Women’s beauty contests started in the United States in the 1850s and were first held in New Zealand not long after. Contestants did not appear in the flesh at these contests – usually photos were submitted and judged. At the Kaiapoi rural sports day in 1866 men nominated the women of their district they deemed the most beautiful and the woman with the most nominations won. Kaiapoi’s ‘beauty stakes’ were left off the sports-day schedule the following year and there is little evidence to suggest that beauty contests were much of a feature of New Zealand’s social calendar until the early 20th century.
Children and men
Although there were few beauty contests for women, shows were held for babies, young children and men. Babies and children were displayed at public events such as Caledonian gatherings (celebrations of Scottish identity) from the mid-19th century by their parents. Men competed in physical-culture competitions from the early 1900s. In 1911 C. Clifford Jennings won the first national competition and for this reason has been described as the first Mr New Zealand.
The 1923 Auckland Summer Carnival programme included a Venetian carnival display on the water and a swimsuit contest at the Calliope Dock in Devonport. This attracted a very large crowd, many of whom travelled across the harbour from Auckland city. Police were called in to help process the horde of people through the ferry-terminal gates. The Auckland Star credited advertising for attracting such a large crowd, and it is likely that the prospect of seeing women parading about more scantily clad than usual also had something to do with it.
Competitions that required women to appear in the flesh before a crowd attracted controversy, with some deeming them immodest and undignified. When women’s beauty and physical-culture competitions – which included ‘best shaped arm and shoulder’ and ‘neatest foot and ankle (bare)’– were planned for the New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906/7, critics were so vocal that the competition was cancelled.1
Photographic competitions were less likely to garner disapproval. By the 1910s photos of women were routinely displayed in movie theatres and the winners chosen by film audiences. Magazines too ran photo beauty contests. Women also dressed up in costumes and entered ‘queen carnival’ contests, which raised funds for charity.
In the 1920s the contests were more daring and revealing as swimsuit parades became an established feature of summer carnivals. Even movie theatres got in on the act, screening photos of women in swimsuits and in some cases holding parades of bathing beauties.
Miss New Zealand
Miss New Zealand – open to single women only – was the country’s longest-running national beauty contest.
The first Miss New Zealand contest was held in Auckland in 1926. It was run by an entertainment company and newspapers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The winner was chosen by a public vote. The newspapers covered the competition in incredible detail, breathlessly announcing new entrants and soliciting more at least once a week in the three months leading up to the big night.
The NZ Truth newspaper, rival to one of the Miss New Zealand organisers, the Auckland Star, dismissed the competition as a money-making exercise because the voters had to fill out forms published in newspapers. Shrieking headlines like ‘MORE GIRL! GIRL! GIRL! Theatrical Exploitation in N.Z. Beauty Competition’ and ‘“Miss New Zealand” Beauty Stunt Fools Dominion’ left readers in no doubt that the Truth was no fan of this particular contest. 2
Four provincial winners, each with a ‘maid of honour’ (runner-up), competed at the national competition, which was won by Miss Otago, Thelma McMillan. All finalists became household names, however temporarily, foreshadowing the popularity of this beauty contest later in the century.
Despite the initial fanfare, Miss New Zealand was staged irregularly until 1960, when Joe Brown acquired the franchise and held annual competitions. Beauty contest devotees had to be content with the more regular swimsuit parades at coastal holiday spots in the summer months and contests at rural show days.