12 May 2009

Inside the Miss World summit

As ten of the world's most beautiful women meet in London, it seems a good time to talk about world peace - and grouting.

If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess. There’s Kimberley, who talks with pride of her grouting skills, Denise, who wanted to be an archaeologist but ended up as a councillor in Nice, and Linda, a single mother who was once voted entrepreneur of the year in Iceland. They do not, on the face of it, seem to be a group of women with a great deal in common. Not with each other, and not with any of the seven other women gathered in the room at the Dorchester Hotel.

The others, admittedly, start to give the game away. There is Azra, with the lustrous hair and deep brown eyes, Zi Lin with the flawless complexion and quite possibly the longest legs in the world, and the remarkable Tatana, who seems to have fallen off some Eastern European production line for identikit blonde sex kittens. Miss Worlds every one, spanning more than half a century of the world’s most celebrated — and vilified — beauty pageant, and who’d have known?

Why they were there does not matter for the moment: we will get on to that later. But the fact is that this strange assembly of miscellaneous women is the largest gathering of former Miss Worlds in almost a decade, and an unmissable opportunity to take a look at a cultural phenomenon that has attracted fascination and loathing, but never a great deal of insight. Oh yes, and it was also a great chance to meet a whole bunch of really beautiful women.

When I first mentioned what I was doing, there was a lot of heavy-handed humour from friends and colleagues about the arduous nature of the task. Meeting a whole room full of Miss Worlds? And you actually get paid for this? Well, yes. But the one I most wanted to meet wasn’t Ksenia Sukhinova, the 21-year-old Russian blonde who is the current holder of the title, or the fragrant Zi Lin Zhang, the first winner from China and the current face of L’OrĂ©al in Asia, lovely though they might be; it was Kimberley Santos from Guam. She’s really interesting.

Kimberley, 48, who took the crown in 1980 after Germany’s Gabriella Brum resigned, has not had a conventional life, post-Miss World. After living for a while with her husband in Tokyo (where they had a son), they moved first to Paris (where they had another son) and then to London (where they had a third; “I didn’t want to move any more after that,” she says). Living in Greenwich, she decided to fulfil a long-held ambition by becoming . . . a special constable.

“It was something I had always been interested in,” she said. “I remember my first call. It was to a really cute house with lace curtains and figurines like your grandmother has. The door was opened by this old man who was naked. He had been stabbed in the groin with a knitting needle. His wife said he had been getting frisky. ‘I don’t want that when I’m knitting,’ she said. You just don’t know what goes on behind people’s doors, do you?”

After that she started a building company with a colleague who had just retired from the force. “We did everything — kitchens, bathrooms, we had a nice little business going.” Did the former Miss World actually get her hands dirty? “Oh yes,” she said, “I had my overalls and everything — the jokes were amazing, as you can imagine.” She was, she says, “an excellent grouter”.

She now lives in North Carolina, where she is a guardian ad litem, a court-appointed representative for children who are in the care of social services. Her charges include some teenage girls now, which she describes as a novelty for her. “It is a bit scary — you have no idea.”

If Kimberley was the contestant who was so naive back in the day that it took her a while to realise she was the only one not to have a full manicure — “I thought, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to polish your nails?” — then Maria Julia Mantilla Garcia, 24, the 2004 winner from Peru, had a very different story to tell. A while back she became the first Miss World to admit having had cosmetic surgery, in her case on the nose and breasts. It happened in early 2004, when she came under pressure from the organisers of Miss Peru.

“Most of the girls had had operations,” she said. “You see it a lot more in Latin America. At first I did not want to do it, but the organisers were looking at all the girls and saying, maybe you need that done. I was not really happy at first, but in the days that followed I thought, ‘I’ve done it now. I cannot change it’.”

Would she consider ever having work done again? She makes a sign of the cross as if to ward off evil. “Never”.

As the women are waiting to have their photograph taken, a telling moment occurs. There has been some confusion about what they should wear for their picture, and while some have turned up in cocktail dresses, looking as glamorous as hell, others have turned up in jeans. One of them, Lisa Hanna, is not pleased: she wants to go back to her hotel and change. But there is a blonde woman standing next to her who really couldn’t care less. “I don’t mind,” she says. “I’ll stand at the back.” Such modesty, from a woman who once had the world at her feet.

