The ladies of Miss London: From ashes to sashes

Under layers of makeup, hair extensions and expensive attire, the contestants at the annual Miss London beauty pageant were about to portray that beauty is only skin deep, for the most part.

A typical Friday night in Leicester Square would normally be an overpriced occasion watching a flick at one of the cinemas, a burger at one of the many chains and a £4.50 pint in Wetherspoon’s.

But on this night, at The Hippodrome Casino, in a back room off of the bar on the third floor, 12 young women were putting the finishing touches on their attempt at gaining a place at the Miss England finals.

The world of beauty pageantry would normally draw imaginations of scantily clad contestants all screaming for world peace or Miss Congeniality style undercover FBI agents foiling terrorism.

But the reality is that these young women are savvy entrepreneurs looking to expand their brands or gain national and worldwide exposure in the hope of gaining modelling contracts.

UK Model Folios director Fay Hill has been running this pageant since 2011 and her agency represents the finalists on a year-long contract.

She hand picks the girls from hundreds of applications to come in for an audition and the cream of the crop make the cut to try for the Miss London and Miss Hippodrome crown.

She believes the widely misunderstood world of pageantry is down to people who have never been to or seen one.

She said: “I’m really passionate about the fact that the critic’s argument is so wrong, particularly feminists who say it’s unfeminist.

“The argument they come up with is that I’m just promoting women to only be interested in themselves and that they have to be physically beautiful.

“Now if that’s the truth, these ladies that say these things clearly haven’t come to a pageant like mine.”

Mrs Hill, 30, thinks this opportunity is not just a platform to compete at Miss England and potentially Miss World but a way to help develop the contestants as people, citing Sophie Walker, 18, the daughter of former England goalkeeper Ian Walker, who had a very nervous audition and now had to overcome public speaking.

“The ultimate thing is a confidence boost, and this again counteracts what the critics say, that it’s not empowering women, it’s not just a confidence boost, it’s a sense of achievement.”

The main event is held in a cabaret style function room, dimly lit with smoke machines giving it an almost back alley feel.

Like Noah’s arc the ladies come on stage two by two, to give the audience a glimpse of their evening wear in what is round one of three.

The subsequent round sees the ladies come up one at a time to address the audience and explain a bit about themselves and why they would like the title.

Most of the girls come across as genuine and grounded, with the odd exception of stereotype.

One wannabe actress’ performance was so wooden you would think it was a casting call to play the floating door at the end of Titanic.

Following this is an Eco-Wear round, then a short intermission with a modern cabaret style dance performance, not done by the contestants, a raffle and then the contestants return for the dishing out of the sashes and the crowning of Miss Hippodrome and Miss London.

Charity is the theme of the evening, with contestants collectively raising more than £3,700 for various good causes such as Beauty with a Purpose, St Christopher’s Hospice and Demelza Hospice.

Last year’s winner and rising West End starlet Whitney Martins, 25, believes that without Miss London her musical career would have struggled to take off.

“I trained, I did all my exams, I did everything I was meant to do by the book and I left and just expected that I was going to get all my dream roles and it was all just going to fall into my lap.

“It doesn’t happen like that anymore, it’s all to do with your social media, your audience, who you are as a person, how many people you attract, what you’ve got around you and what you can bring to the production.”

Miss Martins, who first attended Miss World in South Africa when she was 2 years old, as her mum was singing during the opening ceremony, also believes any negative connotations are unfounded.

She said: “I saw all these beautiful, strong, independent women doing what they wanted and I don’t understand how anyone could think that was a bad thing.

“All it does is build other women up, young women get to meet like minded people and I think it’s only a positive.

“No one has forced anyone to do anything, it’s all their own will, and it’s like playing football, entering gymnastics or any other competitive sport.”

The master of ceremonies on the night and aspiring TV presenter, 23-year-old Holly Finlay, echoed the sentiments that the pageantry world can be misunderstood.

“Its such a shame that it is so misconstrued, it’s unfair, a lot of people think ‘Oh look at her, little Dolly Ann’ but really we’re all running our own businesses, we’re all doing something with out titles and to have that prejudged isn’t fair.”

The 2014 finalist, who runs her own make-up business, feels that the networking element of the event is crucial to further success.

“I used my title as a platform to introduce myself. It’s not really about being beautiful, it’s about being a beautiful person at the end of the day,” she said.

The final of Miss England will be held in Birmingham on July 14 where Miss London, Leena Dewis, and Miss Hippodrome, Cheraleigh Van Zanten, will go up against 46 other regional winners striving to reach Miss World in China at the end of the year.

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