A thing of beauty – a joy forever?

Gibraltar will play host to the annual Miss Gibraltar pageant next month, for the 51st consecutive year. We look at the history of – and perceptions of – the beauty pageant.

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Early next month Gibraltar will hold the Miss Gibraltar contest for the 51st consecutive year. The first contest was actually in the late 1950s but there were a few years in which it didn’t happen; it resumed again in 1964.

Within years, and well within living memory, the whole idea of a beauty pageant was steeped in controversy as feminist activists took action against the Miss America competition in 1968. On this occasion around 400 feminists backed by civil rights campaigners threw mops, false eyelashes and other traditional “female” accessories into trash cans and unfurled a “women’s liberation” banner at the competition, effectively launching the Women’s Lib movement.

A protest at the Miss World competition followed in 1970 and during the 1980s the BBC withdrew its coverage of that event as mainstream television. Historian Mary Beard wrote an article from the BBC about how the event had tried to go upmarket in 2011, commenting that TV had perpetrated worse crimes since the 1970s and noting that the entrants were educated and intelligent, but it was faint praise. Smaller pageants still thrive; in 2010 the Miss London University drew protests, but Miss World, albeit in an un-televised form, still exists today.

The appeal of pageants could well be fading. A quick Google confirms that last year only nine women had signed up; this year the first ten scooped a bounty of £400 as an incentive. Entry criteria is strict; people rightly have to be adults, over 17 on 3 July, but they can’t be old and 25 – if you have a 25th birthday before 31 December this year you’re over the hill.

The controversy over the nature of this sort of event is unlikely to go away. A recent article in the Australian Daily Telegraph suggested that the inclusion of questions to participants about climate change and world hunger didn’t so much bring the competitions up to date as underline that they belonged in the 1950s. This article in the New Statesman points to one mother entering her daughter into a children’s pageant before she was out of the womb, and makes numerous points about winning these competitions being about fighting against the ravages of time – a fight we’re all going to lose, if people hadn’t noticed. Inevitably there are pornographic versions of pageants around in the murkier recesses of the Web, but that industry parodies pretty much anything. Back in the real world, this year’s Brazillian “Miss Amazon” ended in disarray as the runner-up tore the winner’s crown off and threw it into the crowd.

Then again there have been pageants for inmates in prison (in Baja California State Prison) as part of the rehabilitation programme. The idea is to build self-esteem; no doubt there are questions to be debated about the sort of self-esteem a beauty-only event promotes, but it’s having an effect. This month the Miss Kenya kicked off the Miss Earth pageant which is an event built around a tree planting campaign with a target of 10 million new trees, and closer to home in the UK Desperate Scousewives star Debbie O’Toole uses her entry into beauty contests as an opportunity to model her own fashion label and build her business. Constructive stuff appears to be happening around beauty pageants when people approach them imaginatively. In Tennessee there are claims that their own pageant is more about scholarships than beauty; the aforementioned piece in the Australian Daily Telegraph notes, however, that they always seem to be won by someone young and slim.

For the moment the events are here to stay. Miss Gibraltar will be crowned and given her prizes of £2,000 cash and a £3,500 clothing allowance, plus the right to enter the Miss World competition, at the Alameda Open Air Theatre on 4 July.

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.