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Glitz, kitsch & world peace; Since its inception, Miss World has caused mixed emotions. Supporters claim it is a celebration of womanhood while others say it is nothing more than a degrading cattle market with the contestants portrayed as brainless bimbos - but it has never gone away. Phil Gould looks back at the history of the contest.

Byline: Phil Gould

Eric Morley was the man who became known as Mr World - the brains behind the global beauty contest which for the past 50 years has both united and divided nations.

The 82-year-old one-time Mecca boss died last week but has left behind him the legacy of an event that while being incredibly popular in some countries around the globe is greeted with ridicule and derision in others.

It all began back in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. Morley, who was later joined by his wife Julia, came up with the idea of holding a beauty pageant as a way of promoting Britain abroad.

The first event was held at London's Lyceum Theatre with music supplied by the Joe Loss Orchestra. To help spice up proceedings Morley decreed that all the girls taking part in the competition should wear bikinis. The very first winner was Miss Sweden, Kiki Haakonson.

Bikinis were banned the following year but gradually worked their way back on to the catwalk as the Swinging Sixties began to make their presence felt.

Although the event was popular in the 1960s and 70s, attracting up to 20 million television viewers in this country alone, it has also been dogged by controversy and labelled 'sexist and outdated'. Last year the contest returned to England for the first time in ten years when 94 contestants took to the stage at London's Olympia.

While the girls received a warm welcome, some of the audience were less than pleased to be pelted with eggs and bags of flour by protesters outside the hall.

Since its inception the show seems to have stirred mixed emotions. Supporters claim it is a celebration of womanhood while others say it is nothing more than a degrading cattle market with the contestants portrayed as brainless bimbos.

The United Kingdom has enjoyed mixed fortunes in the event. We have won the title no less than seven times, the last time back in 1983 when Sarah-Jane Hutt was crowned Miss World.

Our very first winner was Rosemarie Frankland, in 1961, and she was followed three years later by Ann Sidney.

These days Frankland is less than complimentary about the event. She says: 'Miss World is so old hat. I can't think of anything more antiquated than a girl parading round in high heels and a swimsuit.'

And Sidney does not have fond memories either. She says: 'You are treated like royalty for a year then dumped unceremoniously when your time is up and they are ready to move in this year's model.'

While all Miss Worlds are supposed to be modest, the 1962 winner was obviously out to buck the trend. After winning the title Catharina Lodders, from Holland, promptly announced: 'I might not be the most beautiful girl in the world but I'm certainly the most beautiful here.'

Criticism of the contest reached its peak in the 70s. During the 1970 event, women's libbers infiltrated the audience in the Royal Albert Hall and pelted host Bob Hope with flour bombs.

As they invaded the stage the veteran comedian yelled out: 'What's wrong with you people? Are you on drugs?'

And the contestants certainly did not help matters when one scandal after another was unearthed by the media.

In 1973 the United States's Marjorie Wallace had her Miss World sash taken back when it came to light that she was dating footballer George Best.

He seems to have a penchant for Miss Worlds as he also dated the 1977 title holder, Sweden's Mary Catrin Stavin.

The UK's Helen Morgan, Miss World 1974, held the title for just four days - she resigned after revealing she was an unmarried mum.

She was replaced by South African Anneline Kriel, who then caused a scandal when she posed naked for a magazine spread.

The Morleys must have given a huge sigh of relief when all Wilnelia Merced, the 1975 winner, from Puerto Rico, could think of doing to shock the world was to end up as Mrs Bruce Forsyth.

Things got back to normal the following year when the title was taken by Jamaican Cindy Breakspeare - reggae singer Bob Marley's mistress.

But as the decade progressed the BBC, which transmitted the show live from the Royal Albert Hall each year, started to lose interest.

In 1980 coverage was transferred to ITV but eight years later, and despite still attracting an audience of 12 million, bosses decided they had had enough and the contest disappeared from terrestrial television and the UK.

That did not mean that it was a case of out of sight out of mind as the annual pageant still ended up surrounded by controversy well into the 90s.

Four years ago the contest was staged in India for the first time and women's groups launched a civil disobedience campaign, threatening to commit public suicide as a protest.

Then last year it was revealed that Miss UK, Nicola Willoughby, had posed for topless photographs.

In 1998 the show came back to terrestrial television when Channel 5 started to transmit the event and despite its detractors the show seems to be as strong as ever.

On Thursday November 30, 96 contestants will take part in this year's contest at another much derided venue - the Millennium Dome.

Morley, only months ago, remained disdainful of the event's critics. He said: 'It might be an old-fashioned concept in Britain's eyes, but why do people watch it? Why does Channel 5 want to put it on? Because it will get 100 million viewers all around the globe.'

CAPTION(S):

Top, this year's Miss World contestants enjoying the beaches in the Maldives (from left) Miss Norway Stine Pederson, Miss Sweden Ida Sofia Manneh, Miss Iceland Elva Dogg Melsted, Miss Finland Salima Anita Peippo and Miss Denmark Anne Katrine Vrang. Far left, the crowning moment. Left, Helen Morgan, Miss World 1974
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 16, 2000
Words:977
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