BEAUTY CONTESTS

Integral to the development of social and commercial enterprise


By Clayton Goodwin

Photographer Eddie Grant shows reporter Clayton Goodwin
(left) with Pauline Peart on the evening she won Miss JOFFA at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in 1968
and
(right) welcoming Marilyn Taylor, Miss Jamaica, to London on her way to competing in Miss World in 1969

Beauty contests have been integral to the development of West Indian social and commercial enterprise in this country. Immigrants had no other way to advertise promote their products and services than themselves and their own bodies. Contests provided an economical form of entertainment which could be staged at church/town halls, and the participants could advertise the designers of their clothes, their beauticians and their hair-stylists. Because such events were popular, attracting good crowds, entertainers and musicians were pleased to attend, politicians and councillors craving attention sought to be seen, and newspapers publishing the reports attracted advertising. The winner, whose photograph appeared in publications and often on record sleeves and leaflets, put her community, locality and acquaintances on the map. The prizes for the more significant titles, which was usually a trip to the home island of the winner’s family, stimulated travel and tourism.

Historians have decided that regular West Indian beauty contests, like almost everything else, was started by the ubiquitous Claudia Jones. They have in mind most probably dancer Faye Craig’s success in a televised and much publicised Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959. The running was taken up over the next few years by the Standing Conference of West Indians and its associated branches, especially those at Brockley and Willesden.

After breaking into promotion by putting on some talent shows – the first (“to find a new Millie Small”) at Lawrie Grove Baths, New Cross in early 1965 – and events to raise the profile of individual bands and singers, two years later I was drafted onto the promotion-panel of Miss Ebony, with specific responsibility for publicity and press liaison. One by one the other members dropped off the committee and I was left holding the reins alone when the show went on the stage at a ballroom on the Tottenham Court Road on Old Year’s Night leading into 1968. The winner was Eve English from Leeds with Sonia Wilson, soon to be the wife of well-known wrestler Clive “Ironfist” Myers, runner-up.

Miss JOFFA (Jamaica Overseas Families and Friends Association), organised by travel agent Lloyd E. Campbell and namesake but no relation journalist Theo Campbell, made a major breakthrough with their first contest at the Lyceum Ballroom in 1966. Thereafter the title was presented at leading Mayfair hotels. Miss JOFFA was decidedly up-market and attracted the cream of UK West Indian society and those having commercial, diplomatic and social dealings with the West Indies. The winners attained such a standard of excellence that their names are remembered today – in the manner of the Kings and Queens of England or world heavyweight boxing champions: Nicola Lodge, Margo Glee, Pauline Peart, Wendy Taylor and Marjorie Desvignes. When the Campbells and associates withdrew, the new promoters could not maintain such a high standard of professionalism – but their winners are still memorable in Megan Stewart, Eunice Cooke and Maureen German. Miss JOFFA had faded out by the early 1970s.

Photographer Sammy Jay (Samuel J. Holder) book over the mantle. He succeeded, and exceeded, his aim to repeat the splendour, glamour, star guests/locations, and significance of Miss JOFFA with Miss Westindian (later restyled Miss Afro-Westindian). He went further in one important respect. Whereas the winners of the earlier crown were all of fair/light-complexion Miss Westindian’s were dark in line with the majority of the contestants and community. His first three winners – Beverley Heath, Yana Francois, Veronica White – were as imposing a trio as ever won any title. Their successors were from the same mould as Sammy Jay bestrode the promotions of the late-1970s and early-1980s as a Colossus with many aspiring successors trying in vain to imitate and capture his style and success. Then he, too, just drifted out of sight by the early-1980s.

West Indian / African beauty contests received a body-blow from the hostile media and “cultural” tide of the mid-1980s which restricted media coverage – a deterrent to recruitment – and limited the number of venues available. It became impossible to say anything public in favour of beauty contests and those who wished to make their voice known had to tie themselves in verbiage. Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth prospered while other land-based shows faltered by moving onto the sea – specially on the St Nicholas ferry’s North Sea route between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. The great revival of the 1990s was achieved by a substantial African involvement and by the development of nationally-restricted pageants such as – with Miss Ghana UK the most strongly supported in sponsorship and attendance – also Miss Jamaica UK, Miss Trinidad & Tobago UK, Miss Guyana UK, Miss Uganda UK, Miss Zambia UK, Miss Malaika UK, Miss Cameroon UK among the front-runners.

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