BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 10:39 UK

Do I still want world peace?

Brooke Johnston
Brooke Johnston says people still recognise her

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

A new Miss Great Britain was crowned this week, but what do former beauty queens do once they've healed humanity of all its ills?

Taxi drivers and children. They still ask for Brooke Johnston's autograph when they find out who she was. But during her reign as Miss UK Universe 2005 she was mobbed by hundreds of fans in the Phillipines and met the likes of Bill Clinton.

While being a beauty queen has lost much of its cachet in the UK - how many knew about this week's Miss GB? - it's a huge deal elsewhere. A reported audience of one billion viewers, from about 170 countries, watched Brooke battle it out for Queen and country four years ago in the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

Daniella Luan and daughter Bella
Beauty contests are a bit tongue in cheek over here, they're on a par with Eurovision
Daniella Luan - Miss England 2002

She didn't win but held the Miss UK Universe title for a year, during which time she travelled the globe, met royalty, world leaders and partied with the famous. On the flip side she did have to open a couple of local supermarkets, but that "wasn't so bad".

But what does a beauty queen do after she's placed that diamond tiara on the coiffured head of the next winner and hung up her sash?

"The first few months after I finished my year in the role was a difficult time for me, it was my lowest point," says Ms Johnston.

"I was at a loss about what to do next. But the role gets you an immediate profile for not doing very much at all and I knew I should make the most of that."

She admits her profile isn't necessarily high in this country, where such pageants - which include Miss England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Miss GB - are no longer broadcast on mainstream television and often viewed as a bit outdated.

It isn't necessarily positive either, with one of the highest profile recent winners being Danielle Lloyd - best known for the Celebrity Big Brother race row and dating footballers.


But while Ms Johnston says beauty queens can be seen as a bit "tacky" here, outside of the UK, having a title still has currency. She is happy to be known as a former Miss UK Universe.

Miss UK Universe - on to Miss Universe
Miss England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales - all go to Miss World
Miss Great Britain

"It's not an advantage over here but in other countries, like India, the big beauty contests are still massive, you're a celebrity," she says.

"In the US it also opens doors socially and you get to network with people you wouldn't in everyday life and then you make that work for you."

And she's certainly done that. She recently landed a leading role in a new Bollywood film, her profile as a former beauty queen being a huge benefit.

She also spent the past year covering the US Presidential elections for various news organisations, having gained a masters in journalism during the year she was Miss UK Universe. Again, she says her beauty queen profile was a benefit in the political circles of Washington.

Boycott pageant

But having a high profile doesn't always work out well. Daniella Luan, now a single mother of two, found herself embroiled in controversy when she was crowned Miss England 2002 and went to represent the country in Miss World.

The competition was held in Nigeria, just as a local woman was due to be stoned to death for adultery. A few contestants boycotted the event, but on the advice of the organisers she went.

When she arrived rioting erupted between Christians and Muslims. More than 200 people were killed and the pageant was forced to decamp to London.

"It was a nightmare," she says. "I found myself at the centre of this political storm and all over the newspapers. I had journalists outside my home in the middle of the night. There was a frenzy of media attention.

"I didn't know how to deal with it and was given little advice, I just wanted the whole thing over and done with. After the Miss World contest I was very low and didn't want to do much during my year as Miss England. It was a relief to hand over the crown to someone else."

Daniella Luan
My daughter (above) was Miss England 2007. It all looks like a whirl of glamour, but behind the smiles and tiaras lies a lot of hard work
Andrew Glynn

She went on to complete her degree, which she had put on hold for a year. She also had two children, who she now looks after full-time as well as doing some modelling work. She has some regrets that she didn't make more of her time as Miss England, but the whole Miss World experience scarred her.

"Beauty contests are a bit tongue in cheek over here, they're on a par with Eurovision. But in a lot of other countries they're huge and having a title can open doors. The girls from places where Miss World is still massive were equivalent to film stars in their own countries. I had little preparation for the role and was just a normal girl from Oxford."

But what about the all-important charity work? We know beauty queens are partial to working with children and campaigning for world peace, but does that all stop when the crown goes back?

"I still do charity work as a former Miss UK, it still gets publicity," says Ms Johnston, who campaigns on behalf of animal rights charity Peta.

And it still gets her recognised occasionally, but not usually on home turf. The last time she was spotted was on holiday in Ibiza last summer and before that in Toronto, Canada.

Extreme pressure

So would she enter Miss Universe now? Probably not. While it's a huge event globally, she thinks it's outdated.

Brooke Johnston in Miss Universe
Brooke at the Miss Universe contest: "Fun but hard work"

She may have a point. No contestants in Miss Universe are allowed to have been married or pregnant, and the titleholder has to remain single throughout her reign.

She and Ms Luan also say there is a darker side to all the Hollywood smiles. The pressure on some contestants can be immense.

"It might be a bit of a laugh over here but for some countries it is a massive deal," says Ms Johnston. Some girls take "extreme measures to increase their chances of winning, and cosmetic surgery is a normal part of the prize for winning their national title.

"But I am a strong person and I had an amazing time. I will always be happy to be a former Miss UK."

Below is a selection of your comments.

