JUST as it must have done so many times in their glamorous lives, the traffic is stopping dead for Miss World and the bevy of fellow beauty queens wiggling in her leggy wake.
There are 16 of them in all; Miss UKs and GBs, Miss Holiday Princesses, titleholders for just about every city in the country. Giggling coquettishly, stilettos tapping on Tarmac, they gracefully pick their way to their venue for the evening. Some ritzy hotel in Mayfair? No, the Noose and Gibbet, Broughton Lane, Attercliffe.
They’re glammed to the nines but they’re not preparing to vie over another new title; they’re on their way to a beauty queen reunion.
And the cars that slow to let them cross are acting more out of respect than awe-struck admiration... The ages of this particular beauty parade range from 64 to 75. Their queen of queens, Miss World Ann Sidney? She took the title aged just 19, way back in 1964.
Their reunions started some six years ago and this year, it’s Sheffield. Why the pub, you ask. Surely it’s the last place you’d expect to find a beauty queen holed up. You’d be wrong, though. It’s owned by one.
Former Miss Sheffield five times over, Miss Camay, Modern Venus and Belle Of The North, Delyse Humphreys bought it back in 1991, some 35 years after winning her first title.
As her old friends file past drinkers at the bar, appreciative eyebrows raise. No doubt about it, the women are all looking good; though some hourglass 36-24-39 proportions have filled out, most are still in good shape. Faces are still incredibly pretty, hair is lush and each and every one is beautifully turned out.
“We’re old-school,” laughs hostest with the mostest, Delyse. The former owner of Sheffield model agency Style is still a dead-ringer for Honor Blackman at 75.
“All the girls turned up this afternoon looking stunning, with extra outfits and accessories in their overnight bags, just like they did when we were on the beauty circuits,” confides Delyse, sassy in red.
The “girls” have come from far and wide; the furthest travelled is Joan Lofthouse, resplendent in red leather trousers and matching suede heels. She’s come all the way from Kuwait.
Joan, happily wed to a man 18 years her junior, is on the 1950s-60s table for a retro dinner of prawn cocktail and chicken Kiev; “We’re the oldies,” they chorus.
Am I allowed to ask how old? “Of course. I’m 68. I celebrate it,” beams Ann Sidney. She looks 20 years younger. So does Joan, also 68. Both look similar, actually, with tumbling dark hair and cheekbones and brows so smooth and high it suggests nature’s had a helping hand on more than one occasion.
Miss World (“no kids, plenty of husbands”) is now an actress - in her heyday she entertained the troops in Vietnam with the Bob Hope Show and appeared in the Bond film You Only Live Twice. She tells me she would probably still be a hairdresser if it hadn’t been for the local beauty contest her salon asked her to enter for the publicity. “I won and got sent lots of brochures for other beauty pageants. I realised you could make money just by entering the heats, so I did it.”
Within three weeks she was Miss United Kingdom, with automatic entry into Miss World. She travelled five times around the world first class during her reign. “Before that I’d only ever been to the Isle of Wight with my bicycle. I was a working class girl; I didn’t expect to win,” she says. “I was meant to start a new job in a salon in John Lewis two days after. My first thought was: ‘I’d better call John Lewis and tell them I won’t be at work.’”
Joan, who lived in the USA before the Middle East and has been a hot air balloon pilot and an Afghanistan aid worker in her time, was 15 and holidaying at a British seaside resort when she was literally dragged off the beach to enter a contest. She’d always banked on being a secretary, but winning that contest changed her life. It’s a similar story for most of the women.
The most beautiful woman in the room, Carolyn Moore, who at 59 looks 40 and is a devoted grandmother, won Miss GB 1971 and went on to become a Playboy bunny in LA and a London model.
Christine Owen, Sheffield’s best-known beauty queen who went on to become Nicholas Parsons’ right-hand woman on Sale Of The Century, explains: “It opened doors for so many of us. I was on the Sale of The Century for four years on the strength of winning Miss YTV in 1975.”
