SECTION: FT WEEKEND MAGAZINE – Lunch with the FT — Dec. 4, 2004
NO CONTEST: her show must go on
Despite the interventions of feminists and Islamic fundamentalists billions watch Miss World and raise millions for charity. Little wonder then that its boss, Julia Morley, makes no apologies.
Four years ago, a British woman named Julia Morley received a phone call from the American business tycoon Donald Trump. Her husband Eric, founder of the Miss World competition, had died shortly before and Trump owned the rival franchise, Miss Universe. “He said, ‘This is the time for you to throw in the towel,'” she recalls. “I said I would think about it.”
She was still in a state of shock. “Eric had been a wonderful, steadying influence on me – always enthusiastic, never bad- tempered. He gave me a lot of confidence.” But he was 20 years older than her and she’d always thought it natural that she would take over Miss World one day. So she declined Trump’s offer. “Miss World is a year older than Miss Universe,” she says, no longer mournful but combative. “Trump has only 70 countries, we have many more. I want to take him on!” she grins. “I love that challenge!”
The first Miss World was held in England to coincide with the Festival of Britain in 1951. At the time, Eric Morley was manager of a celebrated London ballroom, and he was eager to capitalise on the festival by holding a search for the most beautiful woman in the world. In the years that followed, Miss World grew rapidly. Now in its 54th year, it’s one of the world’s most watched annual entertainments on TV. Only the Olympics and World Cup soccer are bigger. More than 2.3bn people in 162 nations watched last year’s Miss World, and in the final week 30m visited the website every day.
This year the event – which began today in China – is more high- tech than ever, with viewers able to vote for their favourite candidate by phone, SMS, TV remote control and online. “Eric was a brilliant man but he didn’t understand technology,” Morley says brightly. “The vote is a very good moneyspinner. People are afraid to say that, but it’s true.”
We’re talking at a restaurant in London’s Soho. Morley chose Zilli Fish because it’s close to her office and because fish is “supposed to be good for you”. We forego starters and Morley orders the sea bass. I choose the special of the day, which turns out to be some kind of white fish.
“I’m an optimist,” she says. “That’s the way I am. Some people look at the downside. I have always found accountants depressing. They kill enthusiasm. I get nervous meeting my own accountant,” (an adviser she inherited from Eric). “I love him dearly but he always looks depressed. I can never make him say, ‘Yaaay! That’s a great idea!’ He says: ‘Yes, that might work.’ We should say, ‘Down with accountants!'”
Already in her 60s, Morley has dark hair and a virtually unlined face that looks 20 years younger. But it’s not entirely unlined, so she can’t have had “work” done, surely? Hoping to flush out the truth on this important matter without asking directly, I wonder aloud whether contestants on Miss World are permitted to undergo improving surgery. She says there’s no way she can stop them – but, unaccountably, stops short of admitting to any such work herself.
So much for her skin. Her smile incorporates a twinkle that is hard to fake. Her conversation too is likeable: constantly upbeat, she never attempts to intimidate with intellect. This is a woman who once admitted to thinking that Sharia, the Muslim legal code, was a girl’s name. “I did! I swear to you!”
She further reveals her flaky side when discussing the feminists who upstaged Miss World in 1970 – causing mayhem with placards, stink bomb, tomatoes, bags of flour. “What was the name of that girl,” Morley asks. “A nice lady, Australian.?” Does she mean the academic and author Germaine Greer? “That’s right, lovely girl. Well she made a fuss at the time but then went off and got married and lived happily ever after.” Hesitantly, I ask if Morley is sure this is correct. “Well, if she didn’t, forgive me,” she says, unfazed.
Like those feminists, however, Morley didn’t like all Eric’s ideas. “It made me cringe,” she once said of the onstage rotations, in swimsuits and high heels, that were co-ordinated by Eric shouting, “Turn! And turn! And turn again!” Under her influence, Miss World gradually changed: from the 1980s onwards women were no longer judged on looks alone but also on personality and intelligence. But that wasn’t enough. No longer regarded as suitable entertainment for right-minded people – in the UK, anyway – Miss World was dropped by the BBC and, in 2000, for the 50th anniversary show at London’s Millennium Dome, viewers had to watch it on the then obscure Channel Five.
