Over the past decade, the Miss World contest has forged close ties to China

Miss World contestants in front of a screen showing the Great Wall in 2010.
Miss World contestants in front of a screen showing the Great Wall in 2010.
Image: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
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Last week, the Chinese government refused to allow the reigning Miss World Canada to enter China to participate in this year’s global Miss World competition.  Anastasia Lin is an outspoken human rights activist who has been critical of China’s policies on everything from human rights lawyers to Tibet, so the authoritarian government’s decision wasn’t exactly a shock.

What was a surprise, though, is that the decades-old, London-based Miss World Organization (MWO) failed to criticize the move, contact the Canadian contestant after she was barred from a plane in Hong Kong, or even issue a statement about her absence from the contest. Instead, the organization quietly removed her photo from its website.

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The contest puts a heavy emphasis on “charity acts” and “selfless causes,” making the silence on the fate of a national winner with a history of human rights activism even more perplexing. Quartz tried to reach MWO through official e-mails on the group’s website, various social media accounts, and emails directly to chairwoman Julia Morley, but has received no response.

The silence comes as MWO has become heavily reliant on Chinese support, particularly from the city of Sanya, where this year’s contest is being held. Since 2003, the Miss World pageant has been held in Sanya, on China’s tropical island of Hainan, a total of six times. Only London has seen more Miss World pageants in the contest’s 65-year history.

The Sanya local government has been very open about the amount it has spent in hopes the Miss World contest would raise its own profile as an international tourist destination. In 2003, the city and private donors paid $4.8 million for a license to host the pageant, according to a report in the state-owned China Daily at the time.

The city then spent a further $31 million to bring its roads and infrastructure up to international standards, in anticipation of an increase in tourists to the island. And a private Sanya company, Beauty Crown Management Group, spent $12 million building a “Beauty Crown Cultural Center,” including a 3,500-seat theater designed specially for the Miss World pageant. The 2010 contest was moved to Sanya after the Vietnam government pulled out, when $10 million in fundraising to host the contest fell through.

This year, according to the Miss World website, the pageant’s only named sponsors are brands affiliated with the Beauty Crown Management Group:

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Miss World’s close ties to China, and the Canadian beauty queen’s elimination for the pageant is just the latest in wrinkle in the contest’s long, controversial history.

Miss World was created by British entertainment entrepreneur Eric Morley (he also backed commercial bingo and the BBC’s Come Dancing program) in 1951, as a way to showcase the bikini, a new, scandalous bathing suit option. The pageant continued to have a swimsuit competition until it was axed in 2014, but Morley’s wife Julia added a new slogan “Beauty with a purpose” in the 1970s, and a new focus on charity and social conscience.

The contest has sometimes been criticized for lacking any purpose but raising money. A decision to hold it in South Africa’s Sun City in early 1990s earned the contest the moniker “Adorning Apartheid’s Stage” in The New York Times (paywall), and violent riots before the pageant in 2002, left more than 100 dead in Nigeria, after it was scheduled during the month of Ramadan.

Miss World’s finances have always been something of a mystery. As the New York Times noted in 1992, all the profits would go that year to a South African charity, but it was unclear “how much that would be when the overheads and invisibles had been calculated.” There is no information on the company’s website about licensing costs, profits, cash flow, or any other finances for this or any other year.

The UK charity Beauty With a Purpose, chaired by Ms. Morley, which appears to serves as an umbrella organization for beauty contestants’ personal charities, received £148,410 ($223,941) in “donations” in the 12 months ended July 1, 2015 according to a filing (pdf) with the UK’s Charity Commission, but there is no more specific information.

Did Miss World’s dependency on cash from Sanya prompt contest officials to keep quiet when a legitimate contestant was banned from the global contest? It is impossible to say for sure, or even to know who to reach out to beside the company’s chairwoman. Several years ago, Morley got rid of the organization’s board to “make quick decisions whenever she needs to,” as she told the UK Telegraph.