The Big Tees: You Beauty!

Harry Pearson reflects on Teesside’s proud history of beauty queens in his exclusive Tees Life column…

Elsewhere in this issue you’ll read an interview with Teesside’s former Miss Great Britain, Preeti Desai. I imagine her family were chuffed when she was crowned.

I can still recall the excitement back in 1969 when my Auntie Kay came back from Filey Butlin’s (so popular back then it had its own railway station) bearing a sash declaring her the winner of the holiday camp’s ‘Glamourous Granny Competition’ for the third summer in a row.

Admittedly, the thrilling news also created some confusion because my Auntie Kay wasn’t a granny, or even a mother. It was a very long time before anyone told me this was because my Uncle Len – who’d finished an impressive third in the knobbly knees contest – wasn’t actually her husband and had another family down south. Well, Doncaster. Folk were more respectable in them days.

Both Preeti and my Auntie Kay were part of a proud Teesside tradition that stretches back to the first decade of the last century. It was in 1908 that 18-year-old Ivy Close from Portrack was declared ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in Britain’ by The Daily Mirror.

The Mirror had begun life in 1903 as a newspaper written ‘by women, for women’, but after a year when circulation didn’t match expectation the proprietor Arthur Harmsworth (a boss so fearsome his employees stood to attention when talking to him on the telephone) fired all the female journalists and replaced them with blokes.

Harmsworth was always on the lookout for competitions to boost sales revenue, and when a New York newspaper published a photograph of an American it claimed was ‘The most beautiful woman in the world’, pound signs flashed in the Fleet Street magnate’s eyes.

Harmsworth asked pulchritudinous female readers to send in photos of themselves. 1,500 hopefuls responded. Ivy’s picture was taken by her dad, Jack.

The contestants were whittled down to two dozen of what The Mirror would now call ‘leggy lovelies’ and they were asked to report to London to be photographed again at the Wimbledon studio of society snapper, Elwin Neame.

It was no contest. Neame, gazing down into the lens of his camera, fell head-overheels in love with the Stockton lass’s “dreamy sylph-like brand of loveliness” and, it seemed, so did the judges.

Ivy won the competition and with it a brand new Rover motor car and the honour of having her portrait – painted by Sir Arthur Hacker – exhibited at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. Shortly afterwards she took the prize in a head-to-head with the American lady whose photo had sparked The Mirror’s contest and so has some claim to having been the first ever Miss World.

Two years later Ivy and Elwin Neame were married. He became a film director, she a screen actress, appearing in more than 40 movies. The Neames were quite the dashing celebrity couple, whizzing about the Home Counties on motorbikes and going to live in New York where they hung out with Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.

Sadly, Elwin was killed when his motorcyle collided with a car in 1923. A dozen or so years later Ivy married an Australian stuntman-cum-make-up artist named Curly Batson – whose movie credits include such unforgettable 1950s’ titles as She Gods of Shark Reef and Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Once one of the five most famous women in Britain, Ivy gradually faded from public view, though if you were listening closely you might have heard a reference to her in an episode of Downton Abbey, which was co-created by her great-grandson, Gareth Neame.

The portrait of Ivy Close by Sir Arthur Hacker now hangs in the Ferens Gallery in Hull and there’s a plaque in her honour on the wall of what was once the Swallow Hotel in Stockton. Maybe Preeti Desai will have one in the future. The celebration of my Auntie Kay’s achievement will likely stay more low key.