They talk about those days without a trace of egotism.
“It was a job and it was fun, but it could get you places you see,” says Delyse.” We were all nice girls from very ordinary backgrounds who wanted a better quality of life.”
Christine, a divorced mum of one who still lives in Sheffield, tells me in her era, first prize in a heat for a title was £25. You went to them all; that’s how you earned your living. “It was Southport on a Tuesday for Miss English Rose, Miss GB heats on a Wednesday and Miss Blackpool on a Thursday... I forget the rest. And if you got through to the final, you stood to win £250 with the crown. That was a lot of money in those days.”
Wendy George, Miss GB 1969, paid the £4,000 deposit on her first house with her winnings.
The Spink twins are here - Gay and Zoe, whose fresh-faces and blonde pageboy haircuts stood out in the late Seventies and won them many a title. In their day, prize-money could hit £2,500. A Miss GB and a Miss Britain but don’t ask me which was which, they still live in Halifax, occasionally work as models with a twins’ agency in London and are wives and mothers first and foremost.
Many of the women have married several times. In contrast, mum of four Val Caunce (Val Carrol in her era, ‘68-73) is still with the man she met at 16.
He must be proud of her past, I venture. “No”, she says. “He always hated me doing the competitions. He’d never watch me in a televised final. I think he worried that my head would be turned. But I just wasn’t interested in anyone else.”
Her husband must have been the only man in Britain not watching; a televised national title event would draw in over 20 million viewers.
That’s double the audiences the X-Factor gets today. Beauty queens, the forerunners for the modern reality TV contestant... It puts a whole new twirl on thing.
What none of the beauty queens knew was that at their Sheffield reunion, there were actually 17 present.
There was also a lowly little Miss Rotherham Advertiser from 1979. Me!
I was sweet 18. I’ve rarely told anyone since. I’d long felt that a beauty queen past was somehow embarrassing; a secret to be kept, for fear of not being taken seriously at work.
But these women have changed my mind. From now on, I plan to celebrate it. Now, where DID I put that crown?
A celebration of friendships
VANITY, self-obsession and wistful memories of great beauty, lost... this is what many expect to find in a roomful of women who each made their name on their looks.
But I found happy, self-effacing, down-to-earth women revelling not in the past, but their present.
Each seemed truly grateful for the privileged life their good looks allowed them to share, but no one wanted it, or their youthful looks, back again.
The reunion was not about sharing past glories, but friendships that have lasted the tests of time.
Contrary to public opinion, the girls were never bitter rivals, but firm friends happy to live by the “you win some, you lose some” philosophy.
“We were all such good friends,” says Val Caunce. She recalls the time one girl’s car broke down and she arrived without so much as a can of hairspray. All the other contestants loaned her bits and pieces so she could go on stage.
Joan ponders whether today’s young women would be far more competitive with each other: “It’s a different time now; women are less supportive of each other and their is so much more pressure on them to be perfect than there was on us.
“Nobody exercised or dieted. Eating disorders were unheard of. We ate what our mums put in front of us.”
And as for vanity, Christine Owen comments: “I certainly never thought I was beautiful, or that winning a title meant I was. I always felt I got through on the strength of my on-stage interviews; I was chatty.”
Wise Joan reckons the contentedness her beauty queen friends share is down to having achieved their own particular goals.
As she surveys the room of laughing, gossiping “girls”, she says: “It took a certain personality, a certain strength of character, to be a beauty queen. Look; you can still see it.
“These women have inner confidence because they followed the desire to do something different with their lives. There are no regrets, no ‘why didn’t I make the most of what I’d been given’ in this room.”
Fellow 68-year-old Ann has the last word: “Women’s libbers decried us for getting places on our looks. But we were ordinary girls who had been destined to live ordinary lives. Beauty contests certainly liberated us.”