Misbehaviour at Miss World: what happened at the 1970 beauty pageant?

In November 1970, activists disrupted the Miss World beauty pageant by throwing flour bombs and rotten fruit at co-host Bob Hope. Helen Berryman, the director of BBC Two documentary, Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam, tells us about the events and legacy of the momentous beauty pageant held 50 years ago

(L-R) Marjorie Christel Johansson, Pearl Janssen, Jennifer Hosten, Jillian Jessup, Irith Lavi – the top five contestants in Miss World 1970. (Image by BBC/Shutterstock)

If there was a moment when second-wave feminism gatecrashed the public consciousness in the UK, it was surely on the evening of 20 November 1970. This was the night that activists from the newly formed Womens Liberation Movement disrupted the Miss World beauty pageant, which was being televised by the BBC, by throwing flour bombs and rotten fruit at co-host Bob Hope. Yet, as a BBC Two documentary, Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam, explores, this was a night when multiple political struggles collided, competed and coexisted – feminism, the civil rights movement and the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

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Director Hannah Berryman tells us about the documentary and about an evening thats also the subject of a new comedy-drama, Misbehaviour, in cinemas now.

Jo Robinson of the Women’s Liberation Movement, protesting at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970.
Jo Robinson of the Women’s Liberation Movement protests at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970.
(Image by BBC/Getty)

Jonathan Wright: Many people will be familiar with archive footage of the Miss World pageant being disrupted, especially footage of Bob Hope, but the documentary is about multiple civil rights struggles rather than just the history of feminism.

Hannah Berryman: Yes, exactly. In this day and age, a time where people are interested again in direct action and what you can achieve, it seems to be instructive to go back to 1970 and look at what those struggles achieved – and how change happens.

The documentary shows a tension between incremental change and direct action.

Yes, and also how change comes about in all sorts of ways. As [interviewee and anti-apartheid campaigner] Peter Hain says, it’s the first year there’s a black winner [Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada]; and a woman of colour from South Africa [Pearl Jensen, who entered as Miss Africa South] beats Miss South Africa; and he cant believe that’s a coincidence. What I think he’s hinting at there is these feelings – that Miss World was representing this imperialistic, Eurocentric view of the world – were preying on people’s minds as they voted.

And that’s the ironic thing, it’s called Miss World, but it didn’t really seem to represent the women of the world in many ways. It didn’t represent the feminists, that was for sure, and it didn’t represent the women in all the different countries in the world, because of who the winners had been, none of whom had been black.

 

JW: On a practical level, how easy was it to track down and talk to some of the key characters you interview? A lot of them have had remarkable lives.

HB: With the feminists, it was easy to track them down, harder to persuade them to talk, because they were keen to know what point of view I was going to take. I think they just wanted to know that somebody would listen to the kinds of reasons why they were protesting there that night, and to include that in the documentary. They’d all been part of the research for the feature film, and I guess for them the documentary had to add something in a way and tell a deeper story.

Jo Robinson and Sarah Wilson of the Women’s Liberation Movement
Jo Robinson and Sarah Wilson of the Women’s Liberation Movement, photographed at the Royal Albert Hall, 2019. (Image by
BBC)

JW: What was the atmosphere like that night? It seems like a car crash – and then Bob Hope makes things worse.

HB: He’s outrageous, so sexist and talking about “cattle markets”. It just seems all rather awful. The activists decided they weren’t going to do any protesting while the contestants were on stage because they were protesting against the whole contest rather than the women themselves. Hope wasn’t used to facing anybody that didn’t think he was great. I think the whole thing probably came as a huge shock to him. He was embedded in a world that was very different, when he could get away with saying certain things, and maybe 1970 was the year he couldn’t anymore.

 

JW: How effective was the protest?

HB:  I think it was effective because, as activist Sue Finch says in the film, it would be the first time that lots of people would even be aware of women’s liberation. There had been rumblings in the papers, but this was a big moment. You can tell by the fact that first Women’s Liberation Movement march, which happened in March 1971, was much better attended than they expected. The protest was a catalyst for more people to be aware of the cause and to get behind it. It is hard to quantify the impact, but the fact were talking about it today shows how important it was.

 

JW: Tell us a little about Pearl Jansen, Miss Africa South.  

HB:  I’d grown up going to South Africa House and protesting there in the anti-apartheid pickets, when Mandela was still in prison and I was a kid. I’ve always been interested in that story because it’s extraordinary to think now that we would have been happy to allow a country to subjugate all its black citizens, and that they would just send white Miss South Africas here to one of the very biggest TV shows of the time – because that’s what was happening.

Jillian Jessup and Pearl Janssen
Jillian Jessup and Pearl Janssen, Miss South Africa and Miss Africa South 1970. (Image by BBC/From personal archive of Pearl Janssen)

Peter Hain sees this kind of campaigning and the sports campaign as very important in starting to turn the tide, in saying we’re not going to accept you when apartheid is still in existence, and we’re not going to have you attend our events and come over. And I thought, “What was it like for her being stuck in the middle as a pawn in this?” Jansen is incredibly articulate and could tell us a bit about how that felt at the time and give a personal story of how things were in those times for her.

 

JW: Her success as a runner-up didn’t really change her life, did it?

HB:  No, and the thing about that is it’s not really a consequence of a beauty contest, but apartheid South Africa. It didn’t materially change her life because after her year as Miss Africa South, she just went back to being somebody who was living in a township and now didn’t have the machinist’s job she’d had because she’d given it up and people thought she was rich now. She’s never had money, it didn’t transport her into a better life, although she did eventually get work, at one point singing as Dionne Warwick, which is great because she’s got an amazing voice. She’s an impressive person.  

Also, I think it’s important to remember that Pearl and Jennifer Hosten were important trailblazers for another notion, not a Eurocentric notion, of beauty.

Another interviewee is Miss Sweden, Marjorie Christel Johansson, and she’s very self-assured.

She well puts the point across, as Jennifer does, that for them there’s nothing wrong with beauty contests, with using your looks and your intelligence, and I think that’s a thorny issue for people. Sue makes the counterpoint that if you skew a system into that, where men are not being judged on looks but there is importance attached to women in that way, it’s tricky.

 

JW: You stay very even-handed in the film.

HB:  I think that’s why I like making these kinds of documentaries because I can see both sides to it. Its really hard to know. I think we’ll always value beauty, but will we always value beauty more in women than in men?

 

JW: Have you anything to add? 

HB:  I think it’s important that lots of struggles were advanced at that moment in time. And some of them were maybe just advanced by things like Jennifer being this cool customer who could go forward and take this opportunity in this tumultuous year to become Miss World, to be someone who could actually take that role and do something with it [eventually becoming a diplomat]. I found that hugely impressive. Documentaries like this are good, because life is messy.

Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam is available now on BBC iPlayer

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Jonathan Wright writes the TV and radio previews for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed