There are some jobs you agree to immediately.
"Would I like to help Gok Wan find Britain's Most Beautiful Woman?" Erm, yes, please. "They'll be naked a lot?" Day one I find myself on Blackpool Pier with my mate Keith who is so gob-struck by proceedings he has his car towed away. Think Carry On Girls times 20. Two hundred and fifty women are assembled to display what Gok Wan calls their 'fabulousness', and Gok has just asked them to strip off into their bikinis for the cameras. Right here and now on a sharp Sunday autumn morning we are surrounded by hundreds of women undressing.
There are all shapes and sizes and ages and colours and that's just the tattoos. From glamorous grans to pirates to a Divine lookalike, mums, students, foreign girls, girls who look better in their clothes, clothes who look better without. Keith and I are engulfed in a wave of excited, goose-bump covered, women huddling together above the Atlantic Ocean before Gok directs them to walk down the pier in sixes. And it's a truly amazing site.
This is the first step of a six week Beauty Contest with a difference. Gok’s intention is to find Britain’s Most Natural Naked Beauty, and to help examine and define beauty along the way. The girls will be asked to scrub off their make-up, take out their piercings and extensions, and really examine and explain what theythink makes them beautiful. The winner will be crowned Miss Natural Beauty 2008 and will become Channel 4’s beauty Ambassador, co present How To Look Good Naked, and will promote the idea of natural rather than manufactured beauty in the media.
My fellow judges, Kathryn Flett from the Observer and soul singer Mica Paris, and I are to join Gok and Myleene Klass in a series of presentations where the girls explain what steps they’ve taken each week to tackle what beauty really is. To kick off 120 contestants are given a minute to catch our eye with a presentation on why they are beautiful, from which we select 25 for the second show.
What follows is a notable change from the old fashioned cliché of beauty queens boasting of travelling, working with children and doing charity. They repeatedly explain that beauty comes from within, stems from overcoming personal hardship and that all women are on a journey (I never want to hear any of those words again). Woman after woman admitted to overcoming battles with abusive partners, bulimia, anorexia, alopecia, not being able to walk, absent parents, dying grandparents. It sounds terrible but it all quickly became tiresome and clichéd.
We were dying for someone to make us laugh, to say something different. It was like we had come to a therapy convention rather than a beauty contest. None of us were of the opinion that looks were essential but anyone who was different started to get our vote. we selected the only girl with the guts to wear glasses. Another went through for not wearing shoes. We went for attitude, humility, sparkling eyes.
My favourites varied from a giant punk rock girl to a super shy ginger student, from a tall nervous goth to a tiny mum of three. We were all looking for personality, spark, points of difference. We interviewed the final 12 on how much they were buying into the idea of natural beauty and challenging them on how well they had performed in the tasks Gok set them. The bloke’s hilarious. I’ve met a lot of very famous people over the years from Bill Clinton and Bono to Madonna and the best-liked know how to make everyone in the room, regardless of status, feel welcome and Gok has that. Women love him because he reassures them. There was hardly a scene we filmed without Gok cracking me up with some disgusting jibe or other. In contrast the moment the girls showed up, he would go out of his way to make them feel relaxed, focused, and good about themselves. And they needed it, because even the cocky ones seemed to be wracked with un-necessary self-doubt. Men and women definitely take different points of view on female beauty.
The biggest debate between the judges came over one woman who seemed interesting, sophisticated and stylish to me, but cold, distant and female-unfriendly to Kate and Mica. As we were looking for an ambassador, they argued, she would fail to attract women she was too much of a man’s man. Another thing I’ve learnt is that whereas men will dress for sexual recruitment, concerned primarily what women think of them, that women seem to consider what they think of themselves first, what other women think of them second, and what men think of them third. The levels of body-insecurity shocked me from apparently confident and streetwise women. At times I had to genuinely ask the contestants if they were making stuff up to win out support. In one show the girls were photographed in just their pants by a top fashion photographer and asked to hold an empty picture frame around an area of their body they didn’t like. Some of the women had post-baby stretch marked tummies and so on and you could understand their point. Others just showed their bums or thighs and to the judges’ eyes, there was just nothing unsightly about them in any way. As someone who’s been out with all types of women I didn’t expect the finalists to have to be the best looking women, but it was interesting that three of the final five were women who had caught my eye back on the pier.
In terms of conventional looks all five finalists have something about them. But we are a long way from the types of looks that appear on magazine covers. Making the programme hasn’t changed my opinions on what makes someone beautiful. We all have our favourites, but none of us know who will win. It’s like the Apprentice of Beauty and I am Margaret to Gok’s Sir Alan. One of the girls will get to become Channel 4’s beauty Ambassador, campaigning for Natural beauty and become famous, whether they like it or not. Who knows whether they will actually genuinely feel beautiful at the end of it.