For those new to My Beauty, here is a quick recap. I started the project (in my head at least) way back in 2011 when in Margate working on a project called Cachetabout youth subcultures in the town. The idea was to get working class locals into Turner Contemporary while recording their important part in the area’s cultural history. This worked surprisingly well.
While doing my research I kept meeting ladies of a certain age who would stroll up and proudly announce themselves as Miss Margate 1972, Miss Cliftonville 1964 or Miss Lido 1958. At first I was confused. Then I was hooked. What was it that was so important about these contests? What was it about the beauty shows that had stuck with them? And just who were they?
As I dug a little, I found out that the contests were as varied as the women I met. Some shows were about civic pride and evening gowns, others were about swimsuits and cash prizes. Sometimes the cash prizes were life-changing. A flat and a sports car life-changing. A Way Out. In the same way that boxing was for young working class men. For me, this is working class history, told from a working class perspective. These are untold stories, refreshed and not moderated through the same old lens.
Fast forward five years and I spent the summer back in Margate, interviewing and photographing 25 women. Quizzing them on class, feminism, beauty, family, local pride and just about everything else I could think of. They were ALL wonderful, ranging in age from 50- to 84-years-old.
Now for more hard work, putting it all together as a book and exhibition. More soon!
I shall be appearing on Radio 4’s Making History show tomorrow (Tuesday 6 September) at 3pm. I will be talking about my own work, the Miss Black and Beautiful show at Autograph ABP, 1st Century queens and even music hall star (and lost part of history) Gus Elen.
I’ve not really been away (well apart from a short holiday). But I have been working hard on getting the items people loaned me together, scanning photos and contacting former-beauty queens who now live outside Margate. There are still a few to go and I am still working on the project, so do get in touch if you were a Margate beauty queen contestant.
I have also been getting out and about and have been lucky enough to see the Miss Black and Beautiful photography show in east London. The show collects the work of photographer and show organiser Raphael Albert, who died in 2009. It’s on at the wonderful Autograph ABP, which archives a diverse cultural history and promotes the work of black photographers and is really one not to miss. The set up is done really well and the images and artefacts tell a powerful story that often runs counter to a traditional, 21st century view of beauty shows.
There is a small crossover with my own work. But more of that later…
I will be down at Dreamland this Saturday, from 1pm to 5pm and hoping to meet more beauty queens and beauty show contestants from the area.
Saturday is the first anniversary of the amusement park re-opening and is also the first day that it is free to get in for all. So come and say hello, enjoy wandering around and bathing in nostalgia. But make sure you bring yourself/your mum, aunt or nan to share their memories with me.
I have met some wonderful beauty show contestants so far, but would love to meet more. Come along if you were ever a contestant in a show in Margate, whether it was at Dreamland, the Lido, the Oval, the Winter Gardens, a hotel or even your workplace. Beauty shows took place all over Margate, from Rovex to the annual balls of trades unions and from the beach to nightclubs. Whether you were a carnival queen, Teen Queen or Miss Dreamland I would love to meet you.
When you undertake a project like My Beauty, you are reliant on the generosity of others. So it really touches me when people want to take part and really get involved. The women who have been in touch via phone, online or face-to-face at events have been fantastic. They have enthused about the project, about their past and about Margate.
I have been invited into homes, loaned precious photographs and shown amazing pieces of Margate’s history. There have been crowns, hand sign-written sashes, programmes and trophies. There have been peals of laughter, happy memories and ‘I wonder whatever happened to her’ tales. Thank you all.
Events at Batchelors Patisserie and the Tom Thumb Theatre have brought large numbers of beauty queens and interested parties along. Some of the photos that have been shared with me have been stunning, with many coming from the Sunbeam Studios. Sunbeam was once based in Sweyn Road and their archive is now held by SEAS at Canterbury Christ Church University.
The next event up is at Dreamland this Saturday, the 18th of June. This marks one year since the park re-opened and is also the first day that the site will be free to enter for all. So do come along and say hello, bring memories to share and encourage your mum, aunt or nan to come and do the same. I shall be somewhere just inside the entrance. Ask at reception if you can’t find me. I’ll be there from 1-5pm.
Tomorrow (Monday 13 June) sees the second My Beauty event in Margate. This is a special screening of a surprise beauty queen feature film at the wonderful Tom Thumb Theatre, 2A Eastern Esplanade, Margate CT9 2LB.
I am told that the former-owner of the Tom Thumb was a beauty queen. So it’s great to have a venue with a link to Margate’s beauty queen past.
