Women’s beauty contests started in the United States in the 1850s and were first held in New Zealand not long after. Contestants did not appear in the flesh at these contests – usually photos were submitted and judged. At the Kaiapoi rural sports day in 1866 men nominated the women of their district they deemed the most beautiful and the woman with the most nominations won. Kaiapoi’s ‘beauty stakes’ were left off the sports-day schedule the following year and there is little evidence to suggest that beauty contests were much of a feature of New Zealand’s social calendar until the early 20th century.
Although there were few beauty contests for women, shows were held for babies, young children and men. Babies and children were displayed at public events such as Caledonian gatherings (celebrations of Scottish identity) from the mid-19th century by their parents. Men competed in physical-culture competitions from the early 1900s. In 1911 C. Clifford Jennings won the first national competition and for this reason has been described as the first Mr New Zealand.
The 1923 Auckland Summer Carnival programme included a Venetian carnival display on the water and a swimsuit contest at the Calliope Dock in Devonport. This attracted a very large crowd, many of whom travelled across the harbour from Auckland city. Police were called in to help process the horde of people through the ferry-terminal gates. The Auckland Star credited advertising for attracting such a large crowd, and it is likely that the prospect of seeing women parading about more scantily clad than usual also had something to do with it.
Competitions that required women to appear in the flesh before a crowd attracted controversy, with some deeming them immodest and undignified. When women’s beauty and physical-culture competitions – which included ‘best shaped arm and shoulder’ and ‘neatest foot and ankle (bare)’– were planned for the New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906/7, critics were so vocal that the competition was cancelled.1
Photographic competitions were less likely to garner disapproval. By the 1910s photos of women were routinely displayed in movie theatres and the winners chosen by film audiences. Magazines too ran photo beauty contests. Women also dressed up in costumes and entered ‘queen carnival’ contests, which raised funds for charity.
In the 1920s the contests were more daring and revealing as swimsuit parades became an established feature of summer carnivals. Even movie theatres got in on the act, screening photos of women in swimsuits and in some cases holding parades of bathing beauties.
Miss New Zealand – open to single women only – was the country’s longest-running national beauty contest.
The first Miss New Zealand contest was held in Auckland in 1926. It was run by an entertainment company and newspapers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The winner was chosen by a public vote. The newspapers covered the competition in incredible detail, breathlessly announcing new entrants and soliciting more at least once a week in the three months leading up to the big night.
The NZ Truth newspaper, rival to one of the Miss New Zealand organisers, the Auckland Star, dismissed the competition as a money-making exercise because the voters had to fill out forms published in newspapers. Shrieking headlines like ‘MORE GIRL! GIRL! GIRL! Theatrical Exploitation in N.Z. Beauty Competition’ and ‘“Miss New Zealand” Beauty Stunt Fools Dominion’ left readers in no doubt that the Truth was no fan of this particular contest. 2
Four provincial winners, each with a ‘maid of honour’ (runner-up), competed at the national competition, which was won by Miss Otago, Thelma McMillan. All finalists became household names, however temporarily, foreshadowing the popularity of this beauty contest later in the century.
Despite the initial fanfare, Miss New Zealand was staged irregularly until 1960, when Joe Brown acquired the franchise and held annual competitions. Beauty contest devotees had to be content with the more regular swimsuit parades at coastal holiday spots in the summer months and contests at rural show days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 1960s – this was still running in the 2010s. Well-known actor Lucy Lawless was Mrs New Zealand in 1989.
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.
Daley, Caroline. Leisure & pleasure: reshaping & revealing the New Zealand body 1900–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
Coney, Sandra. Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Viking, 1993.
Jolly, Spencer. The miss parade. Wellington: Southern Press, 1974.
The story of Maureen Kingi: Miss New Zealand, 1962. Dunedin: Joe Brown Enterprises, 1962.