Georgea Blakey shares her experiences of Miss World 2012
“Welcome to the holly [sic] land of Genghis Khan. The city of green and pleasant cool.”
These are the words written on the side of the car collecting me from Ordos airport. The light summer breeze blowing through this wealthy oil and mineral rich town in the middle of the verdant grasslands of Inner Mongolia is indeed known as the coolest place in China. It now has another reason for the accolade: it is hosting Miss World 2012.
I’m going to be sharing the same itinerary as the contestants during the last week of this month long competition. We are being spoilt rotten at The Crowne Plaza Hotel, a huge swanky palace of a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Dubai. Normally reserved for visiting heads of state and presidents, there is marble everywhere.
The enormous glass dome above the lobby floods sun light onto a throng of beauty contestants. Their chaperones, friends and family are all tapping onto their mobile devices. It is the only place to get the odd burst of WiFi.
The Chinese government has banned Facebook for political reasons, much to the chagrin of these young ladies. Miss Scotland knows that she has 54 messages awaiting her and she can’t wait to open them as soon as she touches down at Gatwick.
The song, Puff the Magic Dragon springs to mind as the air reeks of nicotine, the Chinese are smoking enthusiastically as though it was England pre-2007. Amidst this chaos, I’m trying to have a coffee and a chat with another glamorous brunette, Julia Morley, the irreducible core of Miss World.
In the UK, the media perceived political correctness resulted in the show being yanked off our screens around the same time that the Benny Hill show was pulled. Showing too many scantily clad girls plainly didn’t go down well with the UK’s liberal elite.
In fact, the opposition to the wearing of bikinis led to their replacement with more modest swimwear after only the first contest. In 1959, the BBC started broadcasting Miss World. The pageant’s popularity grew during the 1960s and 1970s and the competition would normally be the highest rated programme of the year, regularly pulling in around 30 million viewers.
I ask Morley how she feels about being exiled from the mainstream channels in her home country: “It does bother me,” she says, “because Britain has a load of old trash on TV nowadays and…. I’m British!”
I nod in agreement, having long been stunned by the hypocrisy. I think of the hapless victims that are lined up in front of Julien MacDonald and Elle Macpherson to be told they can’t get ahead because they are: “Too boring, ordinary, nothing special, cross eyed, have no personality and look average.” This is just some of the charming critique heard on the current series of Britain’s Next Top Model. That is pure and simple exploitation for TV ratings.
Morley goes on to say: “I think the public would like to see it back. We’ve evolved so much. We even have a series of new and interesting features including special awards for talent, charitable projects, media and sporting skills.”
“If it was just girls gyrating on stage in bikinis I wouldn’t be here,” says Morley. “It really is the most fascinating job you can have.’”
“We have such a mixture of entrants; teachers, architects and even a trainee nuclear physicist. It wouldn’t matter if we had a check out assistant from Tesco’s. All are welcome.”
I personally don’t think Julia Morley need worry about Britain’s lack of interest as there is more than enough coverage elsewhere around the globe. Google and Sina (the vast Chinese internet network) are partners and over 100 countries will be broadcasting it live to over a billion. It will be shown on the popular American satellite channel E! entertainment, which also airs in the UK and Ireland. Because of their success, they are engaged for at least the next five years.
Bready, steady, go!
It’s lunchtime and I’m curious to find out what a modern day beauty queen eats.
The girls have been rehearsing in the impressive newly built Dongsheng stadium, a sort of Mongolian O2. This “glossy posse” have been on their feet since 7.30am and are so ravenous that like gazelles in stilettos they leap off the fleet of buses used to ferry them about and then do a Usain like bolt to the hotel restaurant.
Shock horror. Miss England eats carbs. They all do. Chips, pastries, pasta and anything starchy are the favourites. They are all desperate to avoid getting a dodgy stomach so like to stick to plain and filling food and steer well clear of the crispy chicken claws and pig’s willows.
It’s survival of the fittest at the buffet bar. Sporty Charlotte Holmes, representing the UK as Samantha Brick was otherwise engaged in the Celebrity Big Brother house, advises me to use my elbows otherwise I won’t get a look in. They eat like soldiers about to go on manoeuvres.
Spontaneous choruses of happy birthday ring out in Cantonese, Chinese, Spanish and English as Miss Colombia is celebrating turning 21. She is presented with a chocolate cake, a Miss World tradition. She is delighted and trills: “It’s not often you get to spend your birthday with 115 other girls and get sung to in four different languages.”
