sat 15/06/2024

Wonderland: I Was Once a Beauty Queen, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Wonderland: I Was Once a Beauty Queen, BBC Two

Wonderland: I Was Once a Beauty Queen, BBC Two

Beauty queens of the 1970s and 80s on life after their respective reigns

'Beauty queens belonged to a different era:' Tracy Dodds, Miss Great Britain 1982

Even now, as revelation after revelation about what really went on backstage at Television Centre in the 1970s play out in the tabloids, there seems something almost wholesome about the heyday of the televised beauty pageant.

Compared to the daily barrage of heavily sexualised images we are bombarded with from the moment we wake as consumers of contemporary culture - bare arses before the watershed, fake orgasms selling shampoo, Kate Middleton’s tits on the evening news - the swimsuits the contenders paraded up and down in looked positively demure.

Beneath the surface, however, there’s something undeniably creepy about watching footage of those shows played back. Before the advent of reality television turned everybody into a potential star, the contestants didn’t know how to play up to the camera. Girls aged just 18, 19, cowered and giggled as they were fed banal questions by the - invariably male, usually mustachioed - presenters. They weren’t to know that questions such as “how does it feel to be viewed for your looks, rather than your brain?” weren’t powerful social commentary, but the sort of jokes of which they were the punchline. Perhaps they didn’t hear their measurements being read out like so much marketing.

Brian took his wife for dinner at the Playboy Club when Carolyn later got a job as a bunny girl

It’s strange then that not one of the five former winners interviewed for Wonderland’s I Was Once a Beauty Queen had many bad things to say about her "reign". The programme introduced us to five women, each living very different lives: there was the successful businesswoman living with her childhood sweetheart in a ski resort in Switzerland; the six-foot tall widow of a small-time rock star; the single mother, who enjoys monthly Botox injections and living vicariously through her daughter; the plain-faced professional house-sitter who still lives with her mother; the glamorous child-woman on the cusp of 60 with the London penthouse who has barely worked a day. Life has been kinder to some of the women than others, which is why the uniformity of the perspectives is particularly disappointing.

Carolyn Moore, Miss Great Britain 1971, began entering beauty contests as “a bit of fun” during the summer holidays before starting a job with a local bank. She was going to be a “bank manageress”, she said on air, and then struggled with a couple of questions from a presenter who “didn’t know there was such a thing” and whether men “resented” all these women coming into the profession. “I should think they do,” the young Carolyn simpered, as her older self turned down an opportunity to talk about how “the feminists or whatever they called themselves” didn’t come into her view of beauty pageants because “it was nice to be appreciated”.

The feminist line in fact belonged to Brian, Carolyn’s dad, who remembered the women who hurled bags of flour at Bob Hope during protests at the Miss World competition the year before his daughter was crowned. Brian took his wife for dinner at the Playboy Club when Carolyn later got a job as a "bunny girl" though - probably a better career choice in hindsight - so I’m not terribly inclined to count his views as part of a scholarly appreciation of third-wave feminism.

“Beauty queens belonged to a different era,” Tracy Dodds, who won the same competition a little over a decade later, told the camera. “An era when everyone was sweet and lovely and never did any wrong.” Of the five, Dodds probably has the most to be bitter about: she was stripped of her title when it emerged she had had topless photographs taken, because the "image" of the winner had to be that of a “working-class princess”. It was quite surprising, then, to see the documentary end with Tracy’s 21-year-old daughter India - perma-tanned, fake-breasted, a “WAG in training” - entering her first beauty pageant.

Of course it’s pretty hypocritical to talk about feminism in the same breath as suggesting that there’s something wrong with a woman choosing to be ogled while shimmying around on stage if that’s what she wants to do. But there was a staggering lack of critical engagement with the material presented by each of the women - as interesting as their individual stories were, the documentary closed with a sense of missed opportunity.

The BBC televised its last beauty contest 30 years ago, Wonderland’s narrator told us, while at home we roll our eyes and wonder how watching young girls in skimpy outfits was ever how a nation spent its Saturday night. At least these days we make them sing and dance as well.


Tracy Dodds October 11, 2012 20:07 I was on honeymoon in Rome when this programme aired, so by the time I came home to view it and subsequently respond to the reviews and comments it had attracted, it was a little too late, but here goes. I achieved a first class degree; it was in media, and after graduating I went straight to work as a sub-editor. I taught journalism and media law by day at degree level, then in the evening I went straight to my job at the newspaper. I did these 16-hour slogs for five or so days a week, along with raising my daughter and studying for my teaching certificate for two years, until I was made redundant (like many other journalists). I carried on teaching at degree and post-graduate level for another three years. I had to; I received no financial help from my ex-husband to support our daughter. I didn't stop teaching through boredom; the pay was not in line with the work I was doing (I certainly didn't earn enough to pay for monthly Botox injections). I think I stated this in the programme. My daughter India entered only the one competition. She didn't enjoy it, and won't do another one. It may appear that I am living vicariously through her, but if this was the case, she would be studying medicine or training to be an airline pilot. My new husband, a university professor, loves me because he sees me as an intelligent, self-reliant and articulate woman who worked hard to drag myself out of the mire created by my ex-husband. I am not sure if these aspects of my character were accentuated enough within the programme. I can't and won't speak for the other women on the programme, but I, for one, am not "sad" at all. I am very proud of my achievements. So is my family. Not the Miss GB title, but all the things I have accomplished in the intervening 30 years.

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