Outdated and sexist or a force for good? As the latest Miss Oxfordshire is crowned, we ask if beauty queens are relevant in 2013

MORE than 10,000 girls from across the UK applied for Miss England 2013. Among them was Lydia Williamson from Cowley, who was crowned Miss Oxfordshire at the Witney Lakes Resort back in April.

Last month the 22-year-old came in the top 20 out of 60 beauty queens taking part in the Miss England finals in Torquay.

Not bad, but then Miss Williamson isn’t just a pretty face.

“No. No one says they want world peace anymore,” she replies diplomatically to my first insulting question.

She is studying religion, theology and international relations at Oxford Brookes, and wants to become a secondary school teacher.

Beauty pageants have fallen out of favour and they have not appeared on British TV since Miss Williamson was born. That means she had to watch old Miss World competitions on YouTube.

“I think people have got a bit of an outdated idea about pageants,” she said.

“Maybe people think it is still about how you look and parading around in swimwear, but nowadays there is much more work involved.”

Before competing in the final of Miss Oxfordshire, she had to find a sponsor, raise as much money as she could through a charity event and make her own dresses, including an outfit made completely from recycled materials.

She said: “On the day there were rounds with interviews, questions about what I would do if I won and what I might bring to the Miss England role, which involves a great deal of fundraising.

“You are also asked to discuss issues like bullying and the size zero debate. There is a lot more to it than just looking pretty.”

With a background in performing arts, Miss Williamson is at home on a stage and readily admits to loving the gloss and glamour of beauty pageants.

“What young girl doesn’t want to wear a fabulous full length dress and have her hair and make-up done? I know I do and I don’t find it sexist,” she said.

“I avoid carbs close to a competition. But I am fit and run every day, and I did that before pageants – you won’t catch me starving myself.

“In terms of it being bitchy, I’ve never had a contestant say anything bad to me. Ever.

“I’ve had people ask: “Why do you need to do that when you are an intelligent girl? But if they came to a pageant they would see you have to be intelligent to do what the contest requires.”

Nevertheless, an apparent lack of interest led to delays for this year’s contest.

After just nine people entered the competition, the grand final, which was set to take place last December, was put back to drum up more interest.

Diane Slater works for Miss England and took over as the organiser of Miss Oxfordshire earlier this year.

She said: “Over 200 girls applied for Miss Oxfordshire this year.

“Pageants have been given a bad press, but many people don't realise what they are about.

“The Miss England competition has banned the swimwear round and implemented the eco round, where the competitors make their costumes from recycled material or use a recycled dress from their nan’s wardrobe or a charity shop. We are always surprised by the ideas the girls come up with.

“Being a Beauty Queen isn't just about being pretty. It’s about working with community and charity projects.”


'Not sure pageants have their place in society any more'

DANIELLA Luan-Timms, who lives near Thame, was just 22 when she won Miss England and went to Nigeria for Miss World.

But the fairytale became a violent nightmare that put her off pageants forever.

She said: “I was new to pageants when I entered Miss Oxfordshire but was very excited about winning.

“Then trouble broke out in Nigeria – a controversial newspaper report, coupled with the planned execution of a local woman, sparked violence. Some competitors boycotted the contest but I followed embassy advice and went.

“But we were confined to our hotel rooms and could only watch the news as people were killed in riots nearby.

“It was extremely scary and I also chose to boycott. The Sun newspaper flew a plane in at night to take us home and I went off the idea of even being Miss England and was glad when the year ended.”

Now 32 and a mother-of-three, she said: “I continued modelling, got my degree and in 2002 Miss England asked me to organise Miss Oxford.

“I hosted it but in hindsight it made me realise just how much some girls’ hopes can be dashed by beauty pageants.

“I guess girls aspire to the celebrity and attention pageants can bring, but having made it to Miss World I see how intelligent girls are eventually only ‘puppets’ judged on their appearances.

“I’m not sure beauty pageants have their place in society any more.”


Lydia's fashion fever

LENIE Boya, 42, pictured with Miss Oxfordshire Lydia Williamson, is the owner of Lenie’s Revival, a boutique dress agency in St Clement’s, Oxford.

As well as being Lydia’s sponsor, she also created her competition outfits including an eco outfit made of a clear plastic table cloth, CDs and bubble wrap.

She said: “Being in fashion, I know that you need more than beauty to make it. Lydia is not only a beautiful young woman, she is also bright and intelligent.”


'What's wrong with them?'

LAYLA Claridge, 21 and from Charlbury, has been chosen by the Face of the Globe organisation to compete in her début pageant at a regional heat in Notting Hill, London on September 1. Girls as young as five compete in this pageant.

Layla, pictured, is studying for a master’s degree and said: “I don’t see anything wrong with pageants as long as children are not forced to enter against their own will.

“My parents are proud but I am aware that other family members are critical of pageants – some have commented that pageants are ‘derogatory to women and it’s a disgrace that I am advocating such events’, but I completely disagree. I think it almost a celebration of womanhood.

“I have been called a ‘dumb blonde’ more times than I remember, but I am one of few in my family to have attained a degree, let alone a masters, so I don’t let the criticism hurt me.”