History Today Subscription offer.

The First Miss World Contest

Richard Cavendish provides a brief history of the Miss World contest, first won by Miss Sweden, Kiki Haakinson, on April 19th, 1951.

Miss Sweden, Kiki Haakonson, carried off the first Miss World title in the Lyceum Ballroom in London, in what was originally intended to be a one-off event connected with the Festival of Britain. It was the brainchild of Eric Morley, once a London orphan, an Army captain during the war and a self-made entertainment entrepreneur of great shrewdness and drive. He had already started the Come Dancing programme, which would turn into BBC television's longest-running series, and he would set commercial bingo going in Britain, in 1961. He was in his early thirties and working for a dancehall and catering company called Mecca when it was approached by an RAF officer named Phipps, who had been put in charge of Festival of Britain publicity. Phipps was looking for some pizzazz to spice up the more sedate attractions and Morley suggested an international bathing beauty competition.

That was supposed to be that, but the following year, when a Miss Universe contest was announced in the United States, Morley was piqued and persuaded his bosses at Mecca to keep Miss World going. It has kept going ever since. By 1970, when Morley's wife Julia, an ex-beauty queen herself, joined him in organising the contest and keeping the contestants' morals and modesty suitably protected (not invariably with success), Miss World was attracting television audiences in almost every country in the world and making huge amounts of money for charity. 

To counter accusations that the show was equivalent to a female cattle market, the Morleys introduced questions and answers of a high-souled if stilted nature about each girl's ambitions and intellectual achievements. Morley himself loved appearing every year to announce the results, ‘in reverse order’.

Morley was a lively, vigorous character, who became chairman of Mecca. He left in 1978, but he and his wife continued to run Miss World and he was an assiduous raiser of money for charity. British television dropped Miss World in 1988, but by 1997 it was attracting 2.5 billion viewers in 155 countries and Channel Five started covering it again in Britain in 1999. Morley died in 2000, aged eighty-two.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X