I take a seat next to Sophie Moulds, the jaw-droppingly beautiful Miss Wales. She may be studying for a degree in business management but tells me she has a thing about jam. She likes it on everything: crackers, croissants and even noodles. She’s not fussy. She went as far as to ask for some on her toast this morning. With her very strong lilt it’s no easy task for a Mongolian waitress to understand her. Hardly any of the locals speak English, so an awful lot gets lost in translation.
She had to resort to miming the action of spreading jam onto a slice of bread. She thought she’d had a break through when the perplexed attendant at last nodded vociferously and shot back into the kitchen. Thirty minutes later (it takes a long time to get anything done here), to her chagrin, Miss Wales was presented with a tube of wasabi paste.
I am happy to report that these girls eat well. No stick insects here, just healthy and curvy women. Sorry to disappoint, but there is no artifice, no fake tan, not even a nail or hair extension. Natural is key but there is a more practical reason. Any of these beauty aids would be impossible to maintain over five weeks on the road without access to professional salons.
There are 116 contestants staying here along with their 16 chaperones. Each chaperone has 6-8 girls to look after. There are also the Miss World crew, technicians, cameramen, judges, presenters, production staff, security, translators and volunteers. All in all there are about 500 of us.
When you imagine Mongolia, you think of yaks and yurts but it’s not like that at all. That might be the case in the countryside, but Ordos is a thriving city. The wide tree-lined boulevards, studded with modern apartment blocks look like anything you may see in a big American city. The only yakking going on around here comes from the girls. It’s obvious they all adore one another and chat and gossip happily. I notice no bitchiness. They have genuinely become friends after so long on the road with each other.
We are all at the stadium for another rehearsal. The floor manager, Stickie, has just finished directing a cast of 16,000 at the Olympic opening ceremony and is now directing an equally mesmerising cast of 116 here. The circular stage is shaped like a traditional yurt, the amphitheatre is filled with the sound of Mongolian drums beating like the hooves of galloping horses. It feels like the start of an epic opening music sequence from a Hollywood film or a Mongolian River Dance. A crash of symbols and then a rainbow of girls appear, quickly followed by excited toddlers in traditional embroidered outfits, and balletic warriors pirouette with swords. It is a kaleidoscope of colour. This is Mollywood!
Various international guests have been booked to perform, one of them a renowned black opera star, Rodrick Dixon, fresh from a stint at the New York Met, appears in jeans and a khaki shirt and practices “Somewhere” from West Side Story. It is sung so powerfully that we are all in tears, cheering. He gets a standing ovation and it’s only half past two.
Even though it isn’t even a dress rehearsal these Amazonian young women look like they just stepped out of the pages of Vogue. All the participants agree that Miss Venezuela definitely has the best wardrobe. She arrived with eight suitcases brimming with designer garb and kindly leant some of it to the unfortunate few whose suitcases were lost in transit.
Donna, the choreographer, helps 116 drained damsels learn their steps. She makes sure that when they walk onto the stage they are comfortable and confident. The contest is a 5-week “festival of beauty” that has toured China and Mongolia, visiting all the top attractions. This is a contest where there are photo shoots at sunrise in the singing dunes of the Gobi Desert for which they had to start hair and make up at 3.30am.
A particular highlight was recounted by Miss England, Charlotte Holmes, who if she had won would have been the first ever IVF Miss World. She recalls visiting a nomadic tribe in the midst of a traditional wedding ceremony:
“Basically they got the bride drunk, saddled her with a massive head dress that effectively blinded her, put her on a horse, led her round a field for a bit and then came back to the yurt and drank some more. It was my kind of wedding,” she chirps.
She and her comrades also formed a camel train across the desert, catwalked the silk route, churned yoghurt in a local ger (yurt) and were treated to a front row seat at the archery, wrestling and horse riding competitions that form the basis of the centuries old Nadaam Festival that formally commemorates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country. Without exception, everyone of these young lovelies has learnt so much from their Mongolian adventure.
The girls always rehearse in their vertiginous pumps as it is paramount to get the correct ambulatory timings from exits left to right. Flats would give a false reading. Agglutinant Cola is liberally spattered across the stage to stop the girls slipping.
