The real South African story behind the movie Misbehaviour
Pearl Gladys Jansen was born in Bonteheuwel, Cape Town, in 1950. At the age of 20, she was entered into the Miss World beauty contest, the first woman of colour to represent her country in the pageant. Due to apartheid, however, she competed as Miss Africa South, and was joined by her white counterpart, Jillian Jessup, who wore the Miss South Africa sash.
The 1970 Miss World competition took place in London, and was hosted by US comedian Bob Hope. It was notable for many reasons, including Jansen’s participation, which is of course significant in SA’s tainted history, and was a point of controversy all of its own. The popular opinion was the competition condoned the racist regime of SA by allowing them to enter.
The women’s liberation movement had begun to emerge in the late 1960s, and in 1970 there was righteous outrage at the concept of beauty pageants in which young women were (still are) paraded like cattle, in swimsuits, for the appreciative gaze and approval of men.
Add the misogynist – although not unusual for the era – Bob Hope into the mix and the entire affair became volatile. On the night, as women’s libbers gathered outside the Royal Albert Hall in protest of the objectification of women, Hope quipped in reference to them: “it is quite a cattle market here tonight.”
He continued: “And I’ve been back there checking calves. But I don’t want you to think that I’m a dirty old man because I never give a woman a second thought. My first thought covers everything.”
In hindsight, it’s shocking, but that’s the way things were. It certainly didn’t do his career any damage, and the pageant was the most-watched TV show in the world with more than 100 million viewers – most of whom were expecting a blonde blue-eyed lass to take home the crown. It was not to be.
Before the winner was announced, the protesters stormed the venue and disrupted the broadcast by throwing flour bombs, and heckling Hope, shame. This after a bomb of a more serious nature exploded under a BBC outside broadcast van (with no injuries). When proceedings resumed, Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, became the first black woman to be crowned Miss World. But wait, there’s more: Pearl Jansen was first runner-up; Jillian Jessup placed as fourth runner-up.
In the space of hours, a global audience had seen the patriarchy driven from the stage and the Western ideal of beauty subverted. It didn’t end there, with accusations of vote rigging, racism, corruption, and a truckload of sour grapes. It makes one wonder how Miss World even continues to be A Thing, in this day and age.
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The events of this night, and those leading up to it, are the topics of the film Misbehaviour, streaming first on Showmax. Keira Knightley is the headline star, playing English historian and feminist activist Sally Alexander; Greg Kinnear – who does sleazy so well – plays Bob Hope.
The South African contestants in the pageant are played by Loreece Harrison (Pearl Jansen) and Emma Corrin plays Jillian Jessup. Yes, the name is familiar; she plays Lady Diana Spencer in Season 4 of The Crown (Netflix), for which she won a Golden Globe. The sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten. Also in the cast are Keeley Hawes (The Durrells, Bodyguard), Jessie Buckley (Fargo), Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), Lesley Manville (Princess Margaret in Seasons 5 and 6 of The Crown, coming 2022, and she’s also in raunchy period drama Harlots, all seasons on Showmax), and Rhys Ifans (many, many movies but Notting Hill is unforgettable).
“Misbehaviour is refreshingly ambitious in its attempt to tell the different sides, and to de-centralize what normally would be front and center. Scenes counter each other, attitudes shift scene to scene, depending on the context. It’s treated as a given that pageants are sexist and gross, but the scenes of pageant rehearsals plus the camaraderie of the contestants tells a different story,” says Roger ebert.com.
From IndieWire: “Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Jessie Buckley add pop to the feminist pageant comedy, while Greg Kinnear serves up an icky Bob Hope worth despising.”
(See another side of Kinnear’s acting talent in The Stand, on Showmax.)