Eighteen women all after the title of Miss Essex '97. An exploitative feast of flesh? No, say the organisers, just good old-fashioned fun. Ros Wynne-Jones charts the beauty pageant's revival

Ros Wynne-Jones
Saturday 02 August 1997 23:02

A Hush Falls backstage at Miss Essex 1997, as contestants in various stages of undress gather around an impressively large television screen. The beauty queens nudge each other expectantly as the LWT London Tonight news bulletin begins, reflected over and over in the mirrored walls.

"Here we are at the Miss Essex final earlier today," says the reporter, to enthusiastic screams and applause from the assembled viewers here. What follows reduces the room to a strained silence.

"We interviewed some of the lovely hopefuls," adds the reporter, a cruel expression playing across his lips. Cue a series of unflattering close- ups selectively chosen from footage shot over the course of the day. A beauty queen smiles winningly into the camera. "I want to meet people and travel," she says. A second beauty queen grins widely: "I want to meet people and travel." A third and a fourth beauty queen form the same trite sentence in the same estuary English. The reporter laughs and flashes his white teeth.

The girls, aware they are being mocked, clap politely anyway and go back to their mirrors to take their rollers out, re-apply each other's lipstick and pour themselves into their eveningwear for the dress rehearsal. "How do you know when an Essex Girl's come?" one of the nightclub sound crew says to no one in particular. "She drops her handbag."

No one laughs. Every one of the 18 contestants can reel off Essex Girl jokes the way Sussex girls can recite their times tables. "We've heard them all so many times," says Sally Terry, 20, Essex born and bred and currently employed as Posh Spice in tribute band The Spicey Girls. "I usually tell them before anybody else does - get in there first. I'm proud to be from Essex. Anyone who tries to make an issue of it is just stupid." The others nod wearily.

On that Sunday evening in late July two of Britain's most loaded archetypes, the Essex Girl and the beauty queen, collided under the lime-green lights of Faces nightclub, Ilford. It made for easy television. But there was more at stake than cliches. There was a place at next month's Miss UK competition and then, just maybe, a shot at Miss World in the Seychelles in November. "I'm trying not to think about it," says Toni, the oldest contestant at 25 and, by day, the assistant manager of a local theme-restaurant. "But you could think to yourself that tonight could really change your life. Not by being Miss Essex - that's just for fun. But Miss UK ... you could really respect yourself if you won something like that." Certainly the pounds 30,000 Miss UK prize money - pounds 10,000 more than this year's Booker Prize - has life-changing potential.

Later, as the judges take their seats hard up against the catwalk, an air of perceptible tension fills the nightclub. Our host, Ross Anderson, the former Eastenders celebrity ("Andy", the Scottish nurse, memorably killed in a road accident after his yuppie wife told him to "drop dead") can be heard practising the names of some of the more ethnic contestants under his breath. Then there are cheers for the arrival of the reigning Mr UK, Phil Cooke, a 25-year-old fireman with bulging biceps from Bromley, Kent, who is one of the Miss Essex judges. "It took me three attempts to win Mr UK," he says. "But it has changed my life."

The first six contestants file along the catwalk for the eveningwear round, clicking their high heels in time to the funereal thump of a generic House CD, some visibly shaking with nerves.

The judges are taking their duties with differing degrees of seriousness. Richard Syalon from Mirror Mirror - the Ilford boutique responsible for making all the dresses - is concentrating hard; Rachel Burke from MTV is doodling on her judging sheet; Ricky and Phil from Eastenders, alias Sid Owen and Steve McFadden, are nudging each other behind their personal champagne ice-buckets.

Earlier, Steve Douglas, son of Miss World's founder Eric Morley (the Douglas is to prevent him rising on the family coat-tails, says his father), fresh off a flight from Barcelona where he has been presiding over the competition's more glamorous concerns, has exhorted his judges to make eye contact with the girls wherever possible. "It is hard up there, and a look from you, and a smile, can make all the difference." Unfortunately this is almost impossible - as, if the judges look up, their eyes rest at an uncomfortable crotch height.

