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The curious history of the Mrs New Zealand contest

“Hundreds of well-wishing women” gathered at Gisborne’s airport to welcome home Mrs New Zealand 1962, Joan Coates, and her husband, Dr Jim Coates.

Passé pageant

It’s all very puzzling. If you ask Mrs New Zealand CEO Anita Prasad, who has been involved with the pageant since 2012, about its history, her memory will take her back only as far as 2011. As for anything earlier, she has “no idea about this at all”. Yet so far as we can determine, the first Mrs New Zealand contest was held in 1960.

As if this weren’t confusing enough, the winner on that occasion was a Mrs Sicily, who actually appears to have no connection with the Italian island. Two years later, and Mrs Sicily was there when the title was taken by Mrs Coates from the East Coast.

The announcement of her win was made live on the wireless, presented by Mrs Elsie Lloyd, supervisor for women’s programmes, who enthused that the 17 regional contestants “look even more attractive because this morning they had the most wonderful beauty session in a special room at Kirkcaldies”, courtesy of Max Factor, and “each of them was given a full kit in their own colouring group”.

We pick up Mrs Coates’ story again in the Gisborne Photo News, which recorded her triumphant return to her hometown. This was the golden age of caption writing, when ingenious subeditors packed the maximum of information into a minimal number of words, such as these beneath a picture showing “Mrs Coates arriving at the official welcome ceremony at the Public Relations Office amidst a confusion of umbrellas and school children drenched by a sudden shower”. Or, another: “On her triumphant return to Gisborne, Mrs Coates was greeted by her husband and son and women’s hour personality, Miss June Irvine.” Those were actually three different people, in case you’re wondering.

One thing that has been consistent through the years is an, at best, ambivalent attitude to feminism at Mrs NZ. “Some women strive to be equals, but at the same time they want to be treated as women. Just how equal do they want to be?” wondered 1968’s incumbent with a smile as she paused, according to the Weekly News, in the act of shelling peas. The “tall, dark, attractive young mother” preferred to be known as Mrs Alan Brown, believing “a married woman should take pride in sharing her husband’s full name, not just his surname”.

She had no doubts about the value of the competition: to promote “the image of the contented, united family in a Christian environment”.

Asked if she is a feminist, Anita Prasad performs a nimble sidestep, saying only, “I believe every human being should have equal rights and opportunities.”

In 2013, Elena Turner won the contest after entering at the urging of her daughter, Katrina – “the controversial director of Miss Bikini New Zealand”, according to the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Katrina had bagged her own contest’s competitors by telling them they needed to shed some weight to measure up. Russian-born maths teacher Elena herself plummeted from a 14 to a 10 to secure her win and cheerfully ’fessed up to taking advantage of Botox on the road to victory: “I need it.”

These days, Mrs NZ is a broad church. “There are categories such as married or engaged,” says Prasad. “Further to this, it has special categories and opportunities for ladies who are married and divorced, separated, single mothers and widows.” And you have to be somewhere between 21 and 56.

But, if you’re under 21 or over 56, you could still have a part to play. At the time of writing, the event was looking for a judge. Among other qualities, the successful candidate “must be from Fashion & Modelling Industry. (Fashion Designer from NZFW would be a bonus)”.

The current title-holder is the tautologically named Candi Sweetman, a “South African, Mother, Dancer, Entrepreneur, Model” and Miss Bikini NZ finalist in 2015. She will be competing next year in Las Vegas for the title of Mrs Earth – presumably, if she makes it to runner-up, she would take the crown if for any reason Mrs Mars were unable to fulfil her duties during her reign.

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.