She turns out to be Linda Petursdottir, 39, the 1988 winner who now runs Iceland’s first women-only spa and a small chain of health clubs. “This is not my lifestyle,” she says, looking at the recent winners, with their micro-skirts and pristine make-up. “I’m very down to earth.”

So, winning Miss World — was it a good thing for her? “It has its pros and cons,” she says, cautiously. “Iceland has a population of 300,000. Overnight they all knew who I was. They still do. You don’t have any privacy — well, not in Iceland. Here I’m fine. But I used it to my advantage — I opened up a company.”

Sensing that she is not quite so enthusiastic a supporter of the whole Miss World fantasy as some previous contestants, I ask her if she thought that the competition was a bit of an anachronism. “Don’t ask me that question,” she says, shaking her head and pursing her lips. “Let us talk about something else. Ask me about the financial situation in Iceland. It is worse than you can imagine. Interest rates are 30 per cent. The nation is going to go bankrupt, it’s really bad.”

Others, though, love Miss World. They talk about the organisation as if it were family, with Julia Morley — the widow of Eric Morley, who founded the pageant in the UK in 1951 — as the mother figure; indeed she is the reason they are in London at all. On Tuesday night she was made president of the charity Variety International at a ceremony at the Guildhall, and they had all flown in to support her.

Like dutiful pupils, they trot out the old Miss World slogan Beauty With A Purpose, the wonderful spin put on a jaded brand by Mrs Morley a few years ago when she added an award for the best charitable endeavour in a contestant’s home country. They all want to set up foundations, just like Puerto Rico’s Wilnelia Merced — better known now as Mrs Bruce Forsyth — did after winning in 1975. It is to easy laugh at their earnestness, but it is also hard to sneer: in her year (2007), Zi Lin Zhang helped to raise a record $32 million for disadvantaged children.

If there was ever beauty with a purpose, however, it is to be found in Lisa Hanna, 33, the 1993 winner from Jamaica. And boy, what a purpose. When I was introduced to all those Miss Worlds, most shook my hand and gave me the sort of dazzling smile that could stop a man dead in his tracks; Lisa Hanna gave me her business card. “Member of Parliament,” it said. “Opposition Spokesperson, Information and Youth.” And culture, she added when we got talking — her portfolio just keeps on growing.

Most of the women, when asked why they had gone in for Miss World, spoke of childhood dreams of being a beauty queen, or else said they were talked into it by friends or family. Not Lisa Hanna: already a television host by the time she entered, she says she did it because it would give her a greater opportunity to talk about “issues I thought were important.”

But you cannot keep an old Miss World contestant down. As we finish our conversation, she notices a piece of paper on which I have noted all the women’s ages. Who was that, she wants to know, which woman said she was 51? “Oh no,” she says when I tell her. “I don’t think that’s right.” Miaow.

There was one woman, though, who no one was going to bitch about. She was not the prettiest, or the youngest, or the smartest; she was Denise Perrier, who won the third ever Miss World competition, in 1953, and is now 73. She once dreamt of being an archaeologist, but put such thoughts aside after she won; she has since been a model, a Bond girl — Sean Connery made to strangle her with her bikini top in Diamonds Are Forever — and, for 16 years, a councillor in Nice.

With refreshing candour, she remembers how she won: it was the swimsuit competition that did it. “I used to swim a lot,” she said, “and do a lot of sport. I was very tall.” Which is, perhaps, a polite way of saying that she was slimmer and leaner than the other girls, who more fitted the curvier 1950s model of idealised womanhood.

Now she is a woman d’un certain age, and looking terrific with it. In a white trouser suit, and a scarf, she has enough elegance and poise for ten Miss Worlds. One of the others, one who won’t see 40 again, says: “I just want to make sure that I look like her when I’m her age. Trying to keep up with all these young girls is difficult.” She pauses, then adds in a stage whisper: “I’ve not had surgery yet. But I will.”