Hundreds of women in floor-length gowns and Louboutin heels stood outside London’s ExCel centre for the Miss World 2014 final. The unofficial dress code consisted of hair blow-dried into perfect Kate Middleton-style waves, gowns covered in rhinestones and bridal make-up – and this was just the audience.
Standing amongst them in my winter-appropriate clothing, I knew that watching the final was going to go one of two ways: I’d either feel incredibly uncomfortable watching a line of judges grade women on their looks, or I’d be so swept up in the glamour of it all that I’d come away wishing I was a beauty queen myself.
As a feminist, I was pretty sure I’d end up feeling the former. Only, I didn't.
After sitting through several hours of the contest, I was not disgusted by the sexism, but I also wasn’t excited by the pomp and pageantry either - I was just seriously bored.
I’d expected the beauty pageant from Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous – a glitzy affair with talent rounds and contestants showing off their bodies by twirling around on stage in bikinis. But that just wasn’t the case.
Of course all 121 contestants had the obligatory curls, diamantes and fake tan, but that was where the glamour ended. There wasn’t even a proper 'talent' live round, because it had all been pre-recorded, and the contestants barely had a chance to discuss their dreams for world peace because guess what? They didn't speak. Only the five finalists were given this privilege – and even that was cut to 30 seconds of speech each.
I didn’t get a sense of the women’s desire to be there, or their passion for the crown, because they weren’t allowed to show it. Runners in headsets told them exactly where to stand, walk and I imagine they also told them what to say in the few pre-recorded interview clips we were shown. The most rebellious thing a contestant could do was wave at the audience as she walked round the stage.
It’s a far cry from the original Miss World that launched in 1951. Back then it was called the ‘Festival Bikini Contest’ and it was just that – a beauty contest where the woman who looked best in her swimwear won. Sweden’s Kiki Håkansson, the first ever Miss World, was even crowned on stage in her bikini.
1951: The finalists in the first ever Miss World contest pose in their bikinis in the Empire Rooms on Tottenham Court Road, London
Naturally, feminists hated it, and in the 70s it attracted so many protesters that the pageant actually disappeared for a while. Bikinis were temporarily banned, and the organisers decided to remarket the contest by introducing the charity round - or ‘beauty with a purpose’ as they name it.
It means that now, in 2014, Miss World is not the simple beauty pageant that it used to be. It seems like the organisers are so terrified of it being picketed by feminists that they’ve gone out of their way to try and make it an all-rounded contest with six rounds, including fashion, sports and the organiser’s favourite – 'beauty with a purpose'.
The previous strategy appear to have been that whenever feminists try to protest against the contest's sexism, Miss World’s press team can now quote stats about the money it has raised for charity, and boom - the haters are shamed. Last year, the organisers even ditched the swimsuit round so as to not offend the contest’s Muslim hosts in Bali.
Three Miss World finalists
All of these changes mean that it was hard to spot blatant sexism at Miss World’s final on Sunday. Of course, the entire premise of the pageant has hugely sexist undertones, purely by virtue of the fact that the women are judged on their beauty. But the organisers went out of their way to try and play that side of it down, by talking endlessly about charity, and ensuring that the contestants barely had a chance to do much more than walk on and off the stage, occasionally breaking into a choreographed dance.
On top of that, the swimsuit round wasn't even part of the final – instead it was subtly done earlier in the year, in a private photoshoot, and is known as the ‘Beach Fashion’ round. This seems to have been going on since 2001, which is something you'd think we might already know, but we don't because Miss World isn’t even screened on mainstream TV in the UK anymore - that was last done by ITV in the same year, 2001.
Now it’s only available to watch in the UK on satellite and cable television, and though thousands came from across the world came to cheer on their country’s representative in the final, #MissWorld2014 wasn't even trending on Twitter.
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Miss South Africa won Miss World
This, combined with the fact that it was so over-managed, and most of the interesting parts had been filmed earlier and strongly edited, meant that Miss World felt more like a bad reality TV show on its way out, rather than an international contest.
Most of the 3,000-strong crowd was foreign, and though the final was being held in London, the few British guests I spoke to were unsure why there were there. “We thought it would be different to this,” they said, standing awkwardly on the outskirts. “We thought it would be fun, but it's not what we expected. No-one told us we had to wear heels and dresses.”
Even amongst the protesters, attendance was at an all-time low. The last time the pageant came to London, in 2011, around 200 feminists came to make a stand against its sexist. But this year, the ‘cold and Christmas’ put off protesters and only five came. It’s a far cry from the 70s when protesters were so powerful that they forced the pageant to adapt.
The five feminists braving the cold to protest
But all of this just proves how irrelevant Miss World is becoming. Now that the pageant has lost its sexism, it has also lost its mojo. The old-fashioned glamour of its original shows doesn’t work in the modern context of live filming, and the silencing of the contestant’s voices means that there's little hope they can turn into role models or stars - we don't even know what they think.
When the five finalists spoke this year, they talked about ‘bringing hope all over the world’ and ‘making a difference’, but they didn’t get a chance to go into it further. Miss United States bravely tried to address the fact that people think of the contest as ‘outdated’, but didn’t get time to go further than saying how much she wants to prove that’s not the case by winning.
It made for a pageant that was trying to be something it wasn't. The organisers kept emphasising the ‘beauty with a purpose’ round and the admittedly impressive charity work the contestants had done. But then none of the winners of that round even made it into the final five, and host Tim Vincent undermined it all by repeatedly going on about their 'beauty' - not their charity. The former Blue Peter presenter clearly didn't get the memo.
Another scene from the Miss World final
Miss World has clearly been trying to lose its sexist reputation, and in a way it slowly is. That's something we should all celebrate, and I would obviously hate to see any of it creep back in, but without it? Miss World isn't a beauty contest - it's just a slightly crappy reality TV contest that barely gets any ratings. You'd be better off watching Eurovision.
But this doesn't mean that the organisers should start putting the women in their bikinis on stage - it just proves that there’s no longer a place for Miss World in 2014. Audiences don’t want to see a bunch of women standing on stage - especially when they're only allowed to enter if they're unmarried, and have never had a child.
If they're did, then maybe more Britons would have turned up to support our Miss England (a finalist, but not a winner) and more feminists would have turned up to take a stand against the dreary pageant.
Because when the protesters don't even bother to show up, you know it's time to call it a day.
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