Miss World

The number-one rated British television program of 1970 was the Miss World Contest and 24 Million plus viewers were certainly entertained that night as they witnessed a bombing, a protest that included missiles hurled at an internationally famous performer, and a scandalous judging result, but those are only parts of the most infamous beauty pageant ever held.

Most infamous, that is, if we except the ancient contests described by the mystic Nicholas Roerich, whose ideas form the basis for Stravinsky’s Les Sacres de Printemps. That ballet depicts the selection of a young maiden by a prehistoric tribe who then sacrifice her to the Earth. Something like this is preserved in fairy tales where the chosen princess is staked out for the dragon as an offering so that the monster doesn’t eat everyone else.  Other fairy tales tell of a gathering of young women so that the handsome, wealthy Prince can select a bride. These being fiction, he always chooses the Goose-Girl or Cinderella, but the historical reality, in early medieval Byzantium for instance, was that “bride-shows” of eligible young women only included members of the aristocracy — can’t have the Emperor marrying trash, you know.

The modern beauty contest had its beginnings at the beach where young women were allowed to wear somewhat more revealing clothing than other places. Someone got the idea of putting all these “bathing beauties” on display. The ancestral Miss America pageant consisted of young women in bathing attire being wheeled in wicker beach chairs along Atlantic City’s Boardwalk in 1920. “Beach revues” were popular in America until the end of the 1920s when they were banned as immoral — for a while.

In England, beach resorts in the summertime, places like Blackpool, Brighton, and Bournemouth, had a reputation for sexual license — young working men and women would take their holidays there and, so we are told, did what young men and women do. (See Steve Humphries’ A Secret World of Sex for more.) Various kinds of shows and contests were held that involved women in bathing suits, which were the most revealing outfits they could wear in public without being arrested.

So, in 1951, when promoter Eric Morley was asked to come up with something special for the Festival of Britain, he immediately thought of a contest featuring young women in swim suits. But — and this is crucial — rather than a mundane local contest, Morley decided to have the women represent different nations. Also, he had them wear the brand new bikini style suit. That first contest was won by Miss Sweden. When Morley heard that another promoter was putting together a Miss Universe contest, he named his own show Miss World and began staging it as an annual event. After the pope condemned the show, Morley banned bikinis from contests for a long while. He was already skating close to the edge of propriety and he knew it. The concept of ogling women’s bodies belonged to burlesque and other low entertainment, these pageants were all about beauty, the beauty of chaste young women who represented ideal femininity. They were Art! Sort of.

The first Miss World winners and the last to pose in bikinis, 1951.

The first Miss World winners and the last to pose in bikinis, 1951. [pageantasia via vestarz.com]

Miss World grew along with its television audience and, by 1970, was a huge affair. But feminism (then called “women’s lib”) had also come on the scene. In 1968, feminist protestors had disrupted the Miss America contest at Atlantic City — there was talk of bra-burning and so on but this seems to have been a media myth. Still, the American feminists had set a precedent: beauty pageants were degrading spectacles where women were seen as so much meat and they were proper targets for protest. In England, two separate groups decided to have a go at the 1970 Miss World pageant, each unaware of the other.

One group had not yet decided on a name for itself though sometimes it signed manifestoes as “Butch Cassidy” — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969 and many young men liked to see themselves as Robert Redford or Paul Newman, and, no doubt, there were young women who wanted to be Katharine Ross, helpmate to a romantic young outlaw. Later, the group would call itself the Angry Brigade, a name that they might have picked up from the feminist protestors who used the word “angry” a lot. Or they may have derived it from French student protestors — les enragés, as they called themselves. The Angry Brigade had determined to use violence and, from late 1968 until they were busted in 1972, planted more than twenty-five bombs. Some exploded, some didn’t. Somehow they managed not to kill anyone.

The second group was composed of feminists and the youth wing of the Liberal Party. They picketed and demonstrated. They also got tickets to the show and members carried in small sacks of flour and stink bombs which they meant to hurl at suitable targets.

Meanwhile, the Miss World organization had other problems. Anti-apartheid groups were upset that South Africa was competing. The contest organizers then decided to have two contestants from that country: Miss South Africa, who was white, and Miss Africa South, who was black. This, of course, was not enough and there were still people upset that Miss World was violating the South Africa boycott.

A little after 2:30 AM, November 20, the day of the Miss World pageant, a bomb blew a hole in the floor boards of a BBC Outside Broadcast van parked near the Albert Hall, where the evening’s festivities were to take place. Little attention was paid to the bomb blast because the police had decided not to publicize this sort of event. Throughout its short life, the Angry Brigade was plagued by a lack of press until ten people were arrested, charged, and tried in 1972 for twenty-five bombings.

Peter Dimmock, a Miss World judge and General Manager of BBC Outside Broadcast, seemed unperturbed by the bombing as he and the rest of the judging panel were introduced that night. It is easy to understand the selection of entertainment industry representatives, including Glen Campbell, Nina van Pallandt, and Joan Collins, the unabashed Queen of Trash. It is a little more difficult to see why the High Commissioner of Malawi (who was not named), the also-unnamed ambassador to Indonesia, and the Maharajah of Baroda (which was eliminated by the Indian government shortly after the contest), were judges, but judge Eric Gairy, the Premier of Grenada, certainly had an interest in the pageant, as we shall see. [introduction of the judges on YouTube]

Protestors outside the Albert Hall.

Protestors outside the Albert Hall. [via flashbak.com]

Protestors had assembled outside Albert Hall before ticket-holders arrived. They did little to disrupt the proceedings, just demonstrated, carrying signs saying that they were angry and calling the pageant a cattle market.

This notion was picked up by Master of Ceremonies, Bob Hope, who came out to do a bit while the contestants changed into evening gowns. Hope said that he had gone to the meat market in back to check out the calves. Ha. Ha. There was more in this vein, since Hope’s basic stand-up routine consisted of double-entendres combined with leers at the audience. Hope was a veteran of old-fashioned burlesque where baggy-pants comedians would trade lines with strippers in between the acts. Burlesque, in that form, disappeared by the 1940s, but Hope was still performing from that frame of reference. The protestors inside Albert Hall were supposed to wait until all the contestants were on stage before launching their missiles but Hope’s jokes so enraged the protest co-ordinator that she gave the go-ahead signal to her group.

Bob Hope is flustered as flour bombs hit the stage. [YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reCX3_OAkv8]

Bob Hope is flustered as flour bombs hit the stage. [YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reCX3_OAkv8%5D

Suddenly, a projectile landed on the stage, followed by many more. These were flour bombs only, I think; I cannot find a reliable account of stinkbombs bursting on stage. Hope backed off. Some accounts have Julia Morley, pageant organizer and wife to founder Eric, grabbing his ankle to keep him from exiting the stage. Security guards quickly rousted the trouble-makers and Hope continued, saying that there was going to be payback for this outrage and that anyone interfering with something so wonderful as Miss World must be on “some kind of dope”. Yes! He did. Check out the video.

Now, bombings and booings being contained, the beautiful pageant continued. The winner was announced: Miss Grenada! What? Right away, Miss World fans complained that Miss Sweden should have been the winner. In fact, four of the judges revealed that they had voted Miss Sweden into top spot, only two opting for Miss Grenada. So the contest was fixed! A huge scandal erupted, larger than the protest and much, much larger than the bombing. Julia Morley was forced to resign as organizer (though she was reinstated a week or so later). Miss Sweden wrote a memoir saying “I was robbed!”, even though she had dissed the contest before the competition, saying:

she felt “just like a puppet. I don’t even want to win,” and she sympathized with women’s liberation supporters who denounced the contest as “a cattle market that degrades women.” Miss Sweden would have walked out on the contest if it were not for the fact she was under contract to the organizers. 

She retracted those statements the day after making them.

A special team of journalists was dispatched to Grenada where they discovered that the elevation of Miss Grenada had nothing to do with the fact that Eric Morley wanted a license to open a casino in Grenada. No. Nothing to do with that since everyone denied it, some of them even before they were asked. Ballots from the contest were displayed and the voting process — something like Preferential Voting — was explained. Some were convinced that the contest had been on the up and up.

Miss Grenada did make history in another way: she was the first black Miss World. Here it should be mentioned that Miss Africa South was runner-up. Just to put this in some kind of context, 1971 was the first year that a black woman was even allowed to compete in the Miss America contest.

Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World. Runner-up Miss Africa South to her left and fourth-place Miss Sweden at far right.

Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World. Runner-up Miss Africa South to her left and fourth-place Miss Sweden at far right. [missosology.info]

This was far from the last Miss World scandal, but first let’s look at the Angry Brigade who were upstaged twice at the event. No one now is really certain who was part of the group. There were a lot of dissident folks in those days and they all had their reasons and their theories which did not necessarilly match anyone else’s. Some of these folks got together to create an identity and, perhaps, an organization. They discussed what they should call themselves. One possibility was The Red Rankers. See, Labour Minister Roy Jenkins, who had reformed the police, had a pwoblem pwonouncing his Rs, so… Perhaps in the end they decided that “Angry Brigade” had enough Rs to make Jenkins sound like Elmer Fudd, so anything else was just overkill. Anyway, the Tories came into power and that government determined to destroy these bomber type groups by whatever means necessary.

In late 1971, Stuart Christie, a man who was exercised about the Spanish Civil War and who had served several years in a Spanish prison for trying to assassinate Franco, drove up to a certain house in Stoke Newington, only to be met by police and arrested on the basis of two detonators found in his car. Christie says that these were planted by the cops and police behavior during this episode does little to shake that assertion. Other people living at that address had just been arrested. Altogether, ten people were charged with Angry Brigade crimes. Several of them have since stated that innocents were arrested and guilty parties ignored, but they have all decided not to name any names.

The first two people to face trial included Jake Prescott, who later said:

As the only working-class member, I was not surprised to be the first in and last out of prison. When I look back on it, I was the one who was angry and the people I met were more like the Slightly Cross Brigade.

Prescott was convicted on the basis of testimony from a jailhouse informer and because he had actually addressed envelopes on three of the missives sent out by the Angry Brigade, claiming to have done this and that. Prescott thinks that he was fitted up and is pretty dismissive of the other Angry Brigadiers. The other person charged at this time was not found guilty. Prescott got fifteen years.

Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson from a BBC interview filmed while they  were out on bail during the trial.

Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson from a BBC interview filmed while they were out on bail during the trial.

The big trial was of the eight others connected to the Brigade. Four seemed to be major players, four others, not so much. The major players included two young women, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson. Someone got the bright idea of taking photos of the women and giving over the rights to friends who then collected a fee every time some British tab used the pictures. Everyone understood that the press would seize on sexual aspects of the case and photos of the women would be far more valuable than those of the male defendants. The license fees went directly into the defense fund of the Stoke Newington Eight. You can work out for yourself the interesting sexual politics of funding the defense of militant feminists by supplying their photos to an exploitative press.

And the press was incredibly exploitative, even for Britain, which has some really scummy newspapers. “Sex Orgies in the House of Blood” was a Sun headline. Because, you see, if this is a mixed event, with both men and women, then there had to be orgies. Right? The blood, incidentally, was supposedly from a turkey. Having for decades presided over turkey corpses twice a year at celebrations, I am inclined to let the Angry Brigade off on this charge. Even if they did kill a turkey, well, that’s what turkeys are for.

The judge instructed the jury that any nod or the slightest wink to actual bombers was enough to convict someone of conspiracy. In the end, the jury did not convict anyone of actually planting a bomb, but they did convict four of the eight with conspiracy to blow things up. Both women were convicted but the jury accepted that Christie was not guilty. The jury also asked the judge to show mercy and the judge responded with ten-year sentences for the four convicted criminals. He did, however, lower previously-convicted Prescott’s sentence to ten years from fifteen. Noblesse oblige, Jake.

Poster from 1971 during the trials. [hackneyhistory.wordpress.com]

Poster from 1971 during the trials. [hackneyhistory.wordpress.com]

The trial was the longest in British history up to that time (and maybe now, I don’t know), so the Angry Brigade got a lot of press and public reaction was mainly supportive. “We’re All Angry Now” was one response to the sentencing. Those convicted served seven years or so in prison, though the women were let off earlier for medical reasons like anorexia. Chivalry is the hand maiden of sexism, so to speak. Today, none of those convicted seem apologetic, in fact, they seem more angry than ever.

Miss World kept going. Next major scandal was in 1973. Contestants had to speak and show stage presence as part of their performance. The voting system was shifted to a majority rule. The winner was the first American Miss World, Marjorie Wallace. Within a short time, she became featured on tabloid front pages as she worked through various relationships with sports and entertainment figures. Probably the photographs of her deep-kissing Tom Jones were the final straw that caused her crown to be removed as unfit to represent Miss World.

The next year, Miss Wales was made Miss World, which lasted a little while until it was revealed that she had an eighteen-month-old child. She had never been married so was legal under the stated rules but…(see above Re: virgins, dragons, and all). She resigned.

Meanwhile, the South Africa/Africa South business really irritated a lot of folks and they kept complaining. Iceland, for example, quit having run-up pageants, though some beautiful people kept naming contestants from that country for Miss World. In 1976, though, a number of countries boycotted the contest and South Africa was kicked out until 1991, when apartheid ended.

In 1980, Miss Germany resigned after one day as Miss World, when it was revealed that she had posed for nude photos. (see above Re: virgins, dragons, et al).

In 1996, the pageant was held in Bangalore where there were massive protests about the swim suit part of the contest and threats to burn down the stage. The contestants were removed to the Seychelles, photographed in their bathing suits, and then returned to India for the remainder of the competition. This year may have marked the largest television audience ever for Miss World, many many millions, though who can trust Miss World stats?

Miss Israel for 1998, Linor Abargil, was raped at knifepoint by a travel agent before winning that year’s Miss World title. She now acts as a spokesperson for rape victims. Her story is told in the documentary Brave Miss World.

In 2001, Miss Nigeria became the first black African to win the title. The following year, serendipitously, the contest was held in Nigeria where Amina Lawal had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and being pregnant out of wedlock (you can reconcile those two charges as you wish). Many people protested the upcoming pageant and urged that it be cancelled. Amina Lawal herself begged to differ. She understood that the sentence by a local court was unlikely to stand on review and was reluctant to be a cause of national disgrace. Even so, many nations decided to boycott the contest. A Nigerian newspaper said that Mohammed (PBUH) might have selected a wife from the contestants. This upset enough people locally so that there were riots and over 200 people were killed in Kaduna. The pageant went ahead, in England, and many boycotting nations allowed their young women to participate in the new venue. Amina had her sentence overturned. By all accounts, she went on to an ordinary life.

This last scandal underlines a difficult aspect of Miss World. Many nations still regard beauty contests as worthy of regard. Venezuela, for instance, has been very active in supporting would-be beauty queens. And most Miss World winners have gone on to careers that were, at a minimum, fulfilling. Most, of course, have advanced in the entertainment industry though there are former Miss Worlds in management (yes) and other trades. Miss Grenada (1970), who became Grenada’s High Commissioner to Canada, said that this was an opportunity and she knew to grab it. Even runners-up, like Halle Berry, have made something of their appearance. So, how congruent are feminist meat market criticisms with the argument that women’s sexuality should always be veiled? Which side are you on?

That question was raised when the 2013 pageant, held in Indonesia, was condemned by Moslem clerics. In order to placate them, Miss World switched from a swimsuit competition to a “beach attire” show featuring sarongs.

Miss World has fallen on hard times, shuttling from one second-rate cable channel to another. British viewers of the most recent pageant were numbered in the thousands, rather than millions. Julia Morley, who runs the show single-handedly since the death of her husband in 2000, claims more than 2 Billion viewers watch Miss World, more than the World Cup, she says. She has inaugurated a new concept: Beauty With A Purpose and Miss World now has to serve as global ambassador for Good Causes. Can worldwide audiences keep the contest going when even hardline feminists regard beauty pageants as beneath their notice? World venues pay $5 Million or so just to host the contest. Miss World 2014 will return to its roots and be held in London.

Oh, and the Angry Brigade? It’s back.

Notes:

“The Judges of Miss World, 1970” gives bios and where-are-they-now info about the judges. If you don’t know who Nina van Pallandt is, or want to know more about Eric Gairy, you can look them up here.

Another Nickel in the Machine has a fine account of the 1970 protest with lots of video.

Missosology has everything you ever wanted to know about beauty pageants. Pageantopolis.com has many photos.

A protestor discusses her actions at Miss World for the BBC.

The Angry Brigade has lots written about it, there is a television documentary , which Stuart Christie calls the most comprehensive look at the group, and even a play. Stuart Christie has an autobiography, Granny Made Me An Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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