The Miss World contest was born as the Festival Bikini Contest in 1951 as a one off international beauty pageant inspired by both the Festival of Britain and the new bikini swimsuit. It was the brainchild of Eric Morley, the chairman of Mecca, an entertainment and catering company which owned, amongst other things, a chain of bingo and dance halls around the country. He had previously dreamt up the idea of Come Dancing for the BBC in 1949, principally in order to drive business into the company's ballrooms; with the Festival of Britain was being held on the South Bank just the other side of Waterloo Bridge from the company's Lyceum Ballroom, Morley saw the commercial possibilities inherent in diverting some of the crowd across the river.

In the following year when the the Miss Universe contest was launched in the United States, Morley decided to make it an annual event under the Miss World banner, although the bikini was abandoned in favour of more modest swimwear. (The bikini having been one of the more controversial aspects of the earlier event.)

In 1959 the contest was first broadcast by the BBC with Bob Hope as the presenter and thereafter regularly attracted audiences of 20 million for the televised final, and once achieved an audience of 27.5 million (which would have been around half the population of the country), mainly because the contest delivered about as much sexual titillation as was allowed on British television at the time. Of course this everpresent cattle market factor meant that the contest always had its critics and it became the bete noir of the emerging Womens Liberation movement who objected in principle to the whole idea. Their protest culminated in an invasion of the Royal Albert Hall, which was the venue for the 1970 finals, when protestors gained access to the auditorium and threw flour bombs and other missiles on stage, much to the consternation of Bob Hope (still presenting the contest) who had to be coaxed out of his dressing room to continue.

Besides feminist objections, it became apparent that Miss World's concept of womanhood increasingly failed to quite match the reality of life in the late twentieth century. The 1973 winner Marjorie Wallace was sacked after a series of public assignations with the likes of George Best, Jimmy Connors and Tom Jones; in the following year Helen Morgan from Barry, the only Welsh winner of the contest to date, was sacked after only four days when it was revealed in the press that she was an unmarried mother; whilst the 1980 winner Gabriella Brum from West Germany who was sacked after only eighteen hours when it was discovered that she had previously appeared naked in a magazine. It was presumably some relief to the organisers that the 1977 winner Mary Stavin uncontrollably broke down in tears on hearing that she's won. Her reaction is not believed to connected in any way with the prior walkout by six contestants in protest at inclusion of two entrants from South Africa. (One black, one white, and thereby a tacit recognition of apartheid.)

The BBC gave up on televising the contest in 1979, more from embarrassment than anything else. Thames Television then took up the challenge from 1980 to 1988, until commercial television also decided to abandon the event. Some time later, Channel Five (as it was then known) picked up Miss World for a brief two year stint which included the broadcast of the 2000 final live from the Millenium dome in London; a rather surreal event presented by Jerry Springer, believed by many at the time to be the harbinger of the end of days. It has since returned to British television screens, although it finds itself confined to the more obscure backwaters of modern multi-channel digital television.

Having been dropped by mainstream British television in 1988 the Miss World contest simply moved abroad. Rather than hold the finals in London the organisers chose such locations as Hong Kong, Sun City in South Africa or the Seychelles. And whereas Miss World might have disappeared from the forefront of public awareness in the country of its birth, it was, and apparently remains, very big in India and China, and in recent years the final has been frequently held at the Crown of Beauty Theatre at Sanya in China. (Although goodness knows what Chairman Mao would have thought of his China playing host to such a prime example of Western Decadence.) Indeed the Miss World Organisation itself claims that the final is the world's largest live annual TV event with global viewing figures in excess of two billion spread across nearly two hundred countries.

Despite the continuing popularity of the contest across the world, most people in Britain were only dimly aware that Miss World was still going. It is only when the contest suddenly becomes newsworthy that people are suddenly reminded of its existence. The most noteworthy crisis of recent years concerned the 2002 finals. Scheduled to be held in Nigeria, there was widespread criticism of the chosen venue following the publicity was given to the case of Amina Lawal, sentenced to be stoned to death by a sharia court for the crime of adultery. The contestants from Norway, Denmark, Costa Rica and South Africa decided to boycott the event in protest. However the real trouble began when a Nigerian journalist named Isioma Daniel ran an opinion piece in the Lagos newspaper ThisDay, defending the contest arguing that the prophet Mohammed would have been happy to have chosen a wife from amongst the contestants. Riots ensued and over two hundred people died in the disturbances. The contest was relocated to London.

Nonetheless the Miss World Organisation survived that particular crisis as it survived the death of its founder Eric Morley in 2000, when there were doubts that the contest would continue. There were certainly in the mind of Donald Trump, who owns the rival Miss Universe competition, who suggested to Eric's widow Julia that now might be the time to give up. However Julia Morley decided to carry on, and Miss World therefore continues, much to the American's annoyance, to be the world's number one international beauty pageant. She has claimed responsibility for toning done some of the more frequently criticised aspects of the competition, so that for example, contestants are no longer requied to recite (or indeed reveal) their vital statistics, and Miss World now markets itself under the slogan 'Beauty with a purpose'. A vague ambition to work with children is apparently no longer sufficient to impress the judges and contestants are apparently assessed on their charity work and fundraising abilities, although of course it helps to be pretty as well.



Winners list extracted from, but with the names of the disgraced and replaced winners re-instated.

  • Tim Dowling, Go Figure, Telegraph Style magazine, 30 September 2006
  • Dyma 1974
  • Andrew Billen, Miss World - did you miss it?, November 30, 2004,,14934-1386375,00.html
  • John-Paul Flintoff Miss World — We even have accountants among them…The Financial Times Dec. 4, 2004
  • Kate Whiting, The Miss World story, Background Miss World 2005
  • Ros Coward, The beauty myth, The Guardian, November 25, 2002,3604,846816,00.html