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When I was a child, beauty contests were very much in vogue, and every year we would sit down and watch "Miss World" on the telly. In the 1970s, this particular beauty contest was a big deal and the winner would usually become a household name. I can still recall the names of some of the winners, including Marjorie Wallace, Belinda Green and Wilnelia Merced - who is probably better known today as Mrs Bruce Forsyth.
I loved watching the glitz and the glamour of these contests but as I grew older and they went out of vogue I too lost interest, finding a contest which judges a person more on how they look than what they can achieve to be more than a little patronising.
I still have fond memories of these contests however so when I saw Angie Beasley's book "The Frog Princess" which according to the blurb "evokes the magical, lost world of the 1970s beauty pageant", I thought I may enjoy it.
Angie grew up in Grimsby and when she was three and a half her parents lost her brother to cot death. This single event led to Angie's mother becoming a Jehovah's Witness, and bringing up her children in the faith. Angie stopped going to Kingdom Hall meetings in her teens.
Angie entered her first beauty contest when she was just sixteen, and over the course of her career as a beauty queen she won 25 titles including Miss Leeds, but nothing in the league of Miss World. The beauty contest wins led to her working as a model and in promotions, and eventually she moved into running events at a nightclub.
These days she is director for the Miss England contest and the book looks back at her youth in amongst a culture that has, by and large, gone out of fashion.
I had high hopes for this book but frankly was rather disappointed. Angie Beasley's life story isn't the rags to riches affair the cover would have you believe, and I say that as someone who came from the same sort of background and lived through the same times. To be fair to her she has achieved a level of success in her working life which is to be admired, but her childhood doesn't seem to have been that bad.
I was born the year after her and grew up in a house with single glazing so the ice on the windows isn't such a big deal to me. I remember having to share the bath water with my brother and my sister too and having parents who didn't have a lot of money but worked hard for it. Her parents seem to have done their best for their children but it's hard to understand why her father goes from seemingly happy go lucky to someone who had a terrible temper over the course of a couple of chapters and was feared by his children. I have read the early sections again and still am none the wiser and the fact Beasley doesn't even seem to offer any explanations is telling.
The blurb suggests that in a "bleak northern town" the best that Angie could hope for was a "grim" job at the local Findus factory. However, on reading the book that's not strictly true. Angie, by her own admission, didn't apply herself at school, preferring to earn money doing Saturday jobs in shops and restaurants and entering into a relationship with her first boyfriend when she was just 13. Her work ethic which does shine through in this book, is admirable, but you can't help but think if she'd applied that to her school work she had the potential to do well another way.
I would have thought that wouldn't have made for half as interesting a story, but the sad fact is that I didn't really enjoy the book anyway. I had been hoping for an insight on the 1970s era of beauty contests but the fact is Angie was far more active in the 1980s, when the appeal of the contest was rapidly fading, and her level of success kept her firmly at the provincial level of contests. That's not to take away from her the fact she won some rather wonderful prizes but the fact is that she never actually won a major title.
She also seems to have been something of a knucklehead when it comes to men. Of course it's easy for me to see what's coming when she meets a man who seems too good to be true and invests a lot of money in a property with him only to lose the lot when he reveals his ugly side and regularly beats her up. It is hard not to sympathise with her plight but I did find myself wondering how someone who by her own admission enjoyed hard work and reaping the rewards of those labours ended up with a man who landed her with £20,000 of his debt in her name!
The life she has lived is, in general, fairly interesting, but like her beauty contest wins, it's all decidedly C list, and her musings towards the end of the book about more recent winners of Miss England such as Danielle Lloyd, are not of much interest. She takes some time to discuss Rachel Christie, niece of sprinter Linford, who won the Miss England title in 2009. Christie eventually lost the title following a brush with the law, yet no mention is made of any of the controversy surrounding Lloyd's career as a beauty queen.
Overall I wasn't particularly impressed with this book. Beasley has certainly made a success of her life but the story she has to tell wasn't one I found of great interest to me. The book loses points too for a lack of photographs which I have to say I found very odd in a book which celebrates her beauty contest career. There is one small picture on the back cover which I presume to be of Beasley winning a contest but that's all, with nothing else to help the reader understand Beasley's 25 title wins.
I also really dislike the persistent use of the term "beauty pageant" throughout the book. This is an American term and while it's perhaps in more common use these days, throughout the era Beasley writes about it wasn't used here, with "beauty contest" being the accepted term. I appreciate this is a small quibble but it annoyed me enough to mention it. I was also annoyed by the writing style - the book was written in conjunction with Maria Malone - finding it to be too chatty and at times self absorbed for me. Frankly at times I felt I was reading a long "Take a Break" article so simplistic was the writing - and I love "Take a Break"!
Overall I found this a pretty mediocre read, perhaps because for all the beauty contest wins, and the circles she moves in, I didn't find Beasley's life story to be particularly out of the ordinary. From what I can tell of her picture on the back of the book she's pretty enough but not extraordinarily so, and while her success as director of the Miss England contest is to be admired, at the end of the day you could argue that if you take away the level of glamour mixing with the odd Premier League football player and some other lesser celebrities, the job is much the same as director of any company.
Overall this book was a decent read for me purely for the nostalgia element as Beasley's youth coincided with mine but it's not quite what it purports to be, with a cover which promises much but lacks substance - which ironically is an analogy which has oft been used to describe beauty contests.
Life didn't hold much promise for ordinary little Angie. With few jobs around, bland food and cold weather, the best that Angie could hope for was a job at the local Findus factory. Her family didn't have it easy. Her baby brother was a cot death and the tragedy caused her mother to turn to the Jehovah's Witness faith. Their poverty, now combined with an austere belief system, meant no Christmas, no birthdays and little joy. But aged 16, Angie decided that she was destined for bigger things. After seeing a TV advertisement she entered a beauty pageant. And won. She went on to take 25 titles, including Miss Leeds, and her home town title Miss Cleethorpes, giving her the opportunity to model while travelling the world. Just as Angie felt that life couldn't get any better, she got engaged to a man who trapped her in a terrifying cycle of domestic violence. When she eventually escaped him, she had lost all of her money and self-esteem. She was on the bottom rung of the ladder yet again. But Angie picked herself up, turned her talents to event management and grafted her way to becoming Director of Miss England. Evoking the magical, lost world of the 1970s beauty pageant, Angie's story is a real life fairytale with heart and humour.