My ankles feel close to buckling. They’re strapped into five-inch, diamante-encrusted heels, and are barely visible underneath my floor-length sequin dress. I’m hovering at the top of a set of stairs, leading to a stage. I feel as though I’m surrounded by butterflies; a cluster of women resplendent in coordinating, shimmering jewel tones, their delicate bodies quivering as they await their turn. One of them wrings her hands and cricks her neck to the left, and then to the right. But they must keep waiting. Until I’ve had my turn. A microphone is thrust into my hand. I place my other on my hip, take a shaky step out into the spotlight. I am here to win Miss World.
Three months previously, my parents were staring at me, goggle-eyed over a Sunday roast, their forks suspended in mid-air. “But, but… you have a degree,” spluttered my mum. I’d just broken the news to them that I have been accepted to compete in the Miss London heats, the first step (on a long road) to becoming Miss World (prize money: $100,000). It could be, I tell them, life-changing. But they remain unconvinced. I can’t blame them. Becoming a beauty queen is no longer the lofty, aspirational career choice it was in the ’60s. Back then pageants were televised to millions and made instant celebrities out of the women who entered them, offering many a chance to escape their quiet hometowns. Then, slowly, they slipped out of fashion. There were, of