she takes her place alongside the other 49 Miss England finalists in London today. She is one of only a handful of black finalists in the contest and – if the bookies' predictions come true – she is set to become the first black woman to win the pageant.

The other reason the 20-year-old will stand out from her baton-twirling competitors is that she has a genuine talent. The niece of former Olympic sprint champion Linford Christie, she is an accomplished track athlete, currently in training for 2012 qualifiers.

"Can't I send you a photo? I don't really look like a beauty queen today," she says when the photographer arrives. But she does. At 5ft 10in, with long hair, long legs and apparently even longer eyelashes, it is easy to see why she is leading the field with odds at 8-1 to take this year's crown.

Last year she was given the honorary title of Miss Fitness in the Miss London contest, but being runner up this year is not an option. After taking the Miss London crown, where "almost all the girls were white", she is ready to win. "I'm used to competition, because if you fall down you just pick yourself up again."

She thinks it's time that beauty competitions changed away from the Barbie looks they have become known for. "I don't know why so few black girls enter. I think they think they won't win because beauty queens always have blond hair and blue eyes. I think they need to advertise more to change that. I'd be so proud if I were the first black Miss England."

Christie lives in west London with her mother, brother and sister. Her father, Linford's brother Russell, was stabbed to death when she was only eight, after becoming involved in a drugs war.

"When I was young I was deprived of a lot of things because everything was unstable," she explains. She entered the contest in the hope of launching a modelling career that might fund her athletics training. "I'm just an athlete at the minute, which means I'm unemployed and I'm broke. Modelling could fit round training in a way that a lot of other jobs couldn't."

She sees her uncle Linford at the running track named after him in Hammersmith, west London, where he coaches her in sprinting alongside other athletes. "He's very busy," she says. "I haven't spoken to him about entering. When I see him it's just about sport; it's just the track. But him making it made me think I could do it too."

Rachael Williams, who was the first Miss Black Britain in 2006, and a finalist at that year's Miss England competition, said that if Ms Christie won it would be a breakthrough for equality in the modelling world. "It would mean a lot if she won. It would show how far we've come."

Maya Schultz, managing director of Acclaim, an agency which specialises in ethnic minority models, said: "If she becomes Miss England that would be a really big deal. England is such a cosmopolitan country and yet we've never had a black Miss England. It would definitely shake things up."

Not everyone sees a black beauty queen as progress. Sandrine Leveque, of the feminist campaign group Object, said: "We believe racism should be challenged in all its forms, but the same should apply to sexism. We strongly believe that beauty contests like Miss England are clearly sexist and send out the message that it is acceptable to treat women as sex objects. This is not progress. Fundamentally beauty contests have no place in 2009."