True story behind Miss World who tackled apartheid but was hated by feminists
She was famously targeted by angry feminists over her Miss World competition – but Julia Morley also confronted racism to ensure South Africa sent a black contestant at the height of apartheid.
Julia Morley, now 80, is back in the spotlight as #MeToo movie Misbehaviour tells the story of the shocking Women’s Liberation attack on the show at London’s Albert Hall in 1970.
But what it won’t focus on is how Julia took on a racist regime to bring a black beauty queen into the contest the same year.
Still running the competition, Julia defiantly talks of her pride in what she and late contest founder Eric Morley have achieved since it began in 1951.
But she says she holds no grudge against the feminist activists who famously pelted show host Bob Hope with flour, stink bombs and rotten fruit 50 years ago, watched by 22million shocked British viewers.
“At the time I couldn’t understand why they felt the need to do what they did,” says Julia.
“But they needed a platform to promote themselves and that’s fair enough. You couldn’t be angry with them, really.”
Now organising Miss World 2020, Julia says she has always battled inequality of any sort – from the first time she got involved in the beauty pageant in 1970.
“Eric had asked me to help,” says Julia.
“And I took a phone call from someone in South Africa com-plaining they had held their own contest, Miss Africa South, but their girl would not be able to take part.
“Apartheid meant black women were banned from entering and they had been told Miss World was a contest for white women only. I thought that was a disgrace and unacceptable.
“We wanted to include everyone – that was our rule. So I said they must send their girl.”
Furious Julia told Eric there would be two Miss South Africas that year – “official” white winner Jillian Jessop and the black contestant, Pearl.
After the protest, Pearl came runner-up to the first black Miss World, Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten.
Julia, who took over the running of the contest after Eric’s death 20 years ago, says: “It was an amazing moment – but when I asked for Pearl to come to the Albert Hall, I didn’t realise
it was such a hot political potato.
“She and Jillian got on really well. I don’t think Pearl had ever shared a room with a white girl before, which just seemed very silly to me.”
While the launch of Misbehaviour has brought a lot of memories flooding back for Julia, she is relaxed about her portrayal in the movie.
She says she’s “flattered to be played by someone as amazing and beautiful” as Durrells and Bodyguard actress Keeley Hawes – but added: “The film has licence to exaggerate.
“I’ve only seen a little bit of it in advance and it looks like great fun.
"But Eric is portrayed as a bit of a Del Boy and, while he was a proud Cockney, it’s not really who he was.
Keeley plays my character well but makes me look about 45 years old which, I can assure you, I didn’t look at the time.”
Keira Knightley stars as protest-leading feminist Sally Alexander in the film, which is due out this week.
She and other activists tried to get on to the stage after comic Bob Hope made a series of salacious comments including: “I don’t want you to think I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything.”
Julia was backstage when the protest began.
“I was feeding the girls on to the stage when I heard this rattle go off and flour bombs and fruit were thrown,” she says.
“It was later said I held Bob Hope’s leg to stop him running off the stage in fear, but that’s just a legend that’s grown around Miss World.
"The whole thing was over in a couple of minutes. A few of the women were led away and the show went on as normal.”
But those few minutes were enough for the activists to grab the attention they wanted – even though Julia says many women in the audience were furious their night out had been disrupted.
“Most were bingo players who were there because they had won a seat during a Mecca promotion,” she says.
“They had come to London for the weekend to enjoy themselves and they ruddy well couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I heard some of them hit protesters with handbags.”
The protest made its mark though.
It led to an eventual overhaul of the contest and a name change to Miss World: Beauty with a Purpose as it began to raise millions for sick and disadvantaged youngsters through the Variety International Children’s Fund launched in 2009.
So far more than £700million has been raised.
In 2015, the swimsuit round of the contest was dropped. Contestants now frequently include lawyers and doctors – and winners use their status to get involved in humanitarian work.
But Julia argues Miss World was progressive long before the protest. Eric, who was a chairman at Mecca, launched the contest to coincide with the post-war Festival of Britain in 1951.
“Britain had been bombed to pieces and everyone was looking for a bit of fun,” says Julia.
“Women were starting to feel free to do the things they wanted to do and, for some, they had no qualms about walking about in a bikini in Miss World.
“It was a massive competition – it still is – and people enjoyed watching it. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved.
“If you really think about it, what other event can get between 130 and 140 countries together without arguments and raise millions for children at the same time?”
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