The tradition that became Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth was initiated on the first weekend of December 1981 at the New Ambassador Hotel during a snow blizzard, the worst – it was said – for forty years. At the time the new contest was called the Jamaica Weekly Gleaner Page 5 competition because the entrants, who struggled into London from all parts of the country through near non-existent transport facilities, had responded to an invitation from the newspaper of that name. The successful applicants, one of whose photographs were selected for publication each week, were invited to a general audition in October.
The weather conditions were so severe that the hotel manager decided on his own initiative to cancel the show. He substituted his own disco for the show, for which the disappointed supporters would be required to pay a second time. That angered promoter Clayton Goodwin, who had received reports all day of girls fighting against the elements to arrive on time (or arrive at all), and he persuaded the reluctant manager to un-cancel the cancellation. There were only a few absentees, including one would-be contestant who had flown back to this country from Italy where she had been modelling only for her flight to be diverted to Manchester.
Maureen Elizabeth Johnson from Gloucester, one of a strong contingent from the West Country, alone seemed to retain her near-perfect hair-style and appearance against the ravages of the winter. She carried that confidence into the contest, and – it is said – finished top on the scorecards of all the judges. Maureen seemed to be the only person present who was surprised at the result as she had entered the contest primarily to support her friend, actress Marcia Waldron, whom she had expected to win.
Because of the wide geographical distribution of entry, one runner-up was selected from each region of the country. Denise Coleman of Derby was chosen from the North, Norma Carter of Birmingham from the Midlands, Yvonne Smith from the West, and Mauva Mitchell of Streatham in London from the South. The Weekly Gleaner management was so impressed by the contest staged in their name that they granted the event full page coverage – with numerous photographs. It seemed to secure the title’s future because until then the initiative had not been universally popular with the entire management. There was still some hard negotiating to be done.
Clayton was happy to agree to an “approach” which ensured that the contest would be different from all pageants. The Jamaica Weekly 5 Gleaner competition would be basic in the extreme and would provide the basis of the title for the next thirty and more years. Entry would be available to all qualified contestants irrespective of their background; the final would be held at a venue, and the tickets sold at a price, which was available to those of even the most modest income; there would be none of the pageant paraphernalia, though the winner would receive a cup; and the judging system would be fair, fix-proof and based on positions rather than points.
Now that he had a winner Clayton had to work out a role for her, in addition to the obvious requirement to represent the Gleaner at appropriate occasions. The management had wanted a title-holder who would be outside the general run of beauty pageants. That was threatened when, against the promoter’s advice, Maureen entered the Miss Black Britain UK contest – under a slightly different name – and lost. Henceforward it would be difficult to persuade sponsors, promoters and the public that she was the most beautiful girl in the community. It was built into the understanding that future title-holders should not enter any other contests in the same sphere of interest while they held the title.
Initially no promise had been promised to the winner. It had been assumed that the effect the success would have on title-holder’s career would be incentive enough. Nevertheless Clayton soon secured an agreement with Buddies Holidays for Maureen to visit Ibiza and for runner-up Norma Carter to accompany her. The presentation of the holiday tickets was in itself more dramatic than anybody could have foreseen. Sally Oppenheim, the MP for Gloucester, offered to hand them to Maureen at the door of the House of Commons. It so happened that Hector Wynter, Editor in Chief of Gleaner Newspapers (Jamaica), was in the country and accepted an invitation to be there, too.
Meanwhile a major diplomatic row had developed between the United Kingdom and Argentina regarding the latter’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. It blew up into a military confrontation in which the British recaptured the islands by methods which did not stop short of warfare. The decisive debate took place in the House of Commons on the very day in which Mrs Oppenheim presented Maureen and Norma with their holiday-tickets, and then had to slip back into the Chamber to listen to the argument and to vote.
Mr Wynter’s support helped to strengthen the title’s credibility. He was a respected public figure who had enjoyed a successful career in politics and diplomacy before entering journalism full-time. Already Clayton, who, too, is a journalist, was beginning to achieve his ambition of the title-holder punching her weight above that of the current contest. That success was under-scored by the substantial number of applicants entering for the next year. With the decline Miss Afro-Westindian title promoted by Sammy Jay, without doubt the greatest UK Caribbean/African title, the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner Page 5 title was emerging as the accolade note.
Not that Clayton wanted to enter into competition with anybody. He did not consider other promoters to be rivals, but formed partnership arrangements with most, who would assist the show by recommending contestants. In return he, as a writer, could help by reporting their activities and advising on matters relating to publicity and public relations. Goodwin preferred also that the final should be presented independently by an established promoter so as to ensure total neutrality. He was fortunate in striking an instant rapport with Trevor Russell and Spencer Williams of TWJ sound who had provided some of the backbone to Sammy Jay’s shows, especially in the running of the preliminary heats – as well as providing the music.
Clayton shaped the title on the lines of the village beauty contests he had seen while growing up in rural Kent. The events involved the entire community and encompassed other activities as well as the contest itself. The accepted judging criterion was – and continued to be recognised as – the best “blend of good looks, pleasant personality and knowing how to behave (socially)”. He felt that the attention of the spectators should be primarily on the contestants, and not on the venue, the celebrities present, or the other attrapen of pageantry. To him, as a sports writer, the contest should be seen in the sporting context with participants competing against each other in performance to achieve an accepted standard.
Clayton had expected to set up a new contest, guide it until it was established, and then hand it over to another promoter so that he could return full-time to his writing. It would be over thirty years before he was able to do so. The title took off to such a degree that it needed his full attention. It is unlikely that Maureen Johnson realised that she had been in at the start of something new and dynamic – Clayton Goodwin was made to realise that very soon, and events to come made him feel personally responsible for its development.