Why are more women than ever applying to be Miss England in the age of Instagram?

On a humid July night in Newcastle upon Tyne, the launch party for Miss England 2019 is under way. In an unassuming grey-brick hotel, tucked away behind a multi-storey car park, the 52 finalists have gathered in their evening gowns, artificial silk sashes draped over their shoulders to display which region they represent and identifying numbers strapped to their wrists. The atmosphere is not unlike a high-school prom – nervous boyfriends lurk outside the banqueting hall clutching makeup cases, parents roam the hallways eager to catch a glimpse of their daughters and the finalists are always aware of the judges scattered throughout the room.

Established in 1928, Miss England is the UK’s longest-running beauty pageant, although some would argue pageantry has an even longer history in Britain, with its roots in choosing May Queens for traditional May Day celebrations. Today, however, such competitions are often the focus of mockery and criticism – from the allegations of racism and bullying at Tonga’s July pageant to the car-crash reality-show portrayals such as Toddlers and Tiaras or Sandra Bullock’s turn in Miss Congeniality. Despite that, and the fact that the traditional spoils for the contestants – a modelling career and public profile – could arguably be more easily achieved in 2019 via a carefully curated Instagram feed, or reality show, somehow, beauty pageants are flourishing. Applications to compete in Miss England have been rising – reaching more than 20,000 this year.

Read the feature in the Guardian.

This piece was also featured in the Guardian's Today in Focus podcast.

[This piece was published on 08/08/19]