My daughter was Miss England 2006/7. It was a great experience for her to represent England at Miss World in Warsaw, and she had opportunities such as speaking at the Oxford Union and charity fund-raising events. She met a lot of interesting and influential people, but also suffered that low point when it was all over. She has moved on from that now and is looking to make her way in the world on her own talents. As parents it was fascinating and rewarding to watch all this but also a very, very expensive time helping to support her during her year as Miss England. It all looks like a whirl of glamour, but behind the smiles and tiaras lies a lot of hard work.
Andrew Glynn, Oxford

Beauty contests are so much more than just being beautiful. These women have to work very hard as they need to get just about everything perfect. With over 100 beautiful women standing there, the judges would have a really hard time if all they had to do was pick the best looking one. But instead they are judged on much more. The contestants make it look easy because they are hard-working professionals.
Tasneem Uddin, London

Erm, wasn't it one recently said they enjoyed being in Guantanamo Bay? Sums it all up for me.
Mr Shah, Bucks

A bit tongue in cheek is the right attitude. The Miss California contest was rocked by a scandal over paying for breast implants for the winner so she could feel good about herself at the national pageant. When challenged on the subject, a spokesman was asked what other flat-chested contestants do. He said they use chicken cutlets and tape. It must take practice to say that with a straight face.
Candace, New Jersey, US

The situation isn't the same in developing countries. I believe many women nowadays view the winning of pageant contest as a stepping stone to career in mass media and entertainment sector.
Eddy K, Georgetown, Malaysia

Whether you agree with the premise or not, you have to appreciate that winning the title, like most other accolades, is certainly not easy. Usually the more qualified contestants win. With the win there is a great opportunity to make a difference in the world. The publicity can still be translated into a force for good. Some of us work a lifetime for the chance to have a great impact on the world around us and to drive the causes dear to our hearts. Pageant winners have a means to do this earlier in their lives. More power to them.
Reza, New York

As well as no marriage or pregnancy, the rules should also say "no plastic surgery'"(unless for a medical condition). The thought of women being carved up by surgeons to make the grade for these competitions gives me the creeps.
Janet, Wootton Bassett

Does Mr Universe also have to remain single and chaste?
Rachel Pirry, Glasgow, UK

There is a reason beauty pageants are considered so naff and outdated - anyone heard of the women's equality movement? The whole notion of lining up women and judging them by their body dimensions is degrading and misogynistic. I would be ashamed if my daughter was so desperate for attention she entered a beauty pageant, they have no place in the 21st Century. It is sexist, outdated and damaging rubbish. What next, racist competitions?
A Taylor, Midlands

I thought feminism was about letting women do whatever they wanted for whatever reasons they wanted. From the looks of it, these women either enjoy what they do or want to take part and be admired for their beauty. If they are happy to do it, let them do it without begrudging them the opportunity to do something they enjoy.
Jordan D, London, UK

No, A Taylor, what came next after feminism wasn't racist competitions it was the subjugation of men. As the glut of TV ads which denigrate men show (including one with the tagline "so simple a man could do it"), equality seems to be code for trampling the opposition. Feminists who don't speak out about the horrible new trend of man-hating aren't worthy of the title. Thankfully, Doris Lessing has proved her worth by being vocal on this point.
M Andown, Hastings, UK

What is wrong with beauty pageants? I am a young, healthy, intelligent woman but I am certainly no beauty queen - however, I have no problem with admiring a beautiful women. What I do have a problem with is things like the beauty queen using her publicity to oppose same sex marriage - too political. Just enjoy the beauty and stop being so feminist about it.
Emma, London

So what's wrong with beauty contests? The more the merrier I say. What's the matter? Too fearful of the Femstazi? Too frightened to have a bit of harmless fun? No wonder Britain is such a miserable country. It's not the atrocious weather after all.
Misandrist boycotter, Maidstone

Beauty pageants and Miss contests are wrong and unnecessary, showing everyone that all that matters is how someone looks. I think it is silly to judge beauty, as different people find different things beautiful.
Rose, Stafford

Rose, you may as well say competitions like Mastermind are wrong and unnecessary, showing everyone that all that matters is how much trivia they have acquired. There is nothing wrong with beauty pageants, I don't watch them and they don't really interest me. But if someone is attractive and can make a living out of it, why restrict those people? I don't watch Mastermind, but I wouldn't want to stop that either, even if it serves no purpose at all.
P Martin, Woking

P Martin - at least trivia is something you can work to acquire, and learning facts is a hobby that everyone can improve at. Unfortunately, mere determination alone will not make all women white, 5'10, slim with large breasts and other male-defined ideals of "femininity" and "beauty". Pageants are a throwback to a time in society that I see no reason to aspire to go back to.
Sam, Manchester

Beauty contests cannot be justified for women without a counterpart contest for men, and yet the idea of British "handsome" contest is, I think, laughable. Besides, those people that enter are from a select group with the time and money to waste *cough* spend.
Linley Wareham, Sheffield

Linley, while I think beauty contests are silly, the contestants are not always wealthy. Our local contestant is just a normal girl, who's applying to become a fireman, er, fireperson. I'm strongly in favour of feminism, which means equal pay for equal work and the right of both sexes to enter either beauty contests or Mensa, as they please. And a lot more, of course.
David T, St Albans UK

How do they come up with these ludicrous claims of TV audiences? The idea that a billion people would watch a beauty contest on TV is completely implausible. We watch a lot of TV in the UK but it's unheard of for anything to be watched by more than a third of the population - so where are all these people? Are the impoverished millions in Africa, India and China indulging in a little mass escapism? Or is it just that the TV rights were sold to TV networks that have a billion subscribers between them? That's a whole different ball game.
David Richerby, Leeds, UK

David, the Independent did an expose of inflated audience claims a couple of years ago, on numbers for sport but the principle is the same. Most are at least three or four times overstated, using absurd statistical methods eg: counting everyone who sees a clip on the news as being a viewer.
Logan E, Worcestershire, UK

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific