24-year-old Clara Belle, Miss Durham 2011, ascribes to what she says is a new ‘fun type of feminism’ that includes pageantry, strip clubs and cooking for your man.
The two worlds of beauty pageants rarely meet beyond the protests and picket lines outside of competitions. In front of me sits the exception. Clara Belle, also known as Miss Durham 2011, is a Russell Group university graduate now working as a political consultant. She is an intelligent, highly articulate and confident woman – who also happens to be extremely beautiful. She personifies everything the pageant world aims to be. This is probably why she’s become a demi-spokesperson for the competition, even writing for the Guardian about her time in Miss England and the regional pageants. Sipping her breakfast tea – no sugar – the 24-year-old radiates class and conviction, with just a glimmer of stunning on the side.
Clara’s ‘pageant girl’ life began almost by accident after she entered Miss Coventry to research an essay she was writing for her BA in Comparative American studies. “I was writing it very much from books and films and other people’s experiences and I just thought, I could go and do this, this is easy enough.”
Her curiosity paid off and she came in the top ten of the competition. A year later she was runner-up in Miss Rugby. “By that point my essay was finished and it was becoming purely for fun and I just thought it would be really great if I could get to Miss England.” And she did, representing Durham in the finals last year.
After three years and three pageants she sees them as “harmless fun” and an act that doesn’t detract from “the central part that feminism has played” in her life. She was brought up in an all-woman household, with a doctor for a mother. “Luckily”, she says, “I have never been subjected to overt sexism” and says she takes women’s equality for granted.
But before her first pageant she would have been more likely to join protesters outside an event rather than wear a tiara. She thought the competitions were “demeaning” towards women and surprisingly her opinion hasn’t changed much since. “They do judge women on their bodies, that’s the whole point of it. And so it’s tough for me to say, “oh I had all these negative views of it”. I still hold some of those views.”
For her the lure of the pageant is meeting so many different people, “being part of a community” and “doing something that’s a little alternative”.
“It is just the same dressing up that you did as a kid. When I put my pageant face on and I put my pageant dress on it’s not really me. It’s more of a creation.”
Many people wouldn’t consider entering a pageant a feminist act but for her it’s intrinsic to her beliefs. “You cannot be a woman and not be a feminist. My idea of feminism is that it’s my choice to do it. I enjoy it. I’m not splashed across newspapers in my bikini. I’m not on the TV, I’m doing it in the privacy of a small pageant community.
“So as far as I can see I’m not damaging. I know I’m part of an industry that could potentially be seen to be damaging. But I personally am not.”
Clara says this kind of thinking is part of a new ‘fun’ type of feminism all about personal choice, where “you can pick and choose”, even if it damages women as a whole. Clara regularly visits lap-dancing clubs on a night out and says that women nowadays are “happy to accept gender ideals or gender norms”.
“They [women] know that even if they’re at home cooking the dinner whilst their boyfriend is watching football on the sofa, they know that it’s not detrimental to them. It’s something that they want to do for themselves.”
She says this new kind of feminism is “all about the makeovers, it’s all about being beautiful but being beautiful for yourself and it’s all about freedom of choice. Doing what you want to whether or not it promotes equality between the sexes. It’s individualism as well as feminism.”
Activists protested against exactly this type of ‘individualist feminism’ outside of the Miss World finals in London last November. 200 feminists gathered outside Earl’s Court holding signs saying “your choice to be judged by your looks perpetuates women being treated as sex objects” and “being a woman is not a competition” while 122 contestants competed inside.
I first spoke to Clara after seeing her get into a heated argument with a few of the women activists. “They said “you’re not a feminist” and in the traditional sense of the word no I’m not because I support actions that are unequal.”
“I do pageants because I enjoy doing them even though I’m well aware that some of the feminists outside of Miss World had a valid point when they said they are demeaning to women. You might do it and you might enjoy it but it damages other women’s experience because men objectify you and therefore they think they can objectify us [they said]. And they have a valid point there.”
Ultimately Clara and the protesters are on the same team – both wanting equality between the sexes just with very different ideas of how to achieve it. Clara says she’s “growing more aware that there are other girls in the world, and our country” who haven’t been as fortunate as her and are subjected to daily sexism and inequality. To her pageants will always be a bit of fun.