The eveningwear round passes slowly as each woman strides leggily up the platform and performs a twirl. Then the contestants retire to change into their swimwear in an atmosphere bereft of beauty-queen bitchiness, as if the contestants have all been away on a management-consultants' training weekend. "We're all one big, happy family back here," says Kimberley Darby, 21, an auxiliary nurse, the current Miss Cardiff and one-time Miss Cheshire. "Whatever happens we are all winners, every one of us. The important thing is to have taken part and to hold our heads up high."

She is right, of course. All the women have been treated like stars; have appeared on the Big Breakfast and ITV; been made-over and pampered. Tonight their families and boyfriends have come to cheer them on, their little sisters have clamoured at the backstage entrance, they have met Ricky and Phil. "These are easy things to sneer at," says Mr Douglas, who has spent the evening treating every woman as if she was already Miss World, "but they mean a lot to the girls."

After only one of the three rounds, the panel is already convinced it has found its winner. "She's just got it," says one. "She looks like a beauty queen. We're not looking for the best-looking girl or the most intelligent or the one with the best figure ... We're looking for a beauty queen and that's her." She has all the right "bits", someone else explains. But shouldn't the judges pick who they like best, not who they think looks like a beauty queen? A woman judge shakes her head, sagely. "That's just not the way beauty judging works," she says. Phil and Ricky, meanwhile, appear for all the world as if they are in an episode of Eastenders, with Ricky baffled by the scoring and Phil knocking back the booze. It's hard not to wonder what Cathy would have to say.

Round two is the evening's greatest anachronism. The thudding beat starts up again and the contestants file out in swimwear to applause from the 300 or so parents, friends and sponsors, mixed with pockets of lads who have come for a look. Mr Douglas is at pains to point out that at Miss UK and Miss World finals a colourful wrap, producing a sort of mini-sarong effect, is worn to protect contestants' modesty. At Miss UK heats, however, individual promoters make their own rules. Tonight most of the women are wearing high-cut, and sometimes almost see-through, swimsuits and the result is more uncomfortable shifting- in-seats for the crotch-level judges and front-row audience. As the women bounce onto the stage to half-hearted wolf-whistles, parents look uncomfortable and boyfriends glare round at the offending whistlers.

It is hard to reconcile the "1997" in bold lettering at the back of the stage with the twirling array of bikini lines and glistening decolletage. The bright lighting, under which every patch of cellulite, every dimple, is cast in unflattering shadow, gives the spectacle a clarity which feels too real, as if the entire scene would benefit from the faint blurring of a Vaseline'd camera lens.

"It's just a bit of fun," says Avril, 18, an A-level student from Cork, County Mayo, who is still smarting at being told by one of the organisers that her accent is her best feature. "I'd rather not have to do it, but there's no point getting het up about it. It's only a swimsuit. It's not demeaning - just pretty old-fashioned." Still, Avril insists on a wrap.

After the bathing beauties round, nine contestants are eliminated. Judges are divided over whether they should pick the typical beauty queen, with her all-American smile and those long legs, or the strikingly beautiful English rose with her light make-up and shy expression. Only round three, the "personality" section, remains. Here the judges assess the "whole woman" and contestants brief the audience on their lifestyles and, inevitably, their hobbies. "Do we really have to go back in for this bit?" says one judge, still propping up the bar. "It's hardly going to make a difference, is it?"

THE HEADQUARTERS of the Miss World Organisation are located in the evocatively named Golden Square, a tranquil corner of London land-locked between Oxford and Regent Streets. Inside, Eric Morley is sitting at one end of a long conference table in his office, which with its teak octagonal desk and kitsch Miss World ashtrays appears little changed from the heady days of the Seventies.

Although he is a multi-millionaire there is nothing wealthy about the appearance of Miss World's creator. With his patchily dyed hair, his ordinary suit and easy-going Cockney charm, he is the sort of man you could sit next to on the bus and think was a small businessman. But despite his humble upbringing as an orphan in an East Grinstead children's home, Eric Morley has never thought small.

