More than 7,000 women have participated in this year's Miss United Kingdom beauty contest. This weekend the 20 finalists will practise their strut, choose a new wardrobe, and demonstrate their speaking skills to a panel of judges.
On Monday they will parade in front of television cameras for a 55-minute show, and by late night the winner will have been announced. The prize? To represent the UK in this year's Miss World - to be staged in Sun City, Bophuthatswana, and televised in 73 countries.
'Beauty with a Purpose' is the subtitle of this year's Miss United Kingdom competition. The contestants have to demonstrate a commitment to the community in order to qualify.
'It is not about looks - it is about ability to communicate and how caring you are,' said Natasha Taylor, 22, known as 'Miss Essex' in her home county. Her friend - they met at last year's Miss UK - corrects her: 'Beauty does come into it - it is just not everything . . .'
By the standards of countries such as Australia and the United States, the 'purpose' part of the subtitle is mere lip- service to the move away from women being presented as 'packaged' sex objects.
In the US, contestants not only have to have their own views on the environment and Bosnia, they also have to do their own hair and make-up. In Australia, contestants have to prove their commitment to society by raising nearly pounds 3,500 for charity.
In the UK, contestants are urged to show an interest in the community, but it is not essential. The mini-profiles of each contestant demonstrate the show's true priorities. A knowledge of languages is this year's fashion statement: 'Carolyn speaks a little Spanish' enthuses the blurb. Or 'Julie also speaks a little French.'
'They are trying to get the bimbo image out of it,' said Natasha. 'They want women who have clear heads.'
The year 1988 was a disappointing one for the organisers of Miss United Kingdom. Thames Television announced that the contest's run of 37 years was to come to a halt. Despite the show's 12.5 million audience, producers decided it was degrading to women, irrelevant in a modern-thinking society, and simply outdated.
Julia Morley, 'godmother' of the competition and owner of the rights to the contest, bit her lip at the outrage and stepped up business abroad to compensate for the loss in revenue in Britain. Now, she claims, the show is making a comeback - in a renovated format and with a new buzzword: 'It is a show run by women, for women,' she says.
'We are going on with the show because of demand,' Mrs Morley said. 'It is the women who want it to go on. We offer them a chance to see the world - to learn - to build up confidence. If a woman can walk properly, looks good, dresses well, her confidence in herself will grow. That is the greatest gift you can give.'
Run by women, for women . . . with the exception of the director, and five of the 10 judges, who are men.
And the 'renovated format'? 'No more girls in G- strings with their bums in the air' wagging imaginary 'tails'.
This 'new' format also means no more scandal - of the single mothers/divorcee/pornographic-spread type - all of which have brought past contests into 'disrepute' and resulted in several 'resignations' of the Miss World title.
Participants have to sign a document stating that they are not married, have no children, and have not appeared topless or posed in pornographic magazines.
Anxious to keep the contest clean and the sponsorship money rolling in, the girls are asked to follow a no-sex rule.
Sexuality, Mrs Morley says, does not come into it. The show is all about fashion and fantasy, not bodies. The swimsuit scene - one of eight 'themes' in the show - is no longer a stilettos and plenty-of- thigh affair. Instead, contestants are asked to appear barefoot with a variety of 'accessories' to cover their provocative parts. To stop the women feeling like meat they are encouraged to 'move in an individual way' to show how they 'interpret the swimsuit they are wearing'.
'This is a fun, family show. It is not the inside spread of a pornographic magazine,' Mrs Morley said.
'Yes, you can argue that this show is for men - to please men - but I think the show is a way of opening up the number of options possible for my girls. For the second year running we are holding the Miss World show in South Africa - with Nelson Mandela's blessing. I am not into politics but I am socially aware. Visiting areas where local people haven't got it so easy - where people have to make wire fences for a living - it is an education.'
Besides, Mrs Morley added, it helps the '20,000 black people out there' by contributing to the economy. And it is a stunning venue: 'Their music, their hotels . . .' she says, gasping enthusiastically, 'you have to see it to believe it.'
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