Miss World: A brief history, including controversies, criteria and famous winners

The pageant, founded in 1951, is the longest-running international beauty contest

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Update: The Miss World Organisation announced on June 8 that the 2023 final will be held in India, not the UAE

Beauty queens from around the world are set to descend on the UAE later this year, as the Miss World pageant takes place in the country for the first time.

Announcing the news on Monday, the Miss World Limited chairwoman Julia Morley said she was “delighted” to bring the pageant to the Emirates, marking its first foray into the Middle East in its seven-decade history.

So what, exactly is Miss World, how does it work and what do you need to know about it? Here is a short history…

When did the first Miss World take place?

Miss World is the longest-running international beauty pageant. In 1951, British television presenter Eric Morley held a bikini contest as part of the Festival of Britain. While the contest’s official name was the Festival Bikini Contest, the event drew widespread attention from the British press, who dubbed it “Miss World”. It also drew plenty of criticism from those who deemed a bikini, a relatively new garment at the time, as immodest.

The competition was won by Kerstin "Kiki" Hakansson from Sweden, who became the first Miss World.

While the contest was initially planned as a one-off, Morley — who was later dubbed “Mr World” — decided to make it an annual pageant after seeing how much interest it garnered, and trademarked the Miss World name shortly afterwards. However, several highly religious countries refused to participate if delegates were made to wear a bikini, leading to its replacement with a swimsuit round, which was deemed to be more modest.

By 1959, the BBC began broadcasting the pageant, which became one of the most watched programmes annually during the 1960s and '70s.

Miss World controversy

While the pageant's popularity continued to grow around the world, it was not without controversy. In fact, the 1970 competition was at the centre of one of the most dramatic feminist events of the 20th century, when activists stormed the stage with flour bombs during the contest’s televised final. Watched by 100 million people around the world, they shouted: “We're not ugly! We're not beautiful! We're angry!"

The incident was the subject of the 2020 film, Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightley.

That year’s Miss World winner, Grenada's Jennifer Hosten, became the first black woman to claim the title. Recounting her experience to the Observer in 2020, she said: “I didn't realise it fully at the time but we were all using that contest as a way to get a message across. For me it was about race and inclusion — for them, it was about female exploitation."

During the 1980s, the pageant repositioned itself with the slogan, “Beauty With a Purpose”, and added segments and tests based on intelligence, personality and advocacy. However, by then, the contest’s popularity had started to decline, and, by the 1990s, was no longer broadcast on mainstream channels in several countries around the world.

Since his death in 2000, Morley's widow, Julia Morley, has co-chaired the event. Nepal-born British businessman Dipendra Gurung became the company's new co-owner in November.

What are the Miss World entry criteria?

The entry rules for Miss World, unlike other major beauty pageants such as Miss Universe, have remained unchanged throughout its history. To enter, contestants must be unmarried and childless, between the ages of 17 and 27 and be a resident of the country they represent.

In 2022, Miss Universe announced that it would update its criteria to allow women between the ages of 18 and 28 who are married, divorced, pregnant or mothers to enter.

Past Miss World winners

Previous Miss World competitions have taken place all over the world, from South Africa and Hong Kong to India and Poland.

The last pageant was held in March last year in Puerto Rico, where Polish beauty queen Karolina Bielawska was named Miss World 2021, beating runners-up Miss USA Shree Saini, and Ivory Coast's Olivia Yace, who was the favourite to win.

Bielawska made history by becoming only the second Polish beauty queen to win the title.

The competition had been postponed from December 2021 after a Covid-19 outbreak among contestants and crew.

Contestants from 98 countries took part in Miss World 2021, including Khadija Omar, Somalia's first hijabi candidate.

Before Bielawska, the title was held by Miss Jamaica World 2019, Toni-Ann Singh, whose reign as the longest title-holder in history was extended following the delay of the annual beauty pageant for the second year due to Covid-19.

Indian model and actress Aishwarya Rai won the contest in 1994, while fellow actress, Priyanka Chopra, took the title for India six years later, in 2000. Both have gone on to have hugely successful film careers.

When and where will Miss World 2023 take place in the UAE?

An exact date and venue for the contest has yet to be announced, and the image shared on social media for the announcement features both Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a backdrop, suggesting it could take place in either city.

Bielawska was crowned in March last year, meaning her reign is drawing to a close and a new winner will be crowned in the coming months.

As of this week, 82 contestants have been confirmed for this year's competition.

More details are set to be revealed shortly.

Updated: June 09, 2023, 4:32 AM