“People can be very serious about the silliest things,” Morley says, attempting to explain why anyone would disapprove of Miss World. “But light-heartedness does not mean you are stupid. The girls are very bright and I would pitch their wits against anyone you care to name. We even have accountants among them. They actually want to be accountants! They’re very bright.” She reflects for a second. “But even if they weren’t, there’s room for everyone.”
She was born Julia Pritchard, the youngest child of nine (“and we weren’t even Catholic!”). Her father was a musician. She met Eric in 1958 at the Locarno Ballroom, where he worked at the time. “He was standing in the foyer and suggesting that the ladies should form a queue. He talked to my sister. She told him I was 17. He found out where I lived and sent me beautiful flowers. My mother invited him round. He got on incredibly well with my father.” That same year, Julia gave birth to her first child. She was unmarried. Eric was not the father, but two years later he proposed marriage. “I was very happy with my son, and being independent – I was probably one of the first independent women. But marrying Eric was good and right and a wonderful thing to do.” Eric looked on her son as his own, she says, and together they had four more children. The fifth, an adopted girl, died of a progressive disease of the central nervous system. “When she was four, the doctors told us she had only a year to live. But she lived until she was 16, and she was one of the happiest, most wonderful and brilliant people.”
After some years looking after the children, Julia started working alongside Eric. “Someone working for him was unable to continue. He asked if I could help out. I figured it was not much different from home life. You have to enthuse people. I was a bit surprised that business was so simple.”
A fair portion of food remains on Morley’s plate but I realise she stopped eating some time ago. We order coffee.
In developing countries, Miss World has gone from strength to strength. One million people turned out, in the early 1990s, to see contestants meet Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. In India, homeland of four winners in seven years, franchised Miss World academies have sprung up to rival the ones already established in south America. The great new market is China: the day before our lunch, Morley was in Beijing signing a broadcasting contract. She obviously loves China. Why? “Well, the people are keen to learn.” She pauses again. “They nod and smile and they’re so nice – and then you realise you’ve been had! But they’re probably capable of making millions more without you, so it’s better to give a good share, rather than the usual 10 or 15 per cent. The Chinese like 50 per cent. And I think if you treat people on that basis you win in the end. There are hard business reasons: people will work harder for you.”
In 2002, the event was held in Nigeria, with catastrophic results. A journalist covering the event made the mistake of suggesting that the Prophet Mohammed might approve of Miss World. In the riots that ensued, some 250 people were killed. “Down with beauty!” the rioters yelled. “Miss World is sin! Allahu Akbar!” At the last moment, Morley took the decision to fly out of Nigeria and held the event in London instead – at a cost to herself of Pounds 1m.
How did she feel afterwards? “When you have these setbacks, you feel bloody shit. But you must not look down for too long.” Has she been back to Nigeria? “I was there for Christmas last year. They’re lovely people. And there is a lot of work to be done there, people who require surgery. ”
The sentence peters out because she doesn’t like to “go on” about charity work. But it would be ridiculous, I counter, not to give some idea what that work involves. After all, Miss World has contributed some Pounds 250m to charity during the past 25 years.
So she relents, agreeing to tell a story about Ethiopian girls whose pelvises are too small to allow natural childbirth. One such girl whom Morley helped had given birth, after terrible difficulties – to just the baby’s severed head. The rest of it was still inside her. “She started to smell very bad, and she was thrown out of her house.” But a priest sent her to Addis Ababa, where doctors funded by Miss World repaired much of the damage. “This was the only place the girls were hugged. They were sent home with notes explaining to local doctors and midwives that they must never have a baby naturally again.” (Miss World is also training local people to perform Caesarian operations.)
“So it’s good to make money,” she concludes, “and there’s nothing wrong with profit. But I want to use it well. I’m over 60. There’s not much I need in life. And you can do a lot more when you’re older – because you’re not so screwed up about proving yourself.”
Zilli Fish, London
1 x tomato juice 1 x mineral water
1 x sea bass
1 x special of the day
2 x zucchini
1 x spinach
2 x coffee
Total: Pounds 64.10
The Financial Times – by JOHN-PAUL FLINTOFF
SECTION: FT WEEKEND MAGAZINE – Lunch with the FT — Dec. 4, 2004