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Miss World who gave up her crown returns to the pageant for the first time

Helen Morgan is to attend tonight's final in London, 37 years after press revelations about her private life forced her to quit

One of the most controversial winners in the history of Miss World will be back to watch the competition tonight for the first time in almost 40 years, putting an end to decades of self-imposed exile.

Helen Morgan won the title in 1974, but was forced out after only four days as a result of tabloid newspaper revelations that she was an unmarried mother, and allegations – which she denied – of an affair with a married man.

It may be hard to credit now, but the shock resignation of the 22-year-old from Barry, Wales, was one of the biggest stories of the time – for Ms Morgan was the first Miss World to quit.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, the contest was a massive ratings hit in Britain, attracting audiences of tens of millions. However, the pageant's popularity has plummeted in the UK in recent years, where it has not been televised for a decade.

But 60 years after it began, Miss World continues to have a global following, thanks to interest from countries such as China and India. Organisers claim more than a billion people will watch today's final, held at Earl's Court.

Although it is regarded as something of a joke in Britain today, there was a time when it dominated the headlines and provoked major protests from feminists, most notably when Bob Hope was pelted with flour bombs and tomatoes during the 1970 contest.

And women's groups are set to protest at this year's final, the first to be held in London since 2002. The pageant is a "grotesque celebration of objectification", according to Kat Banyard, the director of UK Feminista.

These views are rejected by Ms Morgan. "It is harmless entertainment. If you don't like something, don't watch it. It's as simple as that. There are so many things that are much bigger problems."

Now a 59-year-old grandmother, she harbours no grudges and has accepted an invitation to attend the final.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday last week, she described how being crowned Miss World in 1974 did not go to her head: "You've won a competition and that's all it is. It didn't go to my head because I don't think I'm anywhere near the most beautiful woman in the world and never have been."

Horses, rather than dreams of becoming Miss World, were her passion as a child. Yet years later she found herself drifting into part-time sales promotion work after her son Richard, now 38, was born. Registering with a local modelling agency, she found herself entering – and winning – Miss Wales and Miss UK, thereby gaining entry into Miss World.

Despite being dubbed the world's most beautiful woman, she remembers wondering whether she should have won. "I never really thought of myself as a Miss World and I thought, 'Am I the right person, have they made the right decision?'" She recalls the jealous reaction of some people: "It was as if I'd grown two horns and become some sort of monster."

And the media intrusion was hard to bear: "I was very naive. I thought everything you read in the paper was true. That was the biggest shock to me, the way that the media worked. It was a bit of a circus."

Recalling how it ended, she says: "I was exhausted, and felt physically ill. When something like that happens you'd rather go away for a while, dig a little hole and jump into it."

Talks took place with the contest's organisers, Eric and Julia Morley: "I went into the Miss World office and we all came to the conclusion that it was better if I quit."

She settled for a quiet life, and met her husband, Ronny Lamb, in 1978 on a blind date. They moved to Surrey in the Eighties, and had their two children, Ben, 25, and Poppy, 23, before settling in Marbella, Spain, a decade ago.

For years, she has kept her past in the background, her trophy and Miss World dress in a box, and not told her friends: "It does stick a label on you and it does make people look at you and maybe you feel you're being judged."

She said: "People always find out in the end. I never ever tell anybody, but my kids have got a big mouth, and so has my husband."

The 59-year-old has moved on. "It was a shame what happened, but it happened and I have no regrets. I had no idea Miss World was on until you called. I contacted them and got an email from Julia Morley saying she'd love me to come along. It will be quite interesting to see what it's like now."

Additional reporting by Antony Peyton