Jennifer Hosten: night of the nutmeg princess

When Miss Grenada won the Miss World contest in 1970 she almost caused an international incident. James Ferguson explains the uproar

Can there be any occasion more emotionally volatile than a beauty contest? Even if you’ve never actually seen one (and who would dare confess to such dubious tastes?), you can easily imagine the goings-on – the fixed smiles, the backstage bitching, the insincere congratulations and hysterical weeping. And that, of course, is just a normal contest. Much, much worse was a stormy contest that took place 40 years ago and which featured allegations of corruption and racism, demonstrations, and even a bomb. At its centre was the Caribbean island of Grenada.

On November 20, 1970, the 20th annual Miss World contest was due to take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The competition had become a mainstay of BBC light entertainment and was a lucrative franchise for the inappropriately named Mecca company, headed by Eric Morley and his redoubtable wife Julia. Fifty-eight women had qualified to take part in what the organisers hoped would be a problem-free mix of glamour and comedy, hosted by the veteran American entertainer Bob Hope.

But from the outset the omens were bad. Beauty pageants were anathema to an increasingly vociferous collection of radical feminist groups who targeted such events for demonstrations against what was then known as male chauvinism. The suave would-be Conservative MP Eric Morley seemed to personify such an attitude, and his criteria for suitable contestants were unlikely to endear him to feminist protesters:

Girls between 17 and 25, ideally five foot seven, eight or nine stone, waist 22 – 24 in, hips 35 – 36 in, no more no less, a lovely face, good teeth, plenty of hair, and perfectly shaped legs from front and back – carefully checked for such defects as slightly knocked knees.

Bizarrely, in the face of anti-apartheid protest, the Morleys had allowed two contestants that year from South Africa: one black and one white. And perhaps even more incongruously, they had invited the Premier of Grenada, Eric Gairy, to join the panel of judges. Gairy, a rabble-rousing populist with a penchant for having his opponents beaten up, was at loggerheads with Britain over Grenada’s mooted independence. By sheer luck, no doubt, his appointment as a judge coincided with Grenada entering its first ever contestant.

The 22-year-old Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, who worked for BWIA as an air hostess, had been advised by a passenger, Miss Guyana, that she should enter the competition. Of mixed Tobagonian and Flemish descent, Hosten had studied in London, worked for the BBC, and was by no means the simpering beauty queen of popular mythology. But could she have envisaged what was to happen?

The contest began with a bang, literally, when in the early hours of November 20 an explosive device went off under a BBC external broadcast van parked outside the Albert Hall. Nobody was injured and the incident went largely unreported, but it seems that it was an early experiment in amateur terrorism by the so-called Angry Brigade.

Also angry were the 50 or so demonstrators who managed to get into the Albert Hall that evening (many others stood outside chanting and booing). They managed to disrupt proceedings by heckling Bob Hope and throwing flour and ink bombs onto the stage. Their placards carried slogans such as “We are liberationists. Ban this disgraceful cattle market”. Visibly shaken, Hope fluffed his lines and suffered a serious sense-of-humour failure, accusing the demonstrators of being “on some kind of dope”. His attempts to restore a semblance of normality to the increasingly anarchic proceedings failed. At several points he was forced to retire from the front of the stage as missiles rained down.

Eventually security staff managed to eject some protesters, but not before one had thrown a heavy wooden football rattle at the judges. It narrowly missed Gairy and his colleagues, actress Joan Collins and country-and-western singer Glen Campbell.

The worst was yet to come. When, finally, the judges had deliberated, the winner and runners-up were announced by Bob Hope. The favourite (8-1), Miss UK, was nowhere. Third was the bookies’ second favourite (9-1), Miss Sweden. Second was the black South African contestant, and first was Miss Grenada (100-1), who earlier had dressed as a “nutmeg princess”.

It was a sensation. A black contestant had never before been crowned Miss World, and now the winner and runner-up were both black. Almost immediately the BBC’s switchboard was jammed by furious viewers complaining that the result was unfair and racially motivated. Thousands more rang newspapers and wrote indignant letters. Some members of the audience gathered outside the Albert Hall to chant “Swe-den, Swe-den”. While Jennifer Hosten celebrated her victory at a party she was blissfully unaware that her triumph had become a cause célèbre.

What seems to have unleashed the controversy was the perception that the judges’ voting was rigged – and the not entirely unreasonable belief that Premier Gairy might have had some influence on the outcome. But there was also a distinct subtext of racism. The British public was not, it seemed, ready for a non-white, and especially non-UK, Miss World.

The uproar refused to subside, and on November 24 Julia Morley resigned as chief organiser. In what was looking increasingly like a disputed election investigation, Eric Morley produced and published the judges’ “majority vote” ballot cards. They revealed that although Miss Sweden had more first-choice votes than Miss Grenada she fell behind in the accumulated second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes. The Morleys were vindicated. Even then, the conspiracy theorists refused to give up. It was Gairy who had bullied – or charmed – his fellow judges into their decision. Gairy never openly confirmed or refuted the charges. He would impose his idiosyncratic form of leadership on Grenada until 1979 and his armed overthrow.

So it was that the 1970 Miss World contest briefly put Grenada on the map and launched Jennifer Hosten’s career (she subsequently became a high-level diplomat and moved to Canada, having toured US military bases in December 1970 with Bob Hope). If she said that her ambitions were to travel, meet people and save the world, she has probably come closer than most beauty queens to realising them.

The contest also introduced millions of TV viewers to radical feminism and advocates of direct action and was probably instrumental, even in a small way, in advancing the cause of gender equality. Miss World would never be the same again, and for that generations of TV viewers should be forever grateful.