The bar upstairs opens at 7pm, with the screening beginning at 7.30pm. Admission is free for any woman who was an entrant in Margate beauty shows, from Westbrook to Cliftonville and Miss Socialist to Miss Rovex or even Miss Lovely Legs at the Lido. Bring your photos and your memories as My Beauty takes over Club Hydropathe film club at the Tom Thumb for one night only.
If you can’t make this event, then there is another at Dreamland on 18 June, from 1-5pm. You don’t need to pay to get into the part where I will be (inside the main entrance on the seafront). But former-beauty queen contestants will be given free admission to Dreamland itself.
Last week’s event at Batchelors was a great success, with lots of beauty queens coming along.
It has been a busy few days in Margate and I have been dashing around meeting women who took part in beauty queen shows in the area.
Today I get to sit down for a while and meet beauty queen contestants and anyone interested in the project at the wonderful Batchelors Patisserie in Northdown Road. It’s the sort of venue a beauty queen would have hung out at in the 1960s or 1970s, sipping a coffee or enjoying one of their much-loved doughnuts or pastries (this was an era before size zero).
The furniture is still largely original, dating back to the opening of the famous bakery. Before that, the building was a travel agency, largely selling rail tickets. I’d always assumed it was too posh for me. I don’t think I went in until I was 40.
I shall be there from 1-4pm today (Thursday 9 June). So do come and say hello. I shall be taking the Roy Hudd role from this picture.
Below you can see Batchelors as it is now and as it was in the late 1950s.
Fans of Dexys (Midnight Runners) won’t have failed to notice that the band have a new album out today. But it is an older recording by Dexys vocalist Kevin Rowland that has played a part in my project. Searching around for a title for the project I came up with My Beauty, which it then occurred to me was also the title of Rowland’s divisive solo project.
The album is all about love and beauty, coming at the end of a tough period for the singer of big hits such as Geno and Come On Eileen. I listened to it intently, including the track above, which was left off the finished CD due to lack of clearance from The Boss. Rowland changed the lyrics, which was the deal breaker…
“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night. You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright.”
from the Springstein original became
“Have a lickle faith, there’s magic in the night. This is your beauty and hey, you’re alright.”
This resonated with me, as the project looks a lot at the past, using those in the present to do so. I am taking photos of the women who take part, but I don’t want this to be a simple then and now comparison. ‘Woman older then she was 50-years-ago’ is not what I am after. Inevitably, that will be one reading of the project, but for me the project is about untold stories, hidden histories and the beauty of then and now. The badges I’m handing out read ‘This is MY BEAUTY’. I like to think Kevin would approve.
You can hear me talk more about the influence of music on my work on Academy FM from around 10am on Sunday (5 June) morning.
Rifling through packets of old and sometimes scratched negatives, you find that the best picture today is often the one that was probably rejected at the time. Someone walks into shot, one of the beauty queens is frowning or yawning or (as below) another photographer walks into shot.
This shot shows the winner, a Miss Joan Ashley, 21, of Mill Hill, London. But out of focus at the rear of the shot (giving it great balance) is one of the runners-up. Her pose suggests she may also be having her shot taken by another snapper. But maybe she is just contemplating her recent defeat. Either way, it is a beautiful photograph.
Please get in touch if you know Joan Ashley. I am looking for any Margate beauty queens from 1945-1995, including those who travelled to the town to compete. Contact me by leaving a comment below or email on firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call on 01622 322007
Looking at the local papers in Margate from the 1960s and 1970s, it seems the town was very backwards in its taking up of female equality in the workplace or elsewhere. But I doubt that things were much different in the rest of the UK. After all, the Sex Discrimination Act did not come into law until 1975.
This was a time when many factories in the area had their own beauty shows, including Klinger and the famous Rovex factory in Westwood. Even local trades unions held their own beauty show, as did political parties.
Rovex, who made Hornby trains and Scalextric racing cars, appealed to women with their ads referencing the ‘model world’, workplace safety and half-day Fridays (so you could go to Dumpton Market and pick up the latest knock-off fashions). There was also the chance to win the title of Miss Rovex at the company’s annual dinner and dance each December.
I am looking to find any Miss Rovex, Miss Klinger or any other workplace beauty queen from a time when that was a seemingly normal thing to happen. Similarly, I would love to speak to any judges from that time. Please pass the message on to your mum, nan, aunt, sister or friends. The workplace shows are as much a part of the Margate beauty queen history as any show at the Lido or Winter Gardens.