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Saturday, 15 October 2011


Miss World and Miss Europe in the 1930s
"My greatest ambition is to make my mother happy. I will not go on the stage or screen. Just a few week ago I saw a large city for the first time—Paris!"
Jeanne Juilla, Miss Europe 1931: Time Magazine, Feb. 16, 1931

In 1928 the French journalist Maurice de Waleffe, a fashionable type who favoured a return to knee breeches, hit upon the idea of a Europe wide beauty pageant. He had been having success with the Miss France contest he had set up a couple of years earlier and this sounded like a good idea. The organizing committee wasn’t in the business of predicting the future but it didn’t take a lot of foresight to realize that the world was in a parlous situation. Germany’s economy was gutted, the Communists had taken power in Russia, from China to Egypt another war looked imminent. No matter how lecherous the organizers’ motives were, any international competition that put beauty above politics would get popular support. A judge on the first panel was Paul Chabas, a member of the Légion d'honneur, (or he became so that year) known for his paintings of young, naked women in idyllic surroundings. September Morn was his most famous work, thanks only to the scandal it created in the US. Self respecting critics were of the opinion that whatever it evoked really should remain locked in the minds of pubescent boys.

Being a contestant for Miss Europe was tough. In the countries that already had pageants, the girls (No one would have suggested they were women, yet.) began in small contests and worked their way up, from local cantons to provinces and finally the capital, all the while maintaining their poise and dignity in front of judges who imagined themselves to be, if nothing else, astute connoisseurs of feminine mystique. The contestants had to possess those genuine, innocent yet sensual charms that could make an old playboy giddy at the knees. Some entrants came from privileged backgrounds, where they had been taught the etiquette of table manners and the art of small talk from an early age, but the judges could also be touched by a young lady’s journey from small town baker’s daughter to culture symbol to the metropolis. Such a girl had led a
wholesome, positive life, a role model you could say for a post war world.

The Miss Europe contest was avowedly non political though governments weren’t always aware of this. In 1934, the German ambassador to London, Leopold von Hoesch, turned down an invitation to judge the contest in Hastings because the German entrant, Emma Kant, was the grand niece of Immanuel Kant and not considered Aryan enough. At the same time, the Russian ambassador, Ivan Maisky, was fuming that his countries entrant, Yekaterina Antonova, wasn’t a true Bolshevik but a Kulak. The contestants remained diplomatically silent.

Meanwhile in Galveston Texas a group of businessmen had decided to expand their annual “Miss Splash” bathing beauty contest and make it international. The new name they chose – the International Pageant of Pulchritude –sounds like a marketing disaster and at first it only had moderate success in the States. Outside, in South America especially, it became huge, so much that the failure of Miss Brazil to secure a finalists position in 1929 created a brief but intense diplomatic spat. That same year Miss Austria, Lisl Goldarbeiter, became to first foreigner to win the title, which entitled her to be called “Miss Universe’. In 1932 the contest moved outside of America for the first time, to Spa in Belgium.

Around 1930 the Turkish chocolate company Lion Cikolatasi began inserting photographs of Miss Europe and Miss Universe contestants in their bars. Like the Ross Company in Germany, Lion sourced its images from well known studios in Europe who followed current fashions in glamour photography. Lighting was soft and full, eliminating shadows but also any blemishes. As with the contestants, the photographer’s look was lifted straight out of Hollywood. Unlike the case with fashion models, whose job was to advertise a product, the camera’s full attention was focused on the contestant’s face and she generally smiled straight back into the lens. More enigmatic expressions were the reserve of certain German actresses. 

Lion was one of several companies in Europe with rights to publish the photographs. One difference was Lion’s distinctive narrow, rectangular postcard format (140 x 75mm). Other sets were produced about the same size as a cigarette card and were often roughly cut with uneven borders. Like all the companies with the licence, Lion never mentioned the contestant’s name, only her country, with one exception. Most of the cards here are dated 1932, the year Keriman Halis became the first Turkish contestant to win the Miss Universe contest. 

The Pageant of Pulchritude closed for a couple of years during the Depression and beauty contests around the world took a hiatus throughout the Second World War. When they started up again things a lot had changed, including the idea of beauty. In none of the photos here is the woman’s body on display; beauty is reflected in the face. Glamour photography would never be the same either. A new generation of actresses, models and rich European aristocrats would determine tastes and they weren’t afraid to shock. The domestic housewife would become glamorized too. Miss Universe was still expected to be virtuous and healthy but she also had to look great in a swimsuit; the scandals involving drugs, nude photo shoots and single motherhood lay in wait. 

 Tracing what happened the various contestants after they won turns up precious little. A few moved on to acting or modelling careers, usually short lived and unspectacular. Some married into royalty. Aliki Diplarakou, winner of Miss Europe in 1930 died as Lady Russell having married a British lord and earning an international reputation as an expert on classical art. For most the beauty pageant was their one brief brush with fame. No idea what happened to Miss Russia, Miss Germany or any of the other Misses from the wrong side in the war and afterwards. Keriman Halis was still alive in 2007, aged 94, and no obituary has since been posted. She may still be with us.


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