Pearl Janssen, the first black South African Miss World entrant, was a runner‑up in the chaotic 1970 contest, but her triumph came with a backlash. As the event inspires a new film, Jane Flanagan meets her in Cape Town
It was the biggest television night of the year and the host of the Miss World 1970 final, Bob Hope, was in full sexist flow. “It is quite a cattle market here tonight, and I’ve been back there checking calves,” the American drawled to a packed Royal Albert Hall. “But I don’t want you to think that I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything!
Not only was she crowned Miss World but her friend, Pearl Jansen from South Africa, was the runner-up. Organisers had been shamed into sending her, a black contestant, at the last minute but Jansen had to be known as Miss Africa South because there was already a white Miss South Africa.
A peculiar clatter rose above the audience’s laughter: a football rattle was signalling to batches of women’s libbers, planted in all corners of the audience, to begin their protest, hurling smoke grenades, flour bombs, leaflets and rotten tomatoes. Momentarily — and rarely — Hope was lost for words.
As the riotous feminists made for the stage, the comedian’s bid to flee was scuppered by Julia Morley, the wife of the show’s organiser Eric Morley, reaching from her seat below stage level and gripping his ankle.
Backstage, oblivious to the pandemonium, Pearl Janssen, 20, from Cape Town, was focused on making her own quiet Miss World history. As the pageant’s first Miss Africa South, she was a token representative of her country’s oppressed non-white population, competing not just with young women from around the world, but with the officially endorsed Miss South Africa, Jillian Jessup, from the country’s dominant white minority. The double-entry black girl/white girl fudge was Morley’s clumsy answer to mounting anti-apartheid sentiment.
The BBC’s live broadcast was interrupted while the protesters were bundled out of the hall yelling, “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re ANGRY!” — long enough for the newly minted Women’s Liberation Movement to grab the attention of a global TV audience of more than 100 million.
The competition’s final result would prove just as momentous; not only did Miss World crown its first black winner in the form of Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada, but Janssen beat her white compatriot to be named the runner-up.
Fifty years on, the story of the most chaotic and epoch-making beauty pageant in history is being told in Misbehaviour, a film featuring Keira Knightley in the role of the protest leader Sally Alexander, Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope and Keeley Hawes as the indomitable Julia Morley. The winners are portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Doctor Who) as Hosten and the British actress Loreece Harrison as Janssen.
It took some time for the film’s makers to trace Janssen who, in the half-century since she cashed in her runner-up cheque for £500, has come to bitterly regret her part in the show, becoming something of a recluse in her Cape Town township.
When Misbehaviour’s director, Philippa Lowthorpe, phoned in December 2018 to ask that she be part of the project, Janssen, who will be 70 this year, was convinced “it must be a prank”.
She had been the first beauty queen of colour to represent South Africa, an extraordinary feat during the most oppressive era of apartheid rule. By beating the country’s official contestant, watched by millions around the world, South Africa’s token entrant had embarrassed her white minority government.
While the white Miss South Africas of the past had been celebrated nationally and become magazine pin-ups, Janssen and her family were punished for her triumph. During her 12-month reign as Miss World runner-up, she was begrudgingly allowed into events at “whites-only” venues, her parents forced to wait outside.
“My father lost his job, my brothers lost their jobs, people presumed we must be rich and didn’t need them,” she recalls of the backlash. Since South Africa did not introduce television until years after the Miss World final was broadcast, it was very easy to ensure Janssen’s success withered quickly.
“I was a good ambassador for South Africa, but nobody gave me recognition in this country back then or since.”
The only daughter and youngest of four, Janssen never married, had any children or even a serious relationship, grittily fighting back at the ill-informed who said she should have made more of her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “That was actually was never given to me!” she fires back. She was resigned to working as a barmaid at Cape Town’s racecourse and recalls the humiliation of once having to serve a famous former Miss South Africa who recognised her.
