When Jennifer Hosten first arrived in the U.K. from Grenada for the 1970 Miss World contest, she had no idea there would be such a media frenzy around the competition—and its participants. She quickly realized that she would have to do the best she could to stand out. “Women from small countries, and particularly women of color, like myself, really were not expected to be more than a number in the contest,” she tells TIME, looking back 50 years later.
But Hosten not only stood out—she went on to take home the top honors, becoming the first Black woman to win the international beauty pageant since it was established in 1951. But that wasn’t the only thing that made the 1970 competition, which took place in London’s Royal Albert Hall, different from years past. It also featured two contestants from South Africa at the height of apartheid: Pearl Janssen, a Black woman who came in second in the competition behind Hosten, and Jillian Jessup, a white woman. And it was disrupted on the night of the competition by British women’s liberation protesters.
Those events, as well as Hosten’s experience, are the subject of a new film by director Philippa Lowthorpe, Misbehaviour, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Hosten and Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley as real-life feminist activists Sally Alexander and Jo Robinson. The contest was watched by more than 22 million people in the U.K., and more than 100 million people worldwide, and has since been considered a touchstone in the women’s liberation movement in the U.K.. Just four months later, in March 1971, thousands of women, men and children took part in the movement’s first major demonstration in London.
‘Very pragmatic expectations’
Hosten grew up under British rule in Grenada, then a colonial island in the West Indies, which gained independence in 1974. In her autobiography published earlier this year, Miss World 1970: How I Entered a Pageant and Wound Up Making History, Hosten describes how she worked as an airline attendant and had an interest in broadcast journalism as a young woman, before a friend encouraged her to enter the Miss Grenada competition, which was a stepping stone to the Miss World contest.
But not everyone had such favorable views of Miss World. “That competition is one big fat celebration of oppression,” says Buckley’s character Jo Robinson in the film, as the British feminist activists prepare to protest the contest on the grounds that it was antiquated, sexist and objectified women. Hosten says she was familiar with the women’s liberation movement and shared an affinity on one level with the protesters around the universal struggles that women still face today, such as equal pay and opportunities.
But looking back, their actions around the contest were hard to understand; Hosten, who was 23 at the time, saw her participation in the contest as her own choice, not one that was being made for her, nor one that was exploitative. “I saw [the contest] as an opportunity, to travel, to represent Grenada, and to make some money if I won. I had some very pragmatic expectations. I saw it less as objectification, but I think that some of the experiences during the contest made us think that way for sure,” she says. “When I first arrived, it wasn’t my thought that I was being exploited. If I had thought that, I wouldn’t have taken part.”
The contest also took place against the political backdrop of the Vietnam War, and one of the prizes for the newly crowned Miss World was a tour of Vietnam with Bob Hope to entertain U.S. troops, which Hosten did later in 1970. There was also the fact that Pearl Janssen, the Black representative from South Africa (who was given the title Miss Africa South), “had been sent almost as a totem from her country,” says Hosten. For Hosten, that should have been the issue for the women’s liberation movement to focus on instead, and she says the protesters never reached out to the contestants to explain what they were trying to do.
‘A huge step forward’
The night of the competition saw the women’s liberation protesters, including Alexander and Robinson, sneak into the Royal Albert Hall venue incognito, with flour, vegetables and flyers in their handbags, ready to launch the protest when all the Miss World contestants were on-stage. In an interview earlier this year, the women said that their intention was to criticize the contest organizers, not the contestants, and that staging the protest that way would have maximum impact on the night. Yet the protesters became infuriated when host Bob Hope started telling misogynistic jokes, and they decided to launch the protest early while Hope was doing his bit, putting a pause to the proceedings for about 15 minutes. “It was a shock when we looked through the curtain and saw what was going on,” says Hosten. “Our initial reaction was wondering whether the contest was going to continue, or whether that would be the end and if all our preparations had been for nothing.”
It was another shock when the event regrouped and Hosten was announced the winner. “I was happy that I had reached the finals, but then I was elated to win,” she says. She was awakened the next day by a loud knock at the door from the housekeeper, who said that she wanted to see what Miss World looked like without make-up on. Hosten had immediately become a superstar, but pride was quickly dampened by the media’s reaction. “I had expected the newspapers to say, Grenada has won, or something quite flattering. Instead, the headline said, Miss World is Black, and is she the most beautiful girl in the world?” Less than positive headlines over Hosten’s win and Janssen’s second place, and lamentations that competition favorite Miss Sweden hadn’t won, dominated in the immediate aftermath. “That was rather sad, because that took away quite a lot from the feeling of elation that I would have felt otherwise,” says Hosten.
But the impact of the win would have longer-lasting impacts, says Mbatha-Raw, the actor who plays Hosten in Misbehaviour. “Looking at representations of beauty at the time, there weren’t really many opportunities for women of color to be perceived as a beauty icon. That’s really changed in leaps and bounds, and in not just beauty,” she says. “It is symbolic optically in terms of what little girls can look at, and see who gets to win, who gets to be center-stage, and who gets to be celebrated in that way. For Jennifer to win the competition, that was a huge step forward for Grenada, for Jennifer on a personal level, and for women of color as a whole at that time.”
‘We have much further to go’
Looking back on old diaries from the 1970 competition prompted Hosten to write her autobiography. “I thought it was important to show that my life didn’t end at the end of my year as Miss World,” she says. The competition really was a springboard for Hosten to move onto other adventures; after traveling with Hope and fulfilling her duties as Miss World on an international tour, she later became a senior diplomat for Grenada, worked in international development, started her own business, and trained as a psychotherapist. Although the experience of winning Miss World helped shape her, she says, it didn’t define her. “I have made an effort throughout my life to define my own life, and to show that women can do all sorts of things.”
In 2010, Jennifer received a call from the BBC, asking if she would participate in a radio broadcast interviewing all the key participants of the 1970 pageant, including Alexander and Robinson. It was the first time she had met the activists, and while she writes that she found them intense during the interview, “despite decades of being placed in opposition to one another in the narrative that resulted from the 1970 pageant, we found we had more in common than expected.” It was that reunion program that caught the attention of producers, and led to the making of Misbehaviour.
This year marks not only half a century since Hosten’s historic win, but also the first time that Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA are all women of color. While there’s still much to be debated about the purpose of pageants in the first place, Hosten says the current state of the contests feels bittersweet. “Women should not just be thinking of ways in which physical beauty can benefit them. There are many other ways in which women can shine.” And there’s plenty of room for improvement in terms of representation, as well. “The fact that we’re still talking about [women of color winning pageants] as if it’s an anomaly tells me that we have much further to go,” she says.