August 6, 2006

When I was asked to judge the Miss England contest, my first inclination was to decline. What do I know? My beauty routine consists of applying a medicated gel twice a day to my rosacea. As a teenager my make-up case was filled with eye drops and antihistamines. But then, I am judgmental. Plus, I was curious to see what it would be like to be around so many smiling, happy, pretty people.

Before I went, I did some research. One of the girls had listed "travels extensively" as her talent. Did that mean a willingness to travel, or a natural imperviousness to jet lag and dry skin? So many questions.

Upon my arrival in Leicester, the show's producer told me the hotel had a pool in case I wanted a swim. No thanks. Just what I needed: to be in a swimsuit surrounded by beauty queens.

When I was introduced to one of my fellow judges - Mr England - he didn't know what to make of me. I could see him trying to work it out. Was I a judge? In flip-flops? And no make-up? With less hair gel than him? What was happening to the world?

Another judge was last year's Miss England: Hamassa Kohistani. I spoke to her and quickly learnt everything was "an honour and a privilege". I've never met so many privileged and honoured people in my life: 68 girls aged between 17 and 21, dancing, posing, twirling and hoping to impress me. I wanted to tell them: who cares what I think? How much can this matter if I'm a judge?

The scoring was stressful. To begin with, I'm not familiar with the geography of England. Miss Alton Towers wasn't from Alton Towers?

The contestants all had sponsors, and most were local modelling agencies or hair salons. But a few - like Miss Portsmouth - were sponsored by food items. Pringles? That's got to be tough. Having a cylinder of crisps as your patron.

One by one, they came out and gave it their all. Miss Essex, covered in glitter, did a gymnastics routine. I was worried she would sever her spinal cord. Sixteen Shakira imitations later, I was exhausted. But it was only just getting started. Miss Milton Keynes came out in a Gap sweatshirt and did a monologue on domestic abuse. She used make-up to give herself a black eye. Her speech was a downer, which I found refreshing. Miss Worcestershire (who played a DVD of her skydiving) was adorable and self-possessed, but at 5ft 3in she might as well have been Quasimodo. The judge next to me crossed her out. When I asked why, he told me that she wouldn't stand a chance in Miss World, going up against girls who were tall. In the line-up she'd look like a dwarf. Being 5ft 3in myself, I gave her a 10. One of my favourites was Miss Winchester. She confidently announced she would be doing "party tricks", such as a one-handed cartwheel. Later she told me she is really a pole-dancing instructor, but couldn't transport the pole to the event.

Three hours later, there was an announcement: "We're halfway through!" Only 34 more girls to go.

I had a feeling none of the girls I voted for would make the top 20 in the finals, but you'll have to wait until next week to find out if I was wrong.