Dec 13th 2009, 00:00

021 discovers that beauty is beyond the eye of the beholder at the Lancashire Manufacturers Beauty Pageant. Friday night at the Grassy Park Hotel, where the annual Lancashire Manufacturers Beauty Pageant is being held. The Grassy Park Hotel is not an obviously glamorous setting. In the events hall, laminated wood walls are lined with dartboards concealed behind mirrors advertising Richelieu brandy. 1970s globe lampshades hang from the cherry-red ceiling. A faint scent of alcohol and cigarette smoke permeates the wooden fl oors, long scuffed
of varnish, lending an aura of disappointed dreams.

But the arrival of Elbes Leonard, the vibrant events manager, gives the whole scene some spit and polish. Under the influence of his leonine personality, ennui dispels. Later, the hall fills and backstage buzzes as contestants in the beauty contest arrange their boas and make last-minute adjustments to their ball gowns. Contestant no. 9, 37-year-old Shahjeda Achmat, admits, “I’m so nervous.” An orange plume swells like a sun-stained cloud in front of her ample cleavage. Contestant no. 1, dressed in an aquamarine mermaid outfi t, is nonchalant. Her hair fans out in a Grecian style, giving her an air of nobility. Indeed, tonight, each one of these women is a queen for the brief time that they step on stage in front of the audience of several hundred. On Monday morning, they will be back at their machines, stitching the hems of the uniforms that the factory has been manufacturing since 1936. It’s low-paid work that barely rises above the level of drudgery. But these women know how to make the most of life.

The tedium of their jobs is relieved by a ferocious camaraderie, characterised by the ear-piercing screams that greet each woman’s arrival at the hotel. The laughter among these women is loud, frequent and tinged with defi ance as though to declare to the world, “Our lives are tough but we know what to make of them.” Screams of ‘Yeerah’ rip like lightning bolts through the cigarette
smoke-thick air. Monday morning is far from these women’s minds as they scoop up their busts from the outside, push them toward the centre for maximum effect and add glitter to further highlight their assets. The contestants have spent weeks preparing for this event. The diverse group of entrants spans a 20-year age range. The youngest is under 20 and the eldest over 40. There is just as much disparity in body types, which range from plump juicy pears to ripe apples.
It’s difficult to see where beauty defi ned in any conventional sense enters the equation. And
everyone knows it. “We’re not all pretty ladies,” says contestant no. 10, Carmen Rosseau.

Here, oversize garments are more in evidence than oversize egos. This contest is about fun and
female bonding. Carmen says, “It’s about smiles and personality. We all love each other very
much. It’s all for one and one for all.” Meanwhile, onstage, Jada the drag artist and compère for the evening receives rapturous applause as he fl icks his sculpted calves behind him, like a coquettish fl amingo, then initiates a movement that originates in his ankles and takes full and marvellous effect in his buttocks, which vibrate with the precision of a plucked double bass string. His act reaches a climax when he flings himself like a dying swan onto the floor and, my heavens, lifts his leg aloft, making his private parts momentarily public. The mostly female audience goes wild. Another transvestite struts among the crowds like a golden giraffe in a teensy, lamé outfit that makes Naomi Campbell seem voluptuous. In Grassy Park, the transvestites are a staunch part of the community and preside over events such as these.

The women on stage are more homely than the arch gender-bending divas. With the glee of young girls trying on their mother’s high heels, they teeter onto the stage, the audience encouraging them to be too big for their boots. I have a revelation. In the waspy white
middle-class tribe that I awkwardly belong to, women look at each other with a critical, comparative eye, ripping you to shreds as they glance over the pages of Vogue and Vanity
Fair. None of my kind has ever experienced the rapturous appreciation that these women
so generously bestow on one another. The women on stage tonight are being given an undiluted shot of self-esteem, more potent than endless hours of therapy in any middleclass, suburban psychologist’s room. “We Coloureds support each other,” explains Vivienne Willenburgh, a hairdresser at Lynette’s Hair Studio in Steenberg.

