Gallery: Behind the scenes at Miss Black Country 2014

The air is thick with hairspray as the contestants are prepped and preened for their big moment on stage.

A nervous chatter emanates from the contestants bidding to be named Miss Black Country as they applied more and more make-up on and slipped into their glittering, flowing gowns. 

But despite the abundance of glitz and glamour, the organiser baulks at the idea of it being a beauty pageant. “Don’t mention the ‘p’ word,” he groans.

Mark Jones, who also puts together 10 other Miss England heats across the country including Miss Birmingham, appears to despise the phrase and what it represents.

“It conjures up images of the 60s and 70s, with Brucie and that kind of thing,” he tells me, referring to Sir Bruce Forsyth’s place on the judging panel of the 1980 Miss World competition.

Talking to those involved in Saturday night’s competition, there certainly appears to be an effort to move away from the images this kind of contest conjures, of shapely women parading around holiday camps in their bikinis.

Indeed, the buzzword behind the scenes at the Arena Theatre was ‘confidence’.

Mr Jones said: “It gives them that confidence to think ‘I’ve been in front of an audience and in front of television cameras, now I can do anything’.

“In the 70s and 80s it was all about putting your bikini on, bums and breasts, who was the best looking –and it’s not like that now. Currently for Miss England there’s a concerted effort to give the girls something they can be proud of doing.”

The Miss Black Country contestants had to go through a rigorous three-month process before they got anywhere near the stage.

An initial 200 applicants were whittled down to 80, who went through an interview stage, before a shortlist of 30 were chosen. They were then required to organise charity work and collections, went through a sports and fitness programme and did a series of team building exercises with each other.

This, Mr Jones said, all goes to building their confidence, helping with interview techniques for future job applications, and teaching skills such as event organisation and the proper ways to keep fit.

The process does appear to have worked wonders for the current Miss England, 24-year-old Kirsty Heslewood, who had selective mutism when she was a child.

She said: “I was very shy in normal situations, and I could not have done interviews like this. This Miss England stuff has really helped me with my general confidence.

“I think it’s completely changed from back in the 70s – you have to be healthy, be fit, we’ve got to be charitable, work hard for other people, and we have to be role models.

“It sounds cheesy, but it’s more about being beautiful from the inside.”

The format has definitely undergone some changes over the past few years.

Lance Corporal Katrina Hodge championed the abolition of the bikini round after she became Miss England 2009, something which came to pass a year later.

In Saturday night’s catwalk show the contestants instead took to the stage in the sportswear of their choice, either from a game they play or a team they support – 18 year-old Sasha Lyttle pulled on her full Wolves kit complete with baggy shorts, socks and ball.

Also gone are the mundane questions with answers such as ‘world peace’ – all of the entrants’ credentials are explored by the panel during the interview phase of the process.

Instead the women were required to make ‘eco wear’, environmentally friendly outfits made mainly from recycled materials.

Jennifer Dudley, 24, from Dudley, crafted a dress out of the Black Country flag, winning the round.

It was a first competition for eventual winner 22-year-old Shelley-Marie Sumner, a dance and performing arts teacher from Morris Avenue in Bentley, Walsall. “I was a bit apprehensive at first,” she said, “because of what is put into the public eye – you see parents forcing their children to have fake tans, false teeth.

“But this is totally not like that.

“Pageants are all about the hair and the teeth, but with this we had a fitness session and you meet lots of different people. We all have different things that have shone through throughout the process.

“I’ve realised it’s not all about the hair and the make-up and the falseness. Although they do call it a beauty pageant, it’s about what’s within.”

On more than one occasion the contrast between Miss England and the American documentary series Toddlers and Tiaras, which follows contestants in child beauty pageants and their pushy parents, was made.

On Saturday night the parents of some of the women, including Shelley-Marie, were in attendance, and took the view that their daughters could do whatever they liked.

Sandra Keenan, mother to entrant Sasha, from Ingot Close, Leamore, Walsall said: “I’ve told her from an early age that it’s what she wants to do that’s important, and if she doesn’t want to do it she doesn’t want to. It’s about confidence.”

Sasha, who organises her own charity events and pageants, said she would be giving up competing soon as she is planning to go to university when she finishes her A Levels.

Mr Jones said that, whatever the public perception, all that matters is those involved.

“People as the mass public are probably a bit ambivalent and don’t know it happens, and that’s ok,” he said. “Is it relevant for the girls that take part? Absolutely. It’s literally life changing for them, from the confidence they get from taking part.”

Watch our video from the competition here

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