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THE DEBRIEF: YEP, BEAUTY PAGEANTS STILL EXIST?
Pulling into Birmingham International station to attend the final of Miss and Mr England 2017, I’ll admit I’m sceptical and cynical about the whole thing. As I make my way through the suspended walk ways away from the station, airport and NEC I’m met by an artificial landscaped lake around which the gravel pathway snakes all the way up to Las Iguanas and TGI Friday which line the front of Resorts World in which the final of the contest to be crowned the man and woman of England is held.
Inside Resorts World, a mall containing corporate restaurant chains, a hotel, a casino, a multi-screen cinema and several bars, I travel up multiple, criss crossing escalators until I reach the events area where Miss and Mr England will take place.
Miss England takes place every year but for reasons unbeknownst to me, Mr England is biannual. The finalists have been here for a few days, not staying at the hotel in which the final is held but instead at a nearby Holiday Inn as Mr Birmingham himself tells me.
When I arrive, the contestants are still getting ready, there is very little going on. White shiny material is being stapled to a cat walk and inspirational videos about the contestants’ trip to Sri Lanka are being played on a large screen. I meet one former contestant who didn’t make the finals this year and is, by her own admission, devastated, but has decided to come along and ‘support the friends [she’s] made for life’ anyway.
I have some time before the action starts to sit down, put some lippy on and call my Nan. She asks me what I’m doing, I explain where I am. ‘Oh it used to be quite the occasion’ she tells me, ‘they used to show it on the box.’ Tonight, though, the crowd is made up mostly of friends and family who have paid substantial amounts to be here. Once upon a time, the contestants would have been household names but now it’s so minor that feminists don’t even bother to protest the event as they once did. There was a time when the Miss England and Miss World competitions were focal points of the feminist activist calendar. Miss World, the ultimate final of the global pageant network of which Miss England is a part, hasn’t been screened on national TV in this country since 2001.
I’ll admit, on arrival, I’m sceptical, cynical and primed to be disdainful in equal measure about the pageant. I was unimpressed when the former Miss England, Zara Holland, was de-crowned after having sex on Love Island and I don’t really see how a beauty pageant could stand up to anyone’s feminist credentials in 2017. Anyway, if you want to get validation based on other people’s perceptions of how attractive they find you, don't you just go log on to Instagram and post a selfie?
I ask the current and soon to be replaced Miss England, Elizabeth Grant, if she thinks the contest is a little outdated. She is friendly and warm, she’s too professional to be rude but I can tell she’s sick of being asked this question. Her eyes narrow ever so slightly as she tells me that anyone who thinks Miss England is unfeminist is ignorant, ‘there’s no swimwear round for instance and we all have to do charity work. It’s not like that anymore.’
Grant isn’t wrong. I came here expecting to see women objectified and to feel frustrated but instead I’ve watched a post woman from Grimsby perform Dolly Parton, spoken to Mr X an amputee personal trainer who, genuinely, wants to be a role model for other disabled people and met a teacher from Birmingham who genuinely does seem like he wants to make a difference even if he isn’t quite sure exactly what that looks like.
One contestant, Mr Sussex, doesn’t give me any spiel. He’s very open about his intentions. He thinks there are a lot of people here ‘not being themselves’ with ‘fake smiles’ and has ambitions to appear on love island in the future. At the tender age of XX he’s a personal trainer and life coach with a passion for yoga who is convinced he could help me find myself if I give him the chance. I’m sceptical about this but refreshed by his candour. The enduring relevance of Miss and Mr England does seem to be that the pageant has become a very active tributary for reality TV shows like Big Brother and Love Island.
Unlike any given episode of Love Island, there isn’t a bikini in sight in Birmingham tonight. A nod to the controversial history of the event which had to rebrand itself in the 1970s when feminist activists (quite rightly) pointed out how reductive it is. The contest was reborn, updated and reinvented to include a charity round and now has the tagline ‘beauty with a purpose’. Is this any less reductive? Let’s face it, no. But, nonetheless, this wasn’t the sexist show I’d prepared myself for it was if anything, all a bit boring. There is no nudity, in fact, the Mr England contestants are more objectified than the Miss England hopefuls. However, despite all the talk of positivity and inspiration the contestant’s say very little on stage. They showcase their eco fashion wear (which they’ve been tasked to put together from charity shops) and the catwalk is a whirl of hairspray, rhinestones and glitter for three hours. I can’t say I’m enthralled but, equally, nor am I appalled. In fact, I’m less irked than on an average weekday as a working woman on planet Earth.
People keep telling me that everyone in the contest is ‘like family’. ‘We go on holiday together’, ‘we know each other’s families’ they say, ‘we’ll probably go on to be each other’s, bridesmaids’. But, then, someone lets their mask slip a little. I witness a Mean Girls meets Miss Congeniality by the changing rooms. As extremely toned and oiled Mr England contestants waft past me, Miss Personality is given serious shade by another contestant because she’s giving me an interview. Glassy side eyes are exchanged; Miss Personality looks at the floor and I can feel her shrinking behind her huge hair and dragonfly eyelashes. ‘I don’t think the organisers would like it if you were here’ one of the finalists said to her ‘this room is for contestants only’. Miss Personality apologises, still looking at the floor and makes her excuses to leave. The other contestant sashays off triumphantly. I’m not sure exactly what I have witnessed but it has left a very sour taste.
Mr England is, by its nature, less serious. It’s newer and, it goes without saying, not steeped in the sexist history of women being reduced to the sum of their physical parts by men. The Miss England contest, however, despite its reinvention, is riddled with contradictions. I keep being told over and over again that this is about positivity, finding ‘role models’ and giving them a platform. It’s also about making a ‘generic’ difference and nobody I interview can really drill down into specific examples of what that means. It’s a bit like pageant speak for ‘Brexit means Brexit’.
Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised, though, but the atmosphere here. Jack, who will go on to become Mr England, stays with me as someone who really could make a difference with a mainstream platform. The irony, of course, being that while the Mr England contest will crown him, a visibly disabled man, and put him forward for ‘modelling contracts’ (which, if the Miss England website and magazine are anything to go by won’t be seen by many), high fashion and mainstream high street shops would probably not. That needs to change and if Mr England can go any way towards increased visibility for people like Jack, that can only be a good thing.
The devil is always in the detail and while I don’t think we should be up in feminist arms about the enduring existence of Miss England by any means I do wonder what bringing it truly into the 21st century would look like? Saying that you want to be a role model is one thing, being one is another. Ultimately, I do think the organisers have good intentions or, at least, what they think qualify as good intentions but that doesn’t make beauty pageants any less weird or any more interesting. If anything, this is a slightly less exciting version of Eurovision mixed with a more choreographed taken on Big Brother or Love Island, without the high jinks and drama.
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