She’s out for a jol tonight with 15 of her girlfriends. She says, “We know how to enjoy ourselves
because we grew up tough.” I’m stunned when minutes later she leaps on stage to participate in the glamorous granny segment of the evening. Oddly, the glamorous grannies and the fuller figure ladies are competing at the same time. Jada interrogates each of the women: “Glamorous granny, or fuller figure?” In most cases, it’s a rhetorical question – there’s no doubting the category that the impressively large women belong to. There’s an awkward moment when Jada
refuses to believe that Vivienne belongs to either category. However, she insists on her granny
status. It is easy to understand Jada’s suspicion. Gravity has had little say in this woman’s tight
physique – her breasts are as buoyant as her spirits. At age 39, with only one grandchild, she’s not much of a granny in this company of prolific females. She has little chance of beating the 57-year-old with 10 grandchildren.

In the end it’s the well-preserved 43-year-old with three grandchildren who takes home the fruit basket. Next up, the fuller figure ladies. The moment begs for Mika’s bouncy track, “Big girl (you
are beautiful).” But sadly, the DJ’s repertoire doesn’t extend much beyond Beyoncé and Whitney Houston. In India, the elephant is the symbol of beauty and as these women undulate onstage, I wonder what communal madness has led us to worship thinness. Suddenly, Jada’s sculpted calves and tight thighs count for nothing among these voluptuous mounds of flesh. He looks lost, like a toothpick in a bowl of marshmallows. What I learn that night in Grassy Park is that to be beautiful is to feel beautiful. And to feel beautiful is not to stand in front of a mirror neurotically seeking confirmation but to stand in front of friends, being appreciated just for being yourself. And in the heat of the applause, the women are truly beautiful. On occasion, my aesthetic is out of synch with the others – the audience goes wild for one contestant squeezed into a lace doily-like dress that reveals what might politely be called a womanly stomach.

For me, it epitomises the ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’ label that any European woman over forty
dreads like a disease. Puzzled as to what the audience finds appealing about this woman, I
ask Vivienne to decode. “She’s just got it,” I’m told. Still, I just don’t get it. It’s a tense time as the four judges debate who will be crowned the Lancashire Beauty Queen. This is the first round of the beauty pageants. The winner goes on to compete at national level. As the five finalists stand on stage, waiting to hear their fate, tension mounts in the audience. “Who’s the queen?” Jada demands. “Who’s the queen” the cry ricochets around the hall, stirring the audience to a frenzy. “No violence. No violence.” Jada pleads, as women, some in their seventies, have to be restrained from clambering onto the stage. The evening becomes surreal when the previous year’s beauty queen waddles on stage, dangerously close to giving birth. Her watermelon belly pokes out in front of her gold lamé dress, creating an odd crinoline effect. Just think, when did you last see a nine-month pregnant lady wearing a ball gown? Not even Angelina Jolie can pull that one off.

Her message to the incoming queen is simple but sums up the entire occasion: “Have confidence in yourself,” she mumbles shyly into the microphone. In the end, the trophy goes to the most conventionally pretty girl. The four judges overlook the bravado of the middle aged to
crown one of the younger ones, with plump flesh and curves still visible. It’s the mermaid, Shiraz Philander, who sings the sweetest song and is crowned the queen. Poised on a plastic throne, the audiences comes on stage to kiss her hand. She sits serenely for half an hour, graciously accepting kisses and compliments; an enraptured Cinderella in an elaborately sustained fantasy.
The women of Lancashire Manufacturing Company can teach us how to flagrantly disregard the media myth that female beauty is an exclusive, members-only club open only to the pencil thin and perfectly formed. These ladies know for sure that external features count for very little. Figures will be lost bearing the inevitable children and time will march on regardless across even the most perfectly proportioned face. But what endures is the beauty of female friendship, which is strengthened through time.

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