A report by Lia Beck for Refinery 29.
Warning: Spoilers for Misbehavior are ahead.
Towards the end of Misbehaviour, Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has just become the first black woman to win the Miss World pageant, tells a white woman, Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who is protesting the competition, “I look forward to having your choices in life.” Suddenly, Sally’s feminism is confronted with intersectionality and the idea that something she is so against could mean something completely different to a Black woman. After winning, Jennifer had more opportunities in life. Perhaps the same ones that Sally had a white woman. In real life Hosten actually did cross paths with Alexander — it just was 40 years after she was awarded the Miss World crown.
Hosten and Alexander were in touch in 2010 when the BBC series The Reunion interviewed them along with another protestor, Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley in the movie), and a pageant organizer, Peter Jolley. It was this interview that got the attention of the Misbehavior’s producers.
“In that interview, Sally Alexander and I had the same conversation [as in Misbehaviour], where she said, ‘You know, Jennifer, we were not attacking you guys, we were attacking the organization,'” Hosten tells Refinery29 ahead of the film’s U.S. release on September 25. “Women of color didn’t have the same choices and were not included in the same way or expected to participate in the same way,” she continues. “We were not really given the same opportunities in 1970, and I think the challenge is ongoing.”
Misbehaviour, which is based in part on Hosten’s memoir Miss World 1970, tells the story of the 1970 pageant, which saw the first black winner, two contestants from apartheid South Africa — one Black, one white — and protests from both the Women’s Liberation and Anti-Apartheid movements. Afterward, there were also allegations that the pageant was fixed. The film focuses on Jennifer and Sally, but unfortunately, rather than the balance being even, it skews more toward Sally as a mother, university student, and leader of the feminist protests. (Hosten calls the choice to include both stories “very clever” and adds that she was able to give suggestions to the filmmakers.)
The protests involved women sneaking into the event with flour bombs and water guns filled with ink, and interrupting the night to shock of host Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear in the film) and the many people watching on TV around the world. Several of the women were arrested.
Hosten says that at the time of the London-based pageant she and the other contestants understood that the protestors were not against them as individuals, but against the Miss World pageant as a whole, which they found sexist for rewarding women based on their looks alone. That said, Hosten notes a lack of communication between the two groups of women.
“We had an affinity with them because we could all understand issues of equality,” Hosten says. “We felt that women needed to be paid the same as men for doing the same work. We felt employment opportunities needed to be similar. Talking for myself, I was aware of the Women’s Movement.
What I think we were not so attuned to when we arrived in England was the messages that we saw that they were using. They were not culturally understandable to everyone. I mean, you had women from all parts of the world. They didn’t reach out to us, the Women’s Movement, they didn’t reach out to us to try to explain what they were trying to do.”
Hosten had already studied broadcasting and was working as a flight attendant when she became Miss Grenada. “I really can’t say that I was part of that [pageant] world,” she says. But after participating in a couple pageants that were more about celebrating Caribbean culture, she won Miss Grenada and headed to the Miss World competition feeling optimistic.
One scene in the film shows Hosten talking to Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the black Miss Africa South. (They switched the words around to distinguish her from the white Miss South Africa.) Pearl has resigned herself to the fact that Black women don’t go far in the competition, but Jennifer disagrees. In real life and in the film, Jansen ended up placing second behind Hosten.
“I was always determined to do my best,” Hosten says now. “That included trying to get the best dress, and the best bathing suit, and the best [national] costume. I really worked very hard before going to make sure that I would stand out in all the different sections of the pageants.” She also felt that she had an advantage over the other contestants when it came to the interview portion. “I was a former broadcaster, so I thought that is where I would shine.”
Hosten points to the her Caribbean upbringing being multicultural as the reason why she never felt undeserving at the pageant. “I didn’t ever feel like a minority growing up,” she says. “And so to feel like a minority in England when I suddenly arrived was a shock to the system. I always felt that I had a chance and I always felt it was up to me.” That said, she recognizes that overall the feeling was that “girls from small countries and women of color … were there kind of just to be numbers.”
Hosten’s thoughts on pageants are similar today to how they were in 1970. She sees them as “one of many opportunities.” “If it’s part of what you see yourself doing, then that’s fine, but I think that women have choices to make and their choices should be in line with their life goals.” She’s happy with one change: Miss World contestants no longer have to turn around so the judges can stare at their backsides as they do in the film. “Even then that was strange to me and to many, because I never had to do that in the Miss Grenada contest.”
As the first Black winner of Miss World, Hosten was, of course, aware of the big news in the pageant world in 2019 when five of the winners of major American and international competitions were Black women. “I think it’s great that more women of color are taking advantage of various opportunities. And many more opportunities today are available to them than there were in 1970,” she says. “But I think the fact that we’re still talking about this as something that needs to be highlighted tells me that we still have a long way to go.” Hosten is looking forward to a day when “we don’t have to comment on it, because it’s something quite natural.” She adds, “When you think about women taking part from all different parts of the world, why should only Eurocentric standards of beauty be the standard?”
Hosten can really put her money where her mouth is when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities. During the years since she won Miss World, the 72-year-old, who now lives in Canada, went on to become Grenada’s High Commissioner to Canada, a Canadian diplomat to Bangladesh, and a technical adviser on trade to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. She also got two masters degrees, one in political science and one in psychotherapy, and has two children and several grandchildren.
“That was another reason for writing the book, to show that my life didn’t stop at the end of 1970 or 1971,” she explains of Miss World 1970, which goes beyond the story told in Misbehaviour. “I think it’s important to show that women do lots of things in their lives. [Winning Miss World] was a pivotal moment. It was a great experience. It was an opportunity, as I saw it, a stepping stone to other things. And I took advantage of that opportunity, which is amazing to me that 50 years later we’re still talking about it.”