ONCE upon a time beauty princesses knew how to keep it simple. 'World peace' was their ambition. As a catchphrase of their political ideals, it was reiterated so often that Hollywood made it into a gag. Halfway through Miss Congeniality, Gracie Hart -- played by Sandra Bullock -- a tomboyish FBI agent reluctantly working undercover as a beauty pageant entrant, is asked the age-old question, what she wants for the future. 'That there would be harsher penalties for parole offenders, Stan.' There's a horrified silence, then she adds, 'And world peace.' The applause thereafter is deafening. These days, despite attempts by Miss World to keep it bland, any self-respecting beauty contestant is forced into considering what it means to be an ambassador for beauty. Impossible, perhaps to utter the words 'world peace' in Nigeria when the blood of hundreds is flowing in a riot which your contest has provoked. Impossible, you would think not to notice that there is a certain arrogance in this carnival of wealth and western values sashaying blithely into an Islamic country. Impossible to believe that 'beauty with a purpose' can really be that straightforward and fun. In a world where politics has become a beauty contest, it was always inevitable that the reverse was going to happen, the beauty contest becomes a political arena.
Not all the contestants are happy with this. For those not groomed to the role it can't be easy. As Paula Murphy, this year's Miss Scotland, says: 'I think the media is trying to treat us like politicians and we're not. We're not trained as politicians. If we do things it's not as a politician, it's as someone, a member of society, who's meant to represent the normal female.'
Murphy, in fact, is typical of her fellow European contestants, educated, successful, a junior doctor with a talent for painting and a career in modelling. A woman who sees beauty as just another string to her bow, and who, encouraged by her boyfriend, thought Miss World was 'too good an opportunity to miss. It would be one of those things you could always look back on and say, 'yeah I was in the Miss World contest'. And not a lot of people can say that.'
There has been much to think about for the contestants in this year's pageant, much to encourage the emerging streak of Miss Activism.
First Amina Lawal's death sentence for adultery, which prompted first Miss France to quit the competition (then others), saying: 'I think it's Western women's duty to improve the rights of women around the world. Boycotting the pageant is just another way to highlight the fact that the Western world and women in particular disapprove of what they're doing.'
Then there were the savage riots that raged outside their hotel rooms, the blood that however hard organiser Julia Morley tried to blame Isioma Daniels, the journalist who wrote an 'inflammatory' column in Nigerian newspaper This Day, was equally on the contest's finely manicured hands. 'When I first heard,' says Murphy, 'I felt so sick. People were actually dying because of a beauty pageant. It was horrible. And I decided I didn't want to be part of it. Whether or not the protests were against us or not, we were still involved in it.'
Finally, on return to Britain, there were the reminders that it's really just not PC to post as a beauty queen. No longer are the arguments about Miss World what they used to be.
The feminist flourbombs of 1970 have long been defused and Miss World has for some time been considered an irrelevance -- small fry by comparison with the tyranny of advertising, television and the movies. We thought the contest dead in this corner of the planet, bludgeoned into submission in the 1990s as TV viewing figures dropped, and packed off as a gift to the rest of the world, where its audiences just kept growing, eventually topping the billion mark.
Yet now it appears as just another stage on which the politics of globalisation and dissent are exposed. As broadcaster and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says: 'It's like all our horrible waste and our tobacco and all the things we can't stand here that we've just pushed off to the third world. These people have the same rights and same needs as we do. Just because they're poor doesn't mean they'll applaud everything that we send out to them.' Or as feminist Germaine Greer put it, in her book The Whole Woman: 'The Miss World contest reinforces Anglo-capitalist values and imposes Anglo- capitalist norms by recognising only one physical type as having any pretensions whatsoever towards beauty.' In other words the dialogue is no purely longer about beauty, but about colonialism.
Not surprisingly, as the circus came back to Britain, with Morley looking for a new venue, a barrage of angry over-40s feminists spat venom at the idea of the contest being staged at all. Author Beatrix Campbell said it was a 'gross event, like the Billy Cotton Band Show' and novelist Kathy Lette branded it as 'toxic entertainment, like nuclear waste'. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown meanwhile believes it is a 'slave auction'. Notably among these voices there is barely a single woman under 35. As for the beauty queens, none of them seemed particularly worried about the objectification of women, or any of the other issues raised. They just didn't want Lawal to be stoned to death, and they didn't want to be hanging around a hotel in Nigeria while people were getting killed.
In fact, the last thing on the mind of any of these women is feminism. Murphy, for instance, claims she is 'not a feminist, but a modern female'. Meanwhile Masja Juel, this year's Miss Denmark, a hairdressing student, and one of the first to boycott the contest said: 'This is not a feminist issue. I wouldn't call myself a feminist at all. I don't object to the way beauty pageants put women on stage and make them wear bathing suits. That doesn't bother me as long as the bathing suits are not too revealing. In the case of Lawal, it is not that she is a woman that so affected me, but that she is a poor, oppressed person who is being treated dreadfully.'
Well, why should they be concerned with the feminist cause? They're young, gorgeous and of a generation where the f-word is seriously dirty, a relic of past times. The division between the critics and the Misses is just a straightforward division of the haves and have nots, the wrinkled and the wrinkle-free. It has been said that women under 30 without children need feminism like they need a hole in the head. It's only when they start getting older and the cellulite begins to ripple up, and the dilemmas of raising children preoccupy them, that the doubt sets in. Even former beauty queens recognise this. Lorraine Barclay, who was the 1979 Miss Scotland, says: 'I was just 18 when I won Miss Scotland so I wasn't giving two monkeys about feminism. That doesn't come much later, until you've been scarred. At that point I didn't care. I wanted to enter modelling and that was a glamorous way to do it.'
Meanwhile, there are those on the side of the contestants. 'You know what's wrong with us mature adults in midlife and beyond?' feminist writer and academic Camille Paglia once asked, 'We've achieved so many things, including maturity, and now we can't accept the fact that when a 20-year-old walks into a room there is more power and raw beauty in a 20-year-old body than there is in all our achievements and maturity. And we shouldn't fight that. We should honour that beauty, because it's real and it's transitory.'
'I uphold the right,' says author Fay Weldon, 'of young women to go round semi-clothed if they want to. Forty years ago I was at the forefront of the fight against Miss World, because it was relevant, in a world where all women were seen in that way. Now they're not. If I could enter Miss World now, I would do. It sounds great, you get to travel, meet all the girls.' Weldon is right and she's hit on exactly why any woman enters the competition: not for politics, not for peace, or even to raise money for charity, but for the opportunities, the chance to see the world. The reasons, for instance, Murphy gives for entering are the same as they ever were, as they were back in the 1950s. They're the same as Barclay gives for why she did it back in 1979, 'to broaden my horizons.'
Perhaps it's only Britain that has dumped on the beauty queen. In America, the pageant scene is thriving. As Greer said in 1999, '30 years ago it seemed that the beauty contest would soon be a thing of the past, yet this year in the United States more than 2000 beauty pageants will be staged.' It is there too that they have become overtly politicised, there they excel at the beauty queen as politician, in the idea of 'beauty with a purpose' -- for the concept of being awarded a 'platform' on which to campaign is built in to the winner's reign.
This year's Miss America is a graduate heading for Harvard law school who has been using her throne to advertise the virtues of sexual abstinence before marriage, causing some controversy. Surprisingly, given the puritanical nature of most pageants, the organisers were concerned at her message, and tried to gag it, preferring to keep her to the official platform she had been awarded the title on: Empowering Youth Against Violence. This Miss America, I suspect, would be fully equipped to deal with this year's Miss World (it's Miss USA that enters the Morley pageant).
Unlike Paula Murphy, and perhaps more like Miss France and Miss Denmark, she would see herself less as a beauty and more as a voice, another little Miss Activist. Where America leads, as they say, the rest of the world, and probably Miss World follows.
As a future, however, for the beauty pageant, this seems a confused one. It is almost as if we are witnessing an identity crisis, or perhaps more accurately a mid-life crisis.
If Miss World is no longer about finding the epitome of the Western ideal of beauty, then perhaps the pageant can at least do something as a force for change in the world or empower someone to bring about that change, though who or what is not quite clear. Sadly, though, the day when a Miss World chooses as her platform 'empowering women to feel good about their cellulite ... and world peace' is still far off.
Miss World takes place this Saturday in Alexandra Palace, London