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I Was Once a Beauty Queen - review

Rachel Cooke applauds a documentary giving voice to middle-aged women.

I Was Once a Beauty Queen

Good ideas don’t always have to be tricksy. I Was Once a Beauty Queen (8 October, 9pm) did exactly what it said on the tin: its director, Hannah Berryman, talked to half a dozen former winners of Miss United Kingdom and Miss Great Britain about why they had entered the competitions, and what effect wearing the little paste crown had on the rest of their lives. Yet the result was much more than social history. The women involved, now in their fifties and sixties, turned it into a meditation, gentle and wry, on what it means to grow older. They talked about invisibility and whether they felt this as a loss or a relief, and as they did I thought what a rare thing it was that I watching. I can’t remember the last time a bunch of middle-aged women were given a whole hour of BBC screen time in which to talk thoughtfully to camera (and before you all write in, I’m excluding the repellent Grumpy Old Women on the grounds that it was the precise opposite of thoughtful).

It’s easy to sneer at beauty pageants, though why a normal-sized girl walking around in her swimsuit is any more demeaning than an under- sized one walking down a Paris catwalk, I really couldn’t say. It’s easy, too, to be snobbish about them. When Madeleine Stringer, aka Miss UK 1977, revealed that she began her pageant career by winning Miss North Shields, I thought back to my only visit to the town, to attend its Wet Fish Festival: driving rain, a huddled crowd of about 60, a pub with metal grilles on its windows, little polystyrene pots of vinegary cockles. Oh, the glamour! But people forget what women – particularly working-class women –were up against.

In the film, we saw an old clip of Miss Great Britain 1971, Carolyn Moore, being interviewed by the competition’s male compere. At the time, her dearest ambition was to be a bank manager. “A woman bank manager!” said the compere. “I didn’t know there were such things.” To battle the sexism, or to have one’s vital statistics announced over a tannoy? It’s not much of a choice, is it? A lot of women, not unreasonably, would have thought the tannoy option both less exhausting and more likely to provide them with some kind of opportunity.

Did winning improve their lives? On balance, it did. Yes, they had to cope with predatory males and, even worse, with chatting to Prince Andrew (Miss UK 1979, Carolyn Seaward, who had dinner with him at Buckingham Palace); and the tabloids could be tricky. Mostly, though, the title led to a modicum of financial freedom and to the odd adventure, whether dating a footballer, or buying a small business with their winnings. Berryman tried in vain to get them to admit they regretted entering. After all, as Tracy Dodds (Miss Great Britain 1982) noted, you can, as she did, get a degree later in life; your looks, on the other hand, won’t wait.

How did the women feel about time and its effect on their lovely faces? Ageing is, I think, harder for those who were beautiful when young (it’s bad enough for those of us who weren’t – though I should also say that all of these women still looked fantastic to me). They were phlegmatic but they gazed on photographs of their former selves as if on the Mona Lisa: the faces in the albums were familiar, but mysterious, too, as if they belonged to someone else.

It goes without saying that I don’t hanker for the beauty pageant’s heyday. But how far have we come, really? The BBC has a new sitcom, Me and Mrs Jones (Fridays, 9.30pm), starring Sarah Alexander as Gemma, a “scatty” divorcee, and it makes me want to scream and rend my garments and stand at the end of my street handing out moon cups and copies of The Second Sex. Admittedly, the men in this series – Gemma’s ex-husband, Jason (Neil Morrissey), her date, Tom (Nathaniel Parker), and her 20-something son, Alfie (Jonathan Bailey) – are all morons. But the women! My God. Kill me now. Jason’s girlfriend, Inca, is a comedy Swede. She’s training to be a beauty therapist and mostly, she’s interested in waxing, tanning and getting married. As for Gemma, she’s a mother of three who can’t even put up a clothes horse successfully. How far have we come? About two steps – or that’s how it feels to me.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special