Though the girls do have every opportunity to change into trainers when they have finished, that would be unthinkable. Morley states that unless you tell them that they are going to be walking through mud and slush they won’t be separated from their sparkly platforms: “You know young girls love their heels but as far as I’m concerned they can wear what they bloody well like!”
“One world, one dream, let us share our hearts together in a place where we all belong”
The bearded musical director, Mike Dixon, is conducting the candidates as they sing The Miss World song. More usually found working with such acclaimed artists as Dame Shirley Bassey and the team of We Will Rock You, he loves toiling on this: “You have to remember that these women are all essentially amateurs, I enjoy getting the best I can out of them.”
“Hey Brazil, you dropped your phone.”
“Oh thank you Iceland!” The girls all call each other by country names as they’re easier to remember.
I’m wondering if things could get any more surreal when I bump into a sequin clad, Myleene Klass emerging from her dressing room. Klass has been called upon not only for her mixed race appeal but for her extremely competent presenting skills. Svelte, graceful and smart, she is the epitome of the Miss World philosophy. She has been paired up with an American soap star, Days of Our Lives heartthrob, Jason Cook. The two of them are practicing reading from the autocue machine. There is a lot of jokey banter and Cook is quite the comedian:
“Myleene, I hear you are an internationally famous presenter, or is that just Hear’Say?” Myleene groans and retorts: “Gosh, an American with a British sense of humour.”
Suddenly there is the sound of rapid gunfire. Jason quips: “Are we under attack?!” Thankfully, it’s just some wedding fireworks going off outside. There are certainly no protestors or feminist flour bombers here. The local populace is thrilled to bits to have us and think any mention of sexism or exploitation is a load of old pigs’s willows.
Myleene is wowed by the calibre of the entrants this year. For every girl that enjoys movies, fashion and baking there are another three who are studying economics, medicine and psychology. “These are my kind of ladies,” she states.
Miss Northern Ireland, a sailing champion and budding presenter, approaches her for some advice and Myleene helpfully allows her to listen to her in her earpiece.
Having been sequestered in the auditorium for four days I get the rare opportunity to take some of the girls out for a much needed break from the Ground Hog Day like slog of rehearsals. We are window (or rather stall) shopping in a busy local market. Rows of little blue tents are adorned with their wares; dangling dead ducks and insects, a myriad of crystals and PVC handbags. I find it rather reminiscent of Portobello Market.
We had intended to visit Genghis Khan’s mausoleum but our head security guard, a very debonair ex-military man, whom the ladies call James Bond, said the schedule was far too tight to risk the 2-hour round trip in case of traffic. “00 Heaven” is accompanying us to stop us getting mobbed. Wherever this “caravan of contestants” travels, it attracts a lot of attention.
Like the Beatles hitting America, everyone goes wild behind their little white facemasks. I presume they wear them as they are worried about catching avian flu. With so many birds around, it’s not an unreasonable precaution. They’re also constantly hacking up what could be fur balls of phlegm and lift up their masks to spit them onto the pavement.
Crouching Lady, Hidden Toilet
I ask someone where the loo is: “Over there, Good Luck!” Why the words of encouragement? It all became horrifyingly clear. I opened the door and climbed tentatively up some wooden steps to the portaloo from hell. There was no actual toilet to speak of. I thought: “Has it been nicked?” I looked down and saw that it was just a shallow hole in an aluminium floor. In the reeking recess was a large stool neatly coiled into the shape of a cinnamon twirl. There was a 3 cm high curved metal edge on one side of the perimeter. Perhaps this was a helpful bum rest should one unwisely decide to actually sit down or perhaps it was a splashguard in case you squatted. There wasn’t any loo paper or a washbasin but there was a handy mirror.
The camera guys find it a fairly unpleasant experience so imagine how ghastly it is for the girls. It’s rather tricky gathering up their flowing dresses and crouching down in their Jimmy Choo’s. They have taken to crossing their long thoroughbred legs and holding it for as long as they can. They are drinking so much water to avoid getting dehydrated under the heat of the stadium lights, that when they do finally go they pee like racehorses.
Beauty with a Purpose
You cannot talk about Miss World without mentioning the aspect of it that separates it from every other international beauty pageant. The contestants have to be passionate about charitable causes and they work hard to prove themselves.
The premise of this award is simple: Use your talents to help those less fortunate. Comediennes utilise their funny bones to raise money for Comic Relief, well think of this as Beauty Relief.
