Opening the 1970 Miss World contest, the presenter Bob Hope was in a particularly ebullient mood. “I’m very, very happy to be here at this cattle market ... ” he leered into the tittering audience. “Moooooo!”
His enjoyment was short-lived; moments later, the clatter of a football rattle resounded around the Royal Albert Hall, and the stage was invaded by outraged women protesters, hurling flour and stink bombs. They forced the obnoxious Hope to flee from the set and disrupted the BBC’s broadcast in what has come to be seen as a watershed moment for feminism.
“I watched the whole ceremony and it’s shocking, particularly the bit where the women all have to turn round to show their bottoms ... ” says Gugu Mbatha-Raw, over lunch at a smart Marylebone restaurant. “It definitely makes you realise quite how far we’ve come.”
This particular Miss World contest is the subject of Gugu’s thought-provoking new drama, Misbehaviour. She takes the role of Jennifer Hosten, who, as Miss Grenada, became the first black woman to win the Miss World crown. “I came to [the part] with an air of judgement, of oh you know, beauty queens,” she admits, “but I’ve become more open-minded as to what that represents. I think it’s very easy now to look back and say, ‘Why would you do that? It’s so superficial.’ What’s interesting is that the rebellion can often be a luxury.” For her research into the film, Gugu visited Grenada to talk to Hosten. “She’s in her 70s now, and she’s got such a regal presence, such posture, these bright, bright eyes—she’s very demure, quite proper but very centred.”
“It was amazing to meet her and find out about a moment in her life all that time ago that really informed all her opportunities and choices. She felt like she was an ambassador for her country, and she was breaking boundaries in her own way.” Hosten went on to be appointed Grenada’s High Commissioner to Canada. Meanwhile, just a few days before we meet, the Miss World title is awarded to Toni-Ann Singh of Jamaica, meaning that in 2019, for the first time ever, all major beauty titles have been won by black women. “Optics are so powerful: who gets to be celebrated?” says Gugu.
Distractingly beautiful herself, and appearing far younger than her 36 years, Gugu has an unselfconscious freshness that could not be further from a beauty queen’s manicured perfection. She has come to our lunch straight from a yoga class and arrives dressed down in a monochrome ensemble of jeans, a scarf, and an embellished rollneck from Sézane. “This is as jazzy as I normally get,” she confesses. “My wardrobe is mostly black because I dress up for a living, and it makes me feel calm and neutral.”
The waiter, who can clearly recognise the star quality when he sees it, rushes up with a menu, and she studies it with frank delight, eventually settling on potato ravioli and sea-bass with champagne sauce, and diving for the breadbasket. “Ooh! It’s warm!” she exclaims, then complains vociferously about the inadequate dinner served at a celebrity event we both attended recently.
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