Story: Beauty contests

Mary Woodward, Miss New Zealand 1949 (2nd of 4)

Mary Woodward, Miss New Zealand 1949

Mary Woodward was the winner of the Miss New Zealand contest in 1949. The contest was a fundraiser for a memorial in England to New Zealanders who flew with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the Second World War. After winning the contest Mary travelled to the United Kingdom where she acted as an ambassador for the Royal Air Forces Association, an organisation that provided welfare support to air force personnel and their families. Sixty-four years later, her memory of the competition remains clear.

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Contributed by Mary Woodward

The contest took place during the varsity holidays. I borrowed a very attractive hat for the garden party, and a dressmaker who was a family friend made me a pretty frock. The oral interviews with individual judges were not daunting, the garden party was an unaccustomed and glamorous event. I was quite relaxed, not at all concerned about winning or losing as I had invested little in the process. I won the contest. Only then did it come to light that the prize money was to be the entrance fee for the Miss Taranaki Contest, a preliminary to the Miss New Zealand Contest, 1949. Somehow Mother and I had overlooked this vital piece of information, had it ever been spelled out. I would never have dreamt of putting myself forward as a possible Miss New Zealand. The Miss World and Miss Universe contests did not as yet exist, but I had heard of variations on the Miss America Contest, which was basically for bathing beauties in swimsuits and that was definitely not my style. I knew I was attractive and had a neat and curvaceous little figure and tiny waist, and my legs were, well, okay in shape but certainly not long; at barely five foot I could never claim to be that sort of beauty. But there was no going back.

The next step was the selection of the girl who would represent each province, and this took place in Palmerston North. It was autumn so I needed warmer clothes. These were donated by several firms in New Plymouth and again I borrowed a hat, this time a different sort from the garden-party one. The programme was basically the same as the first time, with individual interviews with three judges, but there were as well several functions to attend apart from that on the night of the announcement. Again I won over the four candidates from Taranaki. I was now Miss Taranaki and things were getting serious. But I was encouraged some weeks later when I met the other 12 contestants for the Miss New Zealand Contest in Wellington as some of them were quite beautiful and all were considerably taller than myself. I decided to regard the whole affair as a rare experience and enjoy my week.

We girls were put up in good hotels in central Wellington and escorted round the city in chauffeur-driven cars. We visited several factories in company with the judges, Miss Nelle Scanlan, a successful novelist, Lady Miria Pōmare, widow of the Māori statesman Sir Māui Pōmare, John Moffett, editor of the Otago Daily Times, and A. R. Kingford, a well-known photographer.

One day we took afternoon tea at Parliament Buildings, meeting a number of members of Parliament. I remember my embarrassment on this occasion when I took a bite of a meringue only to have it explode in my mouth. However, the girls, with Kiwi solidarity, formed a sort of scrum round me while I attempted to clean up the mess on my clothes and face, let alone the carpet.

On several evenings we were invited to join the panel of judges for dinner in their hotel. The first time, faced with an array of cutlery on each side of the plate, some of the contestants hesitated, covertly watching the judges for a lead in what particular knife, fork or spoon to pick up. I, already confident that I was not in the running, went ahead, choosing from the outside first, and with hindsight I believe it may have been this confidence to act independently in this sort of situation that gave me the edge on the other contestants. One night we attended a party at the Shelly Bay naval station, and I imagine the judges were watching the amount of alcohol we consumed. One of the most beautiful girls got slightly tipsy, which probably took her out of contention.

We each had to undergo several private interviews with the panel of judges, being quizzed on general knowledge mainly. I remember that I had to make a wild guess as to the number of members of Parliament we had in New Zealand – and was way out! Although I had often sat in on conversations between Bob Tizard and his Labourite cronies, Keith Sinclair and Bob Chapman, I was very ignorant and hadn’t dared even open my mouth.

On the last day we all had our photographs taken, and I believe that had I known that my photo would be blown up in every New Zealand paper next day I might have feigned illness and somehow managed to avoid the final announcement. This took place in the Wellington Town Hall, where my father was seated with my sister Doff, who was now living in the Wairarapa. I heard afterwards that people all over the country were listening on their radios for the outcome.

The first half of the programme at the Wellington Town Hall was taken up with a number of entertainers. Then came the important part of the evening. For the final announcement we 13 girls, all in evening gowns – mine a shimmering turquoise shot with silver – were seated across the back of the stage, while Miss Scanlan gave a witty speech about the process of choosing the right girl, the hurdles she and the other judges had put the girls through. I remember hearing the remark that the chosen girl had failed in only one hurdle but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking that I would soon be back with my mates in Auckland, and life would be more pleasant now I had some decent clothes, when I heard my name called, was helped off my chair and presented with a huge bouquet while someone placed a ribbon round my neck. The ribbon said Miss New Zealand 1949! Surely this was not possible! I must be dreaming! Obviously hurdles aplenty were still ahead of me.

I must have bumbled my way through a little speech, for the next thing I knew I was being escorted off the stage where the deputy prime minister, Mr Walter Nash, took me by the arm and led me, with my sister, to his official car for the return to the hotel where I was staying and where my father announced free drinks for all!

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Alexander Turnbull Library, Whites Aviation Collection
Reference: WA-20654-F

Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

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How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Beauty contests - Beauty contests, 19th century to the 1950s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/community-contribution/42834/mary-woodward-miss-new-zealand-1949 (accessed 22 February 2019)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 23 Dec 2015