Written by Sarah Ryder -
Forty-something-year-old me finds beauty contests absurd, outdated and frankly quite distasteful, but as a child, I would have loved nothing more than a placing in the annual Miss Kaiteriteri competition.
Growing up in the 1980s, beauty contests were huge - particularly following New Zealander Lorraine Downes’s win in the Miss Universe competition in 1983. For me, entering the Miss Kaiteriteri competition was just a normal part of the summer holidays - like piling onto the back of the ute to go and cut down a Christmas tree, jumping sprinklers in the orchard or splashing around in the lagoon at Stephens Bay.
Every year on a scorching hot day in early January, Dad would drive one of the apple trucks down to the Kaiteriteri Domain to be used as a stage for the Miss Kaiteriteri competition.
Clad only in togs, jandals and with a light slick of SPF4 Coppertone, my sisters and I would eagerly await our turn up on stage in our respective age group categories. Sometimes I’d be in the same age group category as my sister and I was always terrified that she would get a placing and I wouldn’t. (I needn’t have worried. The winners were always the tanned, leggy girls from Christchurch, not pale, short locals!)
Up on stage we’d go, jandals slapping on the hot truck deck, clutching our numbers at hip level and remembering to smile and wave to the hundreds in the crowd. There was a Mr Kaiteriteri competition too, which seemed to involve more bicep flexing and less waving.
Back then Miss Kaiteriteri was run by the Motueka Jaycee Club, which my father was a member of. Many Jaycee clubs around New Zealand were involved in running regional beauty contests, and some were part of a franchised format by Dunedin entertainment promoter Joe Brown, a consummate showman, whose name was synonymous with the Miss New Zealand franchise from 1960 to 1973 and from 1979 to 1986.
During the glory days of the 60s, 70s and early 80s, thousands of young women entered regional Miss New Zealand beauty contests. Regional winners then toured the country for three months promoting the contest and raising funds for charity before a final showdown to select a Miss New Zealand to take part in the Miss World and Miss Universe contests overseas.
According to an article on Te Ara, the first protests against New Zealand beauty contests took place as early as the 1920s but ramped up in the 1970s as the women’s liberation movement gained traction. Feminists saw the competitions as sexist and degrading. However while protests were increasing, thanks to television coverage, beauty contests had also never been more popular. In fact, more New Zealanders tuned in to watch the 1981 Miss New Zealand contest than viewed the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer the same year.
By the late-eighties the tide had turned and beauty contests were on the wane. Joe Brown passed away in 1986. There were now different national contests including a Miss World New Zealand and a Miss Universe New Zealand. In 1989 Miss New Zealand winner Helen Rowney described herself as 'Miss Anonymous' in a magazine article and by the early 1990s, beauty contests were no longer being televised.
The Miss Kaiteriteri contest was still running as recently as 2018 - although there were no entrants in the women's category that year (only in the junior girls' and men's categories). Somehow I think the glory days of beauty contests are well and truly behind us...