Reviewed by Clayton Goodwin
The Golden Age of West Indian beauty contests in the United Kingdom is considered generally to have run from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (and a bit). Sammy Jay – the so-named Czar of beauty pageants – was in his pomp with Miss Afro-Westindian UK, Earl Martin looked to run him close with Miss Black UK, every territorial community and night-club seemed to have its own title, and an attractive young lady would consider herself ill-favoured if she could not find some half-a-dozen suitable titles to enter in a season that ran from March, when the clocks were altered, until just before Christmas. Promoters formed their own coterie from which only one prominent, potential member stood aside and independent. Yet she co-promoted more titles, for a longer time, than any of her competitors.
Mrs Ethel Kerr, a dressmaker who attained her 100th birthday in March 2020, and her promotional partner, Mrs Desmie McLean, a hairdresser who passed away early the next year, were so much as part of their community for so long that their evolution as promoters was accepted as natural without requiring special notice. I encountered Mrs Kerr first in the mid-1960s through the activities of her son, musician Junior (then leader of Junior Kerr and the Blue Aces) and daughter, dancer Patricia, in preparing my entertainment reports. Around that time she and Desmie put their skills together to present shows at local venues for the entertainment of their friends, their neighbours and their clients and their families, and to boost their profiles.
From there to Islington town hall and later the Podium at Vauxhall, the club of the promotion scene, they moved to increasing larger venues in North London, to accommodate the larger attendances, and eventually to the Regency Ballroom in Tottenham for their hey-day in the 1980s. By remaining loyal to their ever-growing core of supporters they carried with them that cohesion of togetherness. People did not sense that they were going to see a show but, rather, that they were visiting friends who happened to be putting on some entertainment – and presenting it with a precision which many professionals would envy. The ladies soon expanded their portfolio of titles so that all family female members from the youngest to the eldest had a place and relevance.
Miss Elegance was the flag-ship of Desmie-Etty Promotions. Although held away from the fashionable West End hotels and nightclubs, the title, whose first winner was Jennifer Markland, attracted outstanding contestants and winners. As could be expected from having a dressmaker and hair-dresser as joint promoters, the Miss Elegance title-holders were noted for their style as well as their physical pulchritude. Mrs Kerr was particular, too, about their sense of character and social manners. The promoters worked with a team of young ladies – including Georgia Robinson, Patsy White (herself later a successful promoter), Michelle Kerr, Shirley Gordon – and friends who displayed the same characteristics as they required from the contestants. Naturally the promotions included a fashion show and hair-styling.
Families and friends were integral to the popularity of Miss Elegance. Younger girls wanted to imitate and emulate their elder sisters, aunts, cousins, or the young ladies of the neighbourhood. Consequently, the promoters introduced Miss Junior Model for contestants in their early teens and Miss Mini Model for those even younger. The range was completed by a for grandmothers and other ladies of the senior generation. No other promotion could match that range of inclusivity. Yet Mrs Kerr and Mrs McLean remained as modest as they had been when they set out, often directing the praise to other members of the team. Such was their promotional expansion towards the end of the 1980s that is hard to estimate how far the enterprise would have gone if family illness had not caused activities to be curtailed, and closed, early in the next decade.
Ethel and Desmie were noted, too, for their help given to other promoters. They were generous in recommending suitable contestants and in adding their own fashion shows to promotions. Desmie-Etty Promotions had a particularly close relationship with the Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth title with the promotions falling sufficiently close to each other in the calendar as to provide an “autumn double”. Several future models, beauty queens and dancers/singers owed their first public performance to their encouragement, similar to that Madame Rose’s Hairstyling Academy’s graduations achieved in the 1960s. When the history of UK West Indian fashion, hair-styling and beauty promotion comes to be written – as, indeed, it should – the names of these ladies should register highly.