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Saturday, 23 November, 2002, 01:43 GMT
When beauty turns ugly
Miss India wins in 2000
India has in recent years dominated the contest

For most of its 52-year lifespan, the Miss World contest has been both reviled and loved all over the globe.

It has been called many things - tacky, demeaning, an anachronism. But it has also been one of the most-watched international events, second only to the World Cup in terms of audience reach.

Miss Nigeria after her 2001 win
The contest should have been in Nigeria after its contestant won last year
Many people have been surprised by its longevity, particularly in view of its capacity for arousing controversy.

It began life as an international pageant of bathing beauties, conceived to promote Mecca Dance Halls during the 1951 Festival of Britain.

But its organisers could not have foreseen that such innocent, end-of-pier-type frolics could have been capable of whipping up the type of storm seen today in Nigeria.

In its early days, protest against the contest was relatively mild. Traditionalists got there first in the 1950s, with Catholic countries such as Spain and Ireland threatening to pull out if the contestants wore bikinis.

Feminist protests

Then came the feminists. In 1970, Women's Liberation protesters stormed the Albert Hall in London, shouted down host Bob Hope and pelted the stage with flour.

More than a quarter of a century later in India, feminists threatened self-immolating suicides "to save Indian culture". They were, however, beaten to it by a man shouting anti-Miss World slogans as he burnt himself to death.

Feminist and left-wing protest have continued sporadically. But, nowadays, most feminists agree that the contest is too much of a joke to warrant action.

Socialist Worker demonstration outside London's Dome
Protests by feminists and left-wingers are now sporadic
Who could forget host Jerry Springer in 1999 asking a bewildered Miss Turkey what she ate for Thanksgiving?

Politics of one sort or another has never been far from Miss World. This year, a number of contestants pulled out in protest against a death-by-stoning sentence handed to an unmarried mother by an Islamic court in Nigeria.

And in 1994, Miss Lebanon was photographed smiling next to Miss Israel. She was interrogated for hours by the military when she returned home.

A year later, Miss Nigeria was withdrawn from the contest after demonstrators against the military regime threatened sabotage.


Then there were the women who became famous for all the wrong reasons. In 1973, Miss America handed back the crown after just over 100 days after revelations of trysts with a number of stars, including footballer George Best.

Miss Germany followed suit in 1980 when an ex-boyfriend revealed she had made pornographic films.

But many Miss Worlds have been hailed as a credit to the title, raising millions of dollars for charity.

BBC reporter interviews a contestant in the 70s
The contest's popularity peaked in the late 70s
One of the earliest winners, Miss France went on to local politics and founded women's organisations there.

Over the past few years, the contest has attracted more and more aspiring professionals.

The contestants have gone on from wanting to work with children - or more famously in 1970 wanting to sleep with as many men as possible - to the more high-brow concerns of budding doctors, businesswomen and lawyers.

Indian success

In Britain its audience has gone from a high of 27 million viewers in 1968 to less than two million in 2000. Now, none of the mainstream channels broadcast the event.

Miss Peru 1967
The early Miss World contests aroused little controversy
Worldwide, more than one billion people are said to watch the annual extravaganza - and a massive proportion comes from Asia.

India has been a particular fan of the contest. It became increasingly popular as Miss Indias walked off with four crowns in seven years.

Indian beauties began sashaying across the globe winning so many Miss World and Miss Universe titles that it became known as the world's beauty pageant superpower.

While in the West beauty pageants are seen by many as demeaning, in India they were seen by many as representing sexual and personal freedom.

Beauty schools

Many Indian commentators argued that their popularity was a manifestation of a longing by Indians for recognition from the West - anything that showed they were major players.

Indian businessmen and women even set up institutions to coach beauty queens. And they are not the only ones. Venezuela also has a strong reputation for turning out the leggy lovelies - winning at least five Miss World titles and as many Miss Universe titles.

At its popular Miss Venezuela Academy, young hopefuls are taught to "move, speak, look and think like queens." They are then sent to dentists, surgeons and fitness trainers.

Two years ago, the contest had its own makeover and was revamped as "beauty with a purpose". The organisers said this was to "reflect how much the girls do to benefit their countries".

After all these years, Miss World's survival has dumbfounded its critics - and there appears to be plenty of life in the old girl yet.

Turning ugly
Miss World: Was it right to quit Nigeria?
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09 Nov 02 | Africa
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