I have been invited to Morley’s hotel suite and am sitting on a sofa between a former Asian Miss World and all 6’4″ of Chief Mandela, here representing his grandfather, Nelson, who is himself a strong supporter of The Miss World Organisation. The Chinese word “Junzi” would describe him well: “A man of noble character or status who is upright and benevolent.”
We are shown gut wrenching videos of each contestant’s chosen cause. There is harrowing footage of disadvantaged children from around the planet. There is a lot more to the modern day beauty queen than meets the eye. I’m astounded as I see Miss Kazakstan, a qualified paediatrician, hold a stethoscope to sick children’s chests. In hers, Miss India campaigns for the education of not only the slum children of Mumbai but also their mothers too. Miss Portugal is shown visiting an old people’s home in a protest against the abandonment of the elderly and Miss Canada is trying to highlight the atrocities of human trafficking.
Miss US Virgin Islands is a reserve in the US army and is only recently back from a year in Afghanistan where she narrowly missed a shell attack which destroyed the shower block. Miss France is a beauty that helps the beasts. She supports the Gallic version of the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.
Misses aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and I watch Nigeria and Kenya mucking in with the inhabitants of rural villages, crusading for clean water and waste disposal systems. The sanitation is so poor that I will never complain about a Mongolian loo again.
These videos are humbling, they put everything in perspective. I hear Chief Mandela sigh heavily, as upset as I am at man’s inhumanity to man.
That’s the emotional factor I have found about Miss World. One minute you are laughing hysterically, the next crying uncontrollably and we haven’t even got to the final yet.
The genuine dedication of these ladies to their causes fills me with awe and shame at my own lack of sisterly love. So often a Beauty Queen is mocked for the moniker: “I want to help heal the world and save the little children.”
I don’t see much difference between the Misses and Bob Geldof. He said he wanted to feed the world and he got knighted for his efforts.
This is Miss World goddammit. What the hell do you think they should look like?! Why are we opposed to beauty? How would Hollywood work if it went all PC on us? Do you think that Halle Berry (a former Miss USA) gets cast for her acting talent alone?
Life is inherently a beauty contest. Good looks open doors, but if they can also open a treasure chest and the spoils be divided amongst the poor, why not?
The Miss World Effect
I am chatting to the financial director, Michael Macario, about some of the other attractive figures involved. Miss World to date has raised over £250 million for charity.
Governments and tourist boards invite Miss World to their countries to promote tourism. When the show was broadcast from Sanya in China, the massive rise in visitors to the area was put down to the Miss World effect. The organisation was credited with changing the face of the industry. Ordos are hoping the same will happen here. Pretty girls make good marketing sense.
Let’s not forget though that the Morley family, (Julia’s son Stephen and grandson Ben are by her side) have run an incredibly successful business with a multi-million pound turnover for 62 years now. The brand is jealously guarded but has never been tarnished. Macario says there could have been loads more opportunities to make money but that is not their primary concern, BWAP is.
An auction held at a charity dinner last night raised enough money to send 30 local students to university. The contestants bring any item of cultural interest with them and supportive local businessmen bid furiously. It got quite competitive with many of the objects fetching over £10,000 each. Even Miss Seychelles’ s coconut shell achieved several hundred Yen. She told me she needed a permit to get it through customs. Craftily she removed the nut so it was lighter. It’s demanding enough lugging your suitcases half way across the world without the weight of a oversized nut adding to your excess baggage.
I’m having a natter in the foyer with Miss Lebanon. In vest, shorts and flip flops with her hair in rollers she tells me how much she will miss her new friends.
Happy that their big day is finally upon them but devastated to be leaving one another the girls do at least have one bonus. Never again will any of them have to pay for a hotel room again, they can now travel the world staying with various members of their recently acquired family.
A very old and obviously myopic old man approaches and asks to have his picture taken with us. He points at my chest quizzically, alluding to my lack of a name badge.
“Wish Miss, Wish Miss?” Hurrah: I’ve just been mistaken for a contestant. I knew slapping on the war paint today was a good idea. “Miss Stake,” I jovially reply.
We board the buses for the stadium. I’m on number one bus, AKA “the party bus,” as the girls are most raucous, containing as it does, Miss England and the other Celts.
Today is the penultimate day of the competition and the girls are pre-recording the “Dances of the World” section in their national costumes.
Miss Equatorial Guinea’s grass skirt and boob tube combo are from a real tribal leader, so she apologises that it whiffs a bit. Her dance is rather vigorous to say the least so she needs tit tape to secure the top half.
