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The enduring appeal of a rural pageant

Miss Showgirl

 Once again, country show societies are gearing up for the annual New South Wales Miss Showgirl competition. In 2008 500 young women entered the pageant at a local level representing 120 show societies, with the Sydney Royal Easter Show finals. The 2011 Camden Miss Showgirl has attracted seven young local women – four of the seven are university students, two business owners and one business manager.

The competition has come a long way since its beginnings in 1962. It has seen off a variety of other pageants and successfully competes with several others. In these days of television celebrity fashion competitions, the Miss Showgirl competition is a bit of an anachronism.  Rather quaint, yet with an underlying strength that is endearing to supporters.

Miss Showgirl is a complex mix of paradoxes and apparent contradictions, just like other aspects of rural life: it is very traditional while accommodating the aspirations of young women; it is staid yet has had an underlying strand of commodification of young women as objects of display; it is conservative yet encourages sexualisation of young women through good times at balls and the like; it avoids the stereotypes of other beauty pageants, yet it promotes a version of a stereotypical young rural woman;  it is part of the town and country divide yet brings the country to the city; and more.

The showgirl competition is a relic of a time when rural women were confined by home and family. The foundation sponsor was the racy tabloid, The Daily Mirror, which commodified womanhood images on page three. Later competition sponsors, The Daily Telegraph and then The Women’s Weekly, used different representations of womanhood, and today The Land newspaper takes a newsworthy approach to rural affairs.

The RAS Miss Royal Easter Showgirl for 1978 in the Australian Women’s Weekly. The winner is an 18-year-old trainee nurse from Mungindi in rural New South Wales. (AWW 29 March 1978)

The values expressed in the Royal Agricultural Society Guide for Showgirl entrants prepared by 2009 Camden Showgirl Lauren Elkins are a little bit old fashioned. The guide stresses etiquette, grooming, manners, dress sense, presentation and socialising skills – a solid list of skills for any aspiring job applicant. The competition even offers deportment lessons for entrants – An echo from the past.

While the aims of the competition have not changed, part of its resilience has been its ability to cope with changes in the representation of rural life and rural women themselves. It expresses the agency of the young women who enter, whether they are university students or shop assistants, and provides personal development opportunity.  

Showtime, the show ball and Miss Showgirl, are representative of notions of rurality. Miss Showgirl is part of the invocation of rural nostalgia.  People use the competition as a lens through which they can view the past, including the young women who enter it.   In 2009 Camden Showgirl Lauren Elkins ‘was keen’, she said, ‘to get into the thick of promoting the town and its rural heritage’.  

Organising committees select entrants who have a sense of belonging to and identify with the local area. According to Suzie Sherwood, a member of the 2004 Camden organising committee, the winning showgirl projects the values and traditions of the local community.. 

In a historical analysis by Kate Darian-Smith and Sara Wills (2001), they see the current response to Miss Showgirl as ‘an embodiment of meaningful and rural belonging’. Miss Showgirl entrants indeed embrace parochialism and the interests of local show societies as part of the competition. These forces have long shaped rural identity and its response to city-based decision making.

Miss Camden Showgirl for 2018 in the Australia Day Parade on the float for the Camden Show. (I Willis)

Rural New South Wales faces constant challenges, and Miss Showgirl’s success is a rural showcase in the ‘big smoke’. The competition embraces the experience of showtime in Sydney when the country comes to town, and there are social engagements, cocktail parties and pictures in the social pages.  Miss Showgirl draws on rural traditions surrounding debutante balls, bachelor and spinsters balls and similar community gatherings that express a sense of place. The essence of localism.

Glamour and style are back, and Miss Showgirl has an element of ‘fashions on the field’. Young women have an opportunity to ‘frock up’. Something authentic. It harks back to the days of the country race meeting and the local polo match. The exclusivity that was once the rural gentry’s domain when deference and paternalism ruled the bush. Press photographs of ‘glammed up’ Miss Showgirls sashing 1st place in the dairy-cow-section recall days of the ‘Lady of the Manor’ and the English village fair. 

2011 Camden Show Girl and Camden’s first Sydney Royal Showgirl, Hilary Scott. (The District Reporter 3 October 2011)

Miss Showgirl competitions have not been