Since the death of her father 34 years ago, Janssen has lived with and cared full-time for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s and turns 98 this year. A large glass cabinet dominates the spotless sitting room in their tiny bungalow in Bonteheuwel, one of the jumble of townships known as the Cape Flats. Its shelves heave with cups from Janssen’s beauty queen years, including a miniature of the weighty globe she won in 1970. Above her chair hang two black and white portraits from her heyday. She remains a great beauty; her silver hair cropped tight is testament to two bouts of breast cancer treatment and punishing chemotherapy. She feels grateful to have survived, she says, but admits that life is quieter and lonelier than the one she had envisaged 50 years ago when she told the Miss World compere, Michael Aspel, of her aim to become “a successful model”.
The view of Table Mountain from Bonteheuwel is as good as any other in Cape Town, if you can look past the fly-dumped mattresses and torched cars in a neighbourhood born 60 years ago when “non-whites” were purged from the city centre and dumped on its fringes. Janssen was ten when her family were ordered out of their suburb of Salt River. Her teenage years revolved around a new civic centre where she took classes in gymnastics and ballet. Her pageant career began at the age of 16 when she was invited to represent Bonteheuwel in a “Miss Community Centre” contest between the most beautiful girls in the Cape Flats. She took that title and at every competition she could get a lift to after that. “I was so successful that when they saw me people said, ‘Aha, there’s Pearl, she’s going to win tonight!’ I had my fans back then and buckets of confidence,” she says, smiling, her dark eyes shining at the memory.
While she had once dreamt of being Africa’s Margot Fonteyn, she reset her heart on being the next Penny Coelen, who, in 1958, had become the first South African to win Miss World.
Janssen’s father, a labourer and disciplinarian, had resented the pageant “nonsense” for which the costs of outfits, transport and styling her thick glossy mane were racking up. However, her mother, a maid for a white family, backed her as she scooped up provincial glory in 1968 and 1969 as Miss Western Province, as well as racially segregated national titles reserved for the apartheid classification of “coloureds”.
Her run of victories was perfectly timed: in 1970 Morley, Miss World’s founder, sent word that South Africa, facing calls to be banned from the competition, should send a non-white contestant as well as its white Miss South Africa to the next final.
Janssen was brimming with confidence, storming through the local qualifying round. “I won that hands down,” she recalls with a clap. Sponsors funded deportment classes in which she learnt to “glide” by balancing a book on her head while in heels. She was also briefed on how to deflect awkward questions from the media and was shown a dossier on South African dissidents in London who might try to turn her.
“I was aware of all the unhappiness about our apartheid government, but I was not interested in the politics at all. I was going to London for the competition and to win. That was the only thing to me,” she says.
The days in London, her first foray out of South Africa, were an education for her and Jessup, her national rival with whom she had little in common.
“We had had very different experiences of life,” Janssen says. “She was my rival, no more than that. I had never shared a dressing room with a white girl, and I am sure that side of it was quite strange for her too.”
In a recording of the show I watch with her — it was opened by Lionel Blair and his dancers in sequined flares and frilly orange shirts — Janssen’s natural vivacity and confidence burns bright.
It nearly wasn’t so, she says. For the all-important eveningwear section of the final, the South African sponsors had commissioned outfits for the girls, but fobbed Janssen off with a dress she remembers as an eyesore in “dirty pink”. She would have none of it and was determined to find something fabulous in her talisman white.
The only London shop she had heard of was Harrods and she began plotting with her chaperone, Maureen, how to sneak out of the hotel unnoticed.
“I said to her, ‘I’ve got money. Have you got money? Let’s go to Harrods. I will not win in this dress,’ ” she says, laughing.
She was in luck and on sale was the perfect gown, immortalised in the recording. “It had a high neck with diamantés, long sleeves . . . see how it flows over my body like milk,” she says with a sigh.
Janssen is hoping that the new film will bring her the recognition she has been denied for half a century. And she is busy searching for another dress to wear to its premiere.
“And it definitely must be white.” Misbehaviour is out next month