In a world full of restrictions, fans come to Alternative Miss World, hosted at Shakespeare's Globe, as a night of freedom, equality and frivolityby Jessica Abrahams / November 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Welcome, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between, to Shakespeare’s Globe and the Alternative Miss World—a night when this hallowed stage is handed over to veteran artist and impresario Andrew Logan for what one audience member calls a “celebration of chaos.”
This is a pageant with a twist: contestants from all over the world compete in the traditional categories of daywear, swimwear and eveningwear, but beauty is entirely irrelevant. Instead, this catwalk is about “transformation,” and it’s not only women, but men and even inanimate objects that can win. Often described as a drag show, it isn’t quite that—though it’s hard to say what it is. Many of the entrants are fine artists and their out-of-this-world costumes can take months to create. While some resemble extravagant ladies’ wear, in line with the format of the event, others are unclassifiable. This year’s winner, Miss UFO, AKA Russian performance artist Andrey Bartenev, walked the stage in three outfits composed of cloth-covered balloons, which appeared to shape-shift as he moved.
Although gender fluidity is often dismissed as a new fad, Alternative Miss World is nearly half a century old—its tongue-in-cheek genderplay persisting from feminism’s second wave right through to its fourth. While Logan insists his show is about nothing but joy, it is hard not to see an element of commentary in it about the restrictive standards and treatment of women in beauty pageants. AMW’s first event came as the real Miss World’s popularity and influence was at its height—just two years after it was targeted by a high-profile 1970 “women’s lib” protest at the Royal Albert Hall, which ridiculed the show as a “cattle market.” In 1978, with the release of a documentary about it, there was a spot of legal difficulty as Miss World founder Eric Morley tried to sue the film-makers for use of the name. A young, unknown lawyer was hired to defend the artists and won. His name was Tony Blair.
Alternative Miss World began as a party-cum-pageant at Logan’s flat in a former East London jigsaw factory in 1972, and again the following year. With guests spilling out of the door, David Hockney, Derek Jarman, Vivienne Westwood and David Bowie’s wife Angie were among those able to squeeze in during those first two years. The story goes that Bowie himself ended up stuck outside.
Since then, Logan tells me, he has been hosting the contest whenever he feels “the time is right, or isn’t right,” though finding a venue that would accept such a bacchanalian event has not always been easy. By 1986, it had its eyes on the magnificent Chislehurst Caves, an ancient 22-mile network of tunnels buried under the sports car-laden driveways of a southeast London suburb. During the 1960s and 70s, the caves had became a subterranean performance venue for Bowie and his contemporaries, who hosted wild, drug-fuelled parties there. But when the Alternative Miss World came to town, it was one step too far for the residents of Chislehurst. Amid the emerging Aids epidemic, the council blocked the show two days before it was due to take place, with residents concerned its clientele could bring the infection to the area. “The ignorance was unbelievable,” recalls Logan. “People were panicking.”
The world has changed since then. This year’s event took place just a few weeks after the news that marriage and civil partnership laws will be equalised for the first time, with both options available to mixed and same-sex couples. Meanwhile, changes to gender recognition legislation could make it far easier for people to legally reassign their gender; and the concepts of gender fluidity and non-conformity—explored at the Alternative Miss World since its inception—are slowly being absorbed into mainstream culture. Still, that progress has sparked a backlash that has left some feeling under threat. At least one audience member worried out loud about security, suggesting the show could be a target for attacks.
The elevation to the stage at the Globe comes on the back of a cultural “moment” for drag and its relatives, marked by the wild success of television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which started life as a parody of conventional modelling contests. Others have followed. New series Pose exploring New York’s historic “ballroom culture” of cross-dressing catwalk competitions was recently renewed for a second season.
Despite these favourable tides, finding a home is still difficult—but this time it is cost, not intolerance, that has held it back. In the past, they would pay “a few pounds” to rent a space. Now, venues are asking for tens of thousands. “People were more open, more generous [before],” Logan said. “This city’s become so impossible. It’s so expensive.” His former studio in the artists’ hub of Butler’s Wharf—which hosted the 1975 Alternative Miss World—is now converted into luxury flats and chain restaurants. “All these kind of community places are going,” he said. The Globe has offered AMW a home for now but it is, arguably, a sanitised one. Tickets go for between £25 and £50.
But in the Globe, Logan hopes, Alternative Miss World may at last have “found a home.” Farah Karim-Cooper, the theatre’s head of research, agrees the pairing might be a better fit than it first seems. “The Globe is a completely irreverent space,” she said. “In the yard, it’s a bit like a mosh pit—it creates this really high dynamic energy.” Performances in Shakespeare’s day would have been loud, chaotic and subversive too, she said—the performers improvising as they forgot the lines; the audience responding viscerally with shouting and applause. It gets to “the irreverence of it and the joy and the popularity and just the fun and playfulness of theatre back then,” she said.
The gender-bending suits too. “Shakespeare’s female characters were played by boys and so there’s a lot of gender fluidity that forms part of the themes of the plays,” she said. All told, “Shakespeare probably would have been pretty cool with this kind of act.”
In a world full of restrictions, fans come to AMW as a night of freedom, equality and frivolity. Instead of beauty, contestants are judged on the criteria used for the dogs at Crufts: poise, personality and originality. There are no limitations on age, gender, shape or size. Entrants are selected solely on a first come, first served basis. They have walked the catwalk completely nude, and swung from their hair above stage; accompanied by animals, or wrapped in balloons. They have been male, female, black, white, teenage and octogenarian or even, in 1985, robotic. The only contestant Logan has ever turned down wanted to skin a chicken alive on stage. “It would go under the umbrella of art,” he acknowledged, “but I wasn’t interested in that.”
If gender is a performance, AMW puts it on the stage—though only after cutting it up into pieces and sticking it back together like a Picasso collage. “You can talk about gender fluidity—this almost obliterates gender,” said Che Frantz, an artist who has been attending Alternative Miss World since the 1980s.
Logan himself presents the show as both host and hostess, with one leg in trousers and the other in tights, introducing the acts through a surreal half face of make-up. And while drag historically locked women out, they’ve always been part of AMW. It was not until 1986, however, that a female contestant managed to take the crown: Jenny Runacre, a decade after being nominated for an Academy Award, claimed glory for her performance as Miss National Geographic.
The show is totally unrehearsed, with not even Logan knowing the performers’ plans before they take to the stage. “You light the taper… stand back and see what happens,” he said. It’s “a free for all.” Animator Antoinette Starkiewicz, another long-time attendee, described the show as “a very rare event anywhere in the world. It’s not for profit at all,” she said. Instead, the show is about “individuality, creativity, fun. It brings together the things we need most at the moment. It’s a healing thing.”
Frantz argues it’s the spontaneity that avoids the show becoming bound by rules—if nobody knows what’s going to happen, it’s hard to regulate it. And so at this year’s show, the stage, yard and gallery melded together at the Globe, with audience members clambering between aisles at will and performers dropping off the edge of the stage. One act handed out wine; another released a dove from under their dress; somewhere along the way, someone set off a smoke bomb.
The Alternative Miss World may have gone mainstream—“now you could almost do the Alternative Alternative Miss World,” said Frantz. But for its participants and patrons it still stands for freedom on gender, appearance and creativity—a moment to revel in chaos in an otherwise regulated world, for as long as it can last. “This is all an antidote,” said Logan. “Alternative Miss World, for a few moments, is an antidote.”