John Walsh: Tales of the City

'How unusual to find such an old-fashioned sexist lurking inside the bosom of the Catholic celibate'
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I had a shocking crush on a nun when I was 12. She was a friend of my mother's, Sister Martina, and she had china-blue eyes, peach-pink cheeks and an astonishingly pouty upper lip. You could see no more of her physical attributes than that, because of her pre-Vatican II full-body habit, but it was enough. She radiated sweetness and kindness. Her eyes would brim with tears at the smallest evidence of human – or animal – injustice anywhere in the world. She seemed too sensitive to be heading into the jungles of Malawi to join the missions. ("Off to help the little black babies, John," she would say, her red lips trembling.) I thought she lacked the toughness for dealing with dictators, tribesmen and brigands, and told my mother so in the strongest terms. It was, I harrumphed, ridiculous to send such a lovely young girl among savages.

I just didn't want her to go anywhere except south London. I looked at her china-blue eyes and her pouty upper lip and blushed at the foulness of my sudden, savage desires. It was bad enough to be suffering an inconvenient new compulsion to imagine what my parents' fortysomething women friends looked like with nothing on; to find myself assailed by similar visual guesswork about Sister Martina was straying into murky depths of sin. I'd been taught by nuns since I was four. For three years, I watched them stalking through the Ursuline Convent, Wimbledon. They were emblems of absolute, scary power, like Valkyries. And now I was having feelings about one of them? I was disgusted with myself.

If only Father Antonio Rungi had been around at the time. He's the Roman cleric who is organising Miss Sister Italy, the first beauty competition for nuns. Fr Rungi is potty about nuns. "Do you think nuns are all elderly, strait-laced and funereal?" he asks. "It's no longer that way. There are nuns from Africa and South America who are very, very lovely. The Brazilians, particularly." How unusual to find such an old-fashioned sexist, a titan of condescending gallantry, a chortling connoisseur of global nun-dom from Riga to Rio lurking inside the supposedly asexual bosom of the Catholic celibate. But then Fr Rungi is a member of the Passionist Order, who sound as if they know how to have a good time.

The beauty contest will take place in the south Italian diocese of Mondragone. Fr Rungi has a website on which he'll post photos of 1,000 participating nuns; as on MySpace, they can tell site visitors about themselves, although the information will be more concerned with their convent duties ("Praying, gardening, meditating, cooking, er, being poor, chaste and obedient") than their hobbies and outside interests. There will, presumably, be few admissions of "Getting bladdered wiv mates, fighting in car parks, boysboysboys lol!!!" Candidates will be asked to reveal their personalities by describing their "lives and miracles", which sounds a tall order, unless they make a habit of curing the blind and the lame, and turning water into sauvignon blanc. Daringly, contestants will be able to choose whether to wear wimples or dress less formally – sensible, because otherwise the "Evening Wear" segment wouldn't look much different from the "Day Wear," or indeed the "Swimwear" one.

But then, if the holy sisters were to abandon their traditional attire and wear frocks like everyone else, the whole frisson of transgression would be lost. And Sister Martina, in hindsight, would look like any other pretty, blue-eyed, ordinarily unattainable girl on the Battersea streets in 1965.

Fans of ITV1's The X Factor know that the programme runs to a now-predictable format, and that you can tick off on your fingers several categories of people who appear on the audition stage. One is the Tragic Oldster, who gamely belts out "Summertime" before being led away, bewildered, back to their sheltered accommodation. Another is the motor-mouthed Feisty Chick, who demands that she must be chosen purely because of her self-belief, but who turns out to sing like a corncrake. A third is the Nervous Bloke with a Pathetic Past. The first sighting of this was Gareth Gates on Pop Idol – doe-eyed, tongue-tied and stammering; the most recent was on Saturday, when an impossibly handsome, granite-jawed Northern hunk came on with every sign of diffidence and, before singing "Fly Me to the Moon", explained that he wanted to win the show so that he could find his birth parents "and have a real family at last".

By the time he'd finished singing, there wasn't a dry eye in the TV-viewing nation. You could hear newspaper executives from Padstow to Perth resolving to send their best reporter to track down the bloody man's family for him. Did it strike anybody, as they wiped their tears away, that it was just a fraction too perfect? Short of having him walk into his audition carrying a small, possibly orphaned puppy with a hurty paw and pledging to nurse it back to health, he couldn't have been a more obvious heartstring-tugger. If they really just happened upon this chap by pure accident, rather than through a network of showbiz agents, I'd be amazed. And if he doesn't win the contest in December, I shall eat a printout of this column covered in anchovy paste. So there.

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