Some of the costumes are utterly bizarre. Poor Miss Mexico has a replica of a deer head strapped onto her barnet. Miss Fiji, dressed as an eagle is sweating in her head to toe feather combo and Miss Bermuda could be mistaken for a traffic cop. Only Miss USA bucks the trend and skips out in cowboy boots and a T-shirt.
It’s now time for the dress rehearsal and the girls can’t wait to rip off their costumes and slither into their more flattering final dresses. I zip up Miss Vietnam and lend Miss Bolivia some lip-gloss.
I shall announce the results in reverse order
It’s the day of the final. The hotel lounge is more packed than usual as a Chinese wedding is taking place. Bemused guests don’t know whether to take photos of the bride or the contestants. If I were the bride, I’d be a bit miffed! Aptly a Chinese cover version of Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out is being piped through the speakers.
It’s the last lunch and the girls aren’t holding back. Locust-like they descend on the feast before them ignoring any concerns about bloating. Perhaps they’ve packed some back up spanx so they can squeeze into their finery?
Andrew, the hair and make up guy, is late for lunch as he’s been bubbling over with adrenaline and nerves. He swears he can’t eat a thing. Just as well as there’s bugger all left.
I’m having some tea in the bar with Roderick and his graceful wife Alfreda, also an operatic name in her own right. We are nervously approached by a local student volunteer and her mother who timidly ask if they could tempt us with some home made noodles and dumplings that they’ve specially made for the singing superstars.
So, already full but not wanting to offend such a sweet gesture we sample some of their delicious offering. With the chances of me wearing my slinky party dress tonight diminishing with each bite I’m going to ask Miss Equatorial Guinea if I can borrow her grass skirt.
On every floor of every corridor hair and make up stations have been set up to process the competitors as they get ready for their big night. Imagine 116 brides fretting before their big day and you have some idea. It’s a flurry of eye shadow, powder and paint. Andrew is in charge of a team of Chinese beauticians wielding brushes and straighteners. Translators are on hand to prevent any jam-wasabi like mix ups. When Miss Israel asks for pink eye shadow, it wouldn’t do to start applying green.
The excited gaggle of girls alight the buses for the last time and toddle into the bowels of the stadium in a phalanx Genghis Khan would have been proud of. Tonight, we are an intimate audience of 6,000 in contrast to the opening ceremony, where there was an image of a jumbo jet projected onto an illuminated backdrop. It was so realistic that an audience of 40,000 ducked.
Apart from a slight mishap when Miss Malawi trod on Miss New Zealand’s dress, the show went smoothly and was a smash hit with the audience. I particularly liked some of the entertainment in particular a performance by an army of Mongolian horse cellists who could make their instruments whinny rhythmically.
“I shall announce the results, as is customary, in reverse order,” announces the lady in red, a resplendent Mrs Morley. The climax of a 3-hour extravaganza is upon us.
“Miss Australia, Miss Wales and Miss World 2012 is…,” drum roll…, “Miss… China!”
The flag waving home crowd are on their feet, sobbing and cheering. Though not everyone is as thrilled. Some of the foreign contingent are grumbling that the crowning of 23-year old music student, Wenxia Yu, was a political move. I’m not so sure as it’s undeniable that she was a worthy winner. Not only did she raise huge amounts for charity, but in the talent section of the contest, she sang so unbelievably beautifully that she made Katherine Jenkins sound like a strangled cat.
What have I learned from my week at Miss World?
– Never have your picture taken next to a beauty queen unless they’re in bare feet.
– Be more charitable.
– Learn some Chinese.
– Oh… And carbs don’t make you fat!
For more information about Miss World, go to: http://www.missworld.com
Georgea Blakey is a portrait artist, specialising in equestrian and wildlife subjects. Her commissions have taken her from the polo farms of Argentina and Palm Beach to the game reserves of South Africa. She was the art scholar at St Paul’s Girls School in London and went on to study at the prestigious Chelsea College of Art. She is equally at home painting humans and her subjects have included a portrait of His Royal Highness Prince Charles with his polo pony. She has produced numerous commissions, and some of her notable clients include Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray, the Sultan of Pahang, Sir Tim Rice, David Soul, Teddy Sherringham and Miss World.
For more information about Georgea Blakey, go to: http://www.georgeablakey.co.uk