"Even then," he says, of his early entrepreneurial streak, "I was looking at finding a way out. I got no pocket money because there was no one to send me any, but we had bread rations and I used to save up my bread until I had enough to sell. Then I would buy toffee with it and sell it at a profit. One or two of the older boys had a sort of protection racket going, but even with paying their overheads, I used to make a little bit."

Now in his seventies, Morley is still bright as a button, leaping round the room to illustrate points, his eyes dancing mischievously under his Eric Morecambe glasses. After the home, he was sent to sea as a teenager where he had to learn to box to protect himself, then he enlisted in the army to fight in the Second World War - at Dunkirk "and all those other places where the action got interesting". Later, while a captain of a motorboat flotilla in Norway, he found his calling in the entertainment world when a senior officer told him to come up with a way of amusing troops with no more war to fight. Captain Morley ended up organising an international athletics event.

The demobbed Morley began civilian life by staging shows in Glasgow, then "like Dick Whittington" went to seek his fortune back in the London he had rarely visited since he first went to sea. While working for the Mecca entertainment group, he invented Come Dancing, which is now in its 49th year. "Then I thought of Miss UK basically as a way of promoting Mecca," says Mr Morley. "The first Miss World was to promote the Festival of Britain in 1951, to celebrate the half-century, so Miss World will turn 50 at the millennium." He left Mecca in 1979 with the rights to both competitions.

Nowadays, when fin de siecle celebrations are a matter of domes and science exhibitions, multicultural festivities and high culture, it seems hard to imagine that, in 1951, Mr Morley's contribution to the Festival was such a resounding success that it was copied the following year in America. "Of course, the Americans had to call it Miss Universe," says Mr Morley, shaking his head. "They always have to go one better."

Miss World grew to gargantuan proportions over the next two decades, notwithstanding one or two howlers. "You learn from your mistakes," says Mr Morley, who keeps a trophy featuring silver Adam and Eve figurines in his office to remind him of one early folly. The cup's inscription reads: "The Perfect Pair".

"The year after Miss UK, I came up with Britain's Perfect Man," he recalls. "The next year I thought about having an award for the perfect pair." He groans suddenly. "What a disaster that turned out to be. There I am on stage announcing Britain's Perfect Pair as the couple come out behind me. I can't see them there, but the whole crowd is laughing and shouting. I turn round and God help me there's this woman with huge bosoms and I'm announcing Britain's Perfect Pair." The competition was never repeated.

In 1958, Mr Morley met his match. "It was New Year's Eve and I was at a party, and this tall, attractive girl walked in. I was a confirmed bachelor after all those years in the army, but Julia was different." By 1969, Mrs Julia Morley was an integral part of the Miss World Organisation, working on publicity, tirelessly attending to the needs of "the girls" and functioning, her husband says, as a sort of mother figure. "We have former Miss Worlds to stay all the time," says Mr Morley, fondly. "When they come to London they don't stay in a hotel - they stay with us, our home is their home."

By the mid-Eighties, however, the allure of Miss World and Miss UK was fading in the wake of politically correct television programming. Since 1988 they have failed to win a terrestrial television contract in Britain, instead moving to Sky TV with the consequence that many people are unaware that the events still take place every autumn. The 1991 Miss World, staged at great expense in Atlanta, was reported to have lost the Morleys money.

In 1994, the Miss World Organisation attempted to rehabilitate itself in two ways. Firstly, nearly half a century after Mr Morley's Perfect Pair disaster, Eric Morley decided to launch a Mr UK competition, which fulfilled a dual role as publicity gimmick and sweetener to the political correctness lobby. "How can it be sexist, when there's Mr UK as well?" asks his creator.

The second element of the 1994 Miss World makeover was a one-off partnership with Sun City, the entertainment resort owned by the South African tycoon Sol Kerzner and situated in the one-party "independent homeland" of Bophuthat- swana. It was a meeting of two pariahs: Miss World in exile from Britain, Kerzner troubled by former apartheid connections. But it made money and, better still, the report into the Miss World Organisation, commissioned by Sun City prior to staging the event, estimated the worth of the overall TV package at pounds 69m and the print media coverage at pounds 2.1m. It also revealed that the 1993 competition had been watched by 1.56 billion viewers in 86 countries. "I realised I had been underestimating Miss World's worth," says Mr Morley.

The highlight of the South African trip for the Morleys was meeting Nelson Mandela. He recounts a conversation where he asked the President what time he usually got up in the morning. "He says, '5am.' And I say, 'Oh, same as me then.' Then he turns to me, with this twinkle in his eye and says, 'Why, were you in prison as well?' " Eric Morley, for once, was lost for words.

Last year, Miss World was held in Bangalore, India, to the displeasure of Hindu nationalists and Indian women's groups, who insisted that the contest both demeaned women and threatened Indian culture. Members of Mahila Jagran Samiti (Forum for Awakening Women) threatened to mingle with the audience and set fire to themselves if the contest went ahead. On the night of the pageant itself, the Chinnaswamy Stadium was surrounded by police armed with guns and tear gas and 1,650 demonstrators were arrested.

"Well, that was all blown out of proportion," says Mr Morley, sighing gently. "What you have to understand is that people in India are always setting themselves on fire. That's the main way they die out there. Normally when someone gets burnt nobody over here gives two hoots about it, but because of the Miss World contest the media were just trying to make something out of it."

So far 1997 has been the year of beauty pageants in trouble, with the scent of scandal already rising around the Miss Universe competition after Miss Ireland was sacked and replaced by a woman allegedly having an affair with the event's organiser. This followed the axing of the celebrated Miss Butlins' Holiday Princess competition because organisers felt it was "no longer in line with modern thinking". Butlins cited the new Girl Power movement heralded by the advent of the Spice Girls rather than the persuasiveness of any academic feminist argument. The only successful beauty pageant of the year so far has been the spoof Lesbian beauty contest, won by a woman whose catchphrase was "Form a queue to fuck me".

Could it be time for the Morleys to throw in the towel? "Absolutely not," says Eric Morley, a man used to fighting talk. "Miss World is more popular than she has been for years. When rugby and soccer were taken over by Sky no one said that was because interest in those sports was waning. Their popularity was increasing and it's the same with us. Sky's viewing figures for Miss World were up massively last year. This year we have done a deal with Disney in the US and I can guarantee that Miss World 1997 will attract more viewers worldwide than any other television show ever."

But in 1997 it seems unlikely that either Miss UK, on 9 September, or Miss World, on 22 November, will attract any more than mild attention of the positive or negative variety. The medium of light entertainment, of TFI Friday, Eurotrash and Blind Date, a world where Girl Power passes as a new ideology, where Loaded belongs on the bottom shelf rather than under the mattress, and where Howard Stern and Larry Flynt are suddenly champions of free speech, has had its boundaries pushed and pulled into a new configuration. Feminism has turned its energies to more engrossing subjects like the minimum wage and feminists have better things to do with their time nowadays than heckle beauty queens searching for their own version of empowerment.

Eric Morley may even be right. The days of the Butlins Holiday Princess, with all its uneasy associations with archaic Hi-de-Hi sexism and old men in dirty raincoats, may indeed be over, but Miss World's world of high-camp glitz, kitsch and glamour, a world that lends itself so beautifully to Nineties notions of irony, is something quite different. Her time may well have come again.

Anyhow, Mr Morley is growing tired of his detractors in the media, he says. "In what other field could a tiny country like the Cook Islands compete with Russia and America and have a chance of winning?" Then there's the charity work brought to life by Mrs Morley when she coined the phrase "Beauty With a Purpose" in the Seventies. "We have raised millions for charities like the Variety Club and will continue to do so," says her husband, before switching tack. "The contest is basically about being healthy. If a woman's too thin she won't win Miss World, same as if she's too fat."

He taps the conference table as he gets to the nub of it. "The problem is we're British and - people won't like me saying this - but we always have to kick ourselves in the ankle. We can't be proud of ourselves. Other countries are paying serious amounts of money for Miss World and Britain ... " his voice is rising now in disbelief, "Britain had it for free, but, no, Britain didn't want it."

"AND NOW, ladies and gentlemen, we have Kimberley..." Ross Anderson is saying with appropriate game-show-host cheerfulness, back at the Faces nightclub. Kimberley is a nurse, a word he enunciates carefully, inviting catcalling from the floor. Then he pauses for dramatic effect. "I used to be a nurse, you know." It is his one good joke of the night, a reference to those soap-star days before he had to play master of ceremonies in Ilford. We have arrived at the personality section, the one that in the Morleys' minds counterbalances the swimwear round.

Is Kimberley having a good time? "This is the best night of my life," she says, and means it. Her hobbies are dancing, riding and socialising. Would she do a wee dance for us here tonight? Kimberley performs an uncomfortable bump-and-grind. If she was to be sent to a desert island what item would she take with her? A boat. "Sensible girl, good answer," says our host, patting her arm. "Now the question we all want to know the answer to, is ... does Kimberley wear a nurse's uniform?" She does. Kimberley looks a little apologetic. "But it's not very sexy," she says.

Kimberley doesn't actually win. The Miss Essex 1997 prize goes to Tammy Sullam, the judges' "English rose" type, an articulate 19-year-old from Ilford with appled cheeks and a sweet smile. "The thing is," one of the panel explains, "we decided we didn't have to award the prize to a typical beauty queen. We've given it to the most beautiful girl instead."

Tammy is a student at the London College of Fashion and her mum sent her photo to the local paper without her permission. Her mum's eyes fill with tears. Tammy is stunned, smiling beatifically from her makeshift throne up on the catwalk. "I can't believe it," she keeps repeating to everyone who stoops to kiss her powdered cheek. "I just can't believe it. I never, ever thought it would be me. All the other contestants are so lovely."

There are a few tears from the unlucky contestants, many of whom resolve to try again at the Miss London competition in a few days' time. Backstage, Steve Douglas is smiling too. "Ask any of these girls how they feel now, tonight, and they'll tell you they feel fantastic," he says, gravely. "They deserve to, because they have all worked hard. At the end of the day, it's about having a talent. Some people are born good at the piano, some are born with a sharp intellect, others are good at football or art. Why is that all right with everybody, when this somehow isn't?" !

Toni Weight, from Romford, the oldest contestant at 25, is a choreographer, cabaret dancer and the assistant manager of a theme-restaurant in Ilford

Melody Williams, 24, also from Romford, is a secretary at a television and satellite company and occasionally turns her hand to modelling

Kimberley Darby, 21, is an auxiliary nurse at an Essex hospital. She is the current Miss Cardiff and a former winner of the Miss Cheshire title

Eighteen-year-old Nicola Ewing, also from Romford, has just completed a course in beauty therapy and is currently waiting for her exam results

Tammy Sullam, 19, from Ilford, is a student at the London College of Fashion. Her 'English rose' look won her this year's Miss Essex contest

Nineteen-year-old Clare Wincott is a media-studies student and also works part-time as a sales assistant. She comes from Romford, Essex

Melissa Lee, 17, is currently a student at the London College of Fashion. Aside from her studies, she is a singer and songwriter in the band NRG

Twenty-year-old Joanna Humphries, also from Romford, is currently working full-time as a secretary and receptionist for a stockbrokers' firm

Sally Terry, 20, from Hornchurch in Essex, is a former conference director and now takes the role of Posh Spice in look-alike band The Spicey Girls

Lorna Tremayne, 23, is an assistant manageress at Jo Malone, the London fragrance and beauty store. She is a model and actress in her spare time

Twenty-two-year-old Nalintha Meehitiya is a final-year student at the University of North London. She is doing a course in interior design

Elizabeth Simons, 21, from Saffron Walden, worked in insurance before becoming a model. She was a finalist in last year's Miss UK contest Contestant Kimberley Darby does her hair (above); Sid Owen and Steve McFadden (below), aka Ricky and Phil from 'Eastenders'; Tammy Sullam (right) is crowned Miss Essex and now takes her place in the Miss UK finals Grin and bear it: nervous contestants are briefed backstage before going in for round two, the swimwear round (above); runner-up Elizabeth Simons is interviewed by host Ross Anderson in the personality round (below)

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