August 13, 2006

As I mentioned last week, I was invited to judge the Miss England contest, a two-day event. On the night of the finals, the girls fell into two groups. There were those who expected to win and felt they deserved it, like Miss Essex. "I've worked all my life to get here," she said. She's 19. Group two were the girls who didn't expect to win and didn't feel they deserved it. Most of these were the ones I voted for. I had a strong feeling none of them would make it into the final; and I was right.

My fellow judges took the scoring very seriously. I noticed one girl had been given a zero out of 10. Was I not low enough? Chances are, if you give a girl a 1, it gets the point across. But a zero? A zero says: it will be a national catastrophe if this girl wins. Was that really necessary? We're not on the UN security council. So I gave her a 10. Just to balance it out. I'd decided anyone 5ft 5in and under would get top marks just for having the courage to stand next to someone 5ft 11in wearing high heels. My vote was giving the underdog a chance; it was a sympathy vote. I was Sharon Osbourne. Without the money or the clothes.

After all 68 girls had appeared on stage and given a twirl in their evening gowns, the soon-to-be-former Miss England took the microphone to introduce the judges. One by one we were to stand up and give a nod or a wave to the crowd as our face appeared on a giant screen. It hadn't occurred to me that I'd be in the spotlight. Could it get any worse? It could. She said: "Ariel Leve from The Sunday Times, a very well-known publicist." Close enough, I guess. Journalist, publicist - they both end with "ist". I was seated next to a cricketer, Darren Maddy, and I suspect we were next to each other because, unlike the other seasoned judges, neither of us knew what we were doing. "I don't get it," he said, pointing to a girl in an empire-waisted gown. "That dress hides her shape." I told him, that's what makes her so brave.

Every few minutes his buddies would come over and advise Darren who to vote for, largely based on who they wanted to date. A rugby player, Harry Ellis, offered to get me a vodka, but I told him I didn't drink and to quiet down because he was distracting me. My concentration was waning. Nearing the end, I was warned by an assistant: "When Miss England is crowned, there will be an explosion, so cover your ears." For the rest of the show, all I could think about was the pending "explosion".

There was a goody bag under my seat and I opened it up, hoping to find earplugs. But instead there was a complimentary can of fake-tan spray. I suppose it's okay to be deaf as long as you're tanned. When Miss Oxfordshire, the new Miss England, was announced, Darren's friends were thrilled and I plugged my ears and waited. A few seconds passed, a few more - then, just as I took them away, bang! The judges' table shook as a blitz of confetti fell from the ceiling, like golden soot.

After the show I spoke with some of the girls, most of whom seemed relieved it was over. There were, of course, a few who were gutted, and I tried to comfort them by explaining that none of it really matters and that being a loser has its advantages. But I don't think that cheered them up at all. Especially coming from me.