Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Girls, Girls, Girls: Beauty Contests, Once the Epitome of Glamour, Have Been Driven out by Feminism and the Tabloids. but the Fake Tans, Smiles and Swimsuits Seem Almost Innocent in Today's World of Botox, Breast Implants and Trout Pouts

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Girls, Girls, Girls: Beauty Contests, Once the Epitome of Glamour, Have Been Driven out by Feminism and the Tabloids. but the Fake Tans, Smiles and Swimsuits Seem Almost Innocent in Today's World of Botox, Breast Implants and Trout Pouts

Article excerpt

Funny how, as the years drift by, things that might once have made me almost comically angry bring only a fond smile to my face. Last week, I walked around "Beauty Queens: smiles, swimsuits and sabotage", a small but perfectly formed exhibition at the Women's Library in east London, and as I gazed at the women, lined up like so many dolls in a toyshop window, all I could think was: how sweet. My hackles did not rise; my lip did not curl; I did not stomp or sigh. Finally, I reached the last glass box in the show. There, in pride of place, was the bathing costume worn by a certain Galen Loughran, who came second in the Miss Morecambe competition of 1969. The suit--white with gold buttons, in the style of a drum majorette--was stained with fake tan. At this point, the fond smile became an audible titter. Flour bombs or no flour bombs, some things just never change, girls.

The origins of the Miss Great Britain competition, which, in the fullness of time, went on to become the global phenomenon that is Miss World, lie in the seaside of the 1940s, specifically in Morecambe. The opening in 1933 of Oliver Hill's art deco Midland Grand Hotel and, in 1936, of the town's Super Swimming Stadium--home of the Aqua Lovelies--gave Morecambe a kind of brittle glamour. For a time, it was the place to take one's holiday (hard to believe this now when, disgracefully, the beautiful Midland lies empty and peeling). In 1945, the local council and the Sunday Dispatch launched an event to find the resort's Bathing Beauty Queen (first prize: seven guineas and a fruit basket), a competition that ran annually for several decades. "There would be a race to get my fake tan on," recalls Loughran. "I remember it: orange tan, cold floor, people helping each other."

This is where "Beauty Queens" begins, with local events. It moves on to the glory days of national and international competitions, when the jet-set judges included Alan Whicker and Sidney Sheldon and even, it was once bizarrely mooted, a Womble. Finally, it fixes its beady but mascaraed eye on the cheeringly scruffy feminist protests of the 1970s--a campaign that, eventually, led to the disappearance of Miss World from terrestrial television (though the event itself, I gather, still exists, out there in some weird parallel universe). And the surprise is how fascinating it all is, the peculiar ephemera that the exhibition's magpie curator, Alice Beard, has managed to amass. She has even found an old Miss World board game. In the abstract, beauty contests are bland: "I'd like to see the world and look after children." In the particular, they are oddly beguiling. Hard not to feel a certain nostalgia, even. So this is what we did before reality TV.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the 1960s, the title Miss Great Britain was genuinely sought after. My feeling is that it was also, perversely, a kind of liberation for some women--a way of making their only assets and their skills (the application of lipstick, the ability to walk gracefully in high heels) work for them. The winner was not only courted and admired; she got to travel, albeit chaperoned, and to attend important civic events. It was a nice little earner, too. "Yes, I can open the Leigh Bowling Centre on 10th of January," writes Gillian Taylor, a petite blonde from Cheadle Hulme, who was, as her headed notepaper proudly proclaims, Miss Great Britain 1963. She was, however, less sure about a trip to the Continent. …

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