Miss New Zealand’s heyday
Dunedin entertainment promoter Joe Brown was instrumental in reviving the Miss New Zealand beauty contest and turning it into a glamorous annual event. He staged his first show in 1960 and held the Miss New Zealand franchise from 1960 to 1973 and then 1979 to 1986, the year of his death.
Champion of the beauty contest
Journalist Spencer Jolly was adamant that beauty contests were good for the status of women. In 1974 he wrote: ‘Here, women are still experiencing only fledgling strength in a male dominated society. For them, the annual crowning of a Miss New Zealand affords a chance of welcoming their own champion of sorts, as she takes her place in a stereotyped national celebrity lineup. Miss New Zealand, thankfully, adds a touch of beauty to an otherwise lack luster bunch of sporting heroes, the odd literary “eccentric” and a cleric or two arraigned alongside her.’1
Joe Brown’s entrepreneurial spirit and public-relations skills ensured that Miss New Zealand became one of the country’s major annual events. Regional contests were held first and the winners toured the country for three months promoting the contest and raising funds for charity before the final showdown. They were paid a weekly fee.
Thousands of women entered the regional contests in the hope of capturing the national crown. They were attracted by the prizes – which included money, clothing, travel and the opportunity to represent New Zealand at the Miss World and Miss Universe contests overseas – but also by the chance to step outside of their everyday lives. Supporters believed beauty contests helped build young women’s confidence and taught them how to be poised and graceful.
Miss New Zealand was televised from 1970 and attracted around a million viewers in the 1970s and two million in the early 1980s. More New Zealanders watched the 1981 Miss New Zealand contest than viewed the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer that same year.
Miss Universe New Zealand
In 1979 the Miss Universe New Zealand contest started. Previously most of the New Zealand contestants at the international Miss Universe contest were Miss New Zealand winners. Miss Universe New Zealand was first televised in 1980. In 1983 New Zealander Lorraine Downes won the international Miss Universe contest.
Beauty contest protesters of the 1970s and 1980s engaged in ordinary protest actions such as placards and rallies outside contest venues, but at times they got more creative. One year a piece of raw meat was thrown onto the stage, suggesting the contest was akin to a meat market, and a television transmitter was sabotaged, which prevented the contest from being broadcast.
Groups first protested against New Zealand beauty contests in the 1920s, but protest action was much more visible in the 1970s as contests became a target of the women’s liberation movement. Feminists viewed beauty contests as degrading and sexist because they were primarily based on a woman’s looks and body shape, and they dismissed suggestions that contests were about confidence-building.
Contests in decline
Protests occurred during a period when television ratings of beauty contests were very high, but the arguments put forward by opponents slowly influenced the public perception of beauty contests. By the late 1980s beauty contests no longer possessed the standing they once had. In 1989 Miss New Zealand Helen Rowney described herself as ‘Miss Anonymous’.2 This was a far cry from the high status achieved by fellow beauty queen Lorraine Downes only six years earlier.
Miss Universe New Zealand was televised for the last time in 1989 and Miss New Zealand in 1992. After this, contest organisers struggled to get sponsorship money.
Mr and Mrs New Zealand
In 1987 the first organised Mr New Zealand beauty contest for men was held and 24 men strutted their stuff in swimsuits, casual wear and evening wear on the stage of the Regent Hotel in Auckland. Contest organiser Adelaide Tucker said she was promoting equal rights for men as she had for women, and that ‘for a long time I’d heard men complaining there was nothing like this contest for them’.3 The Mrs New Zealand beauty contest for married women was also first held in the 1980s – this was still running in the early 2000s. Well-known actor Lucy Lawless was Mrs New Zealand in 1989.
Contests in the 1990s and 2000s
A range of beauty contests were staged after television coverage ceased, but they all had a low profile. Organisers often had to solicit entrants, who were sponsored by businesses. By the early 2000s Miss New Zealand was no more – the main national contests were Miss World New Zealand and Miss Universe New Zealand. In 2001 another national contest, Miss Earth New Zealand, began. In a more light-hearted and diverse contest, the Perfect Woman Competition, held in Wānaka, women had to put out fires, change tyres and skin possums.
There were also contests for married women, girls, teenagers and men, both gay and straight, as well as for people of particular ethnicities, such as Indians and Pacific Islanders.
New Zealand women of Irish descent took part in the international Rose of Tralee contest, which emphasised personality and beauty. By 2012 there had been 43 New Zealand Rose of Tralee winners (the first in 1966), and two of those had gone on to win the international contest held in Ireland.
Televised modelling competitions supplanted beauty contests. Revlon’s face of the eighties screened in the late 1980s, as did the Wella beauty pageant. New Zealand’s next top model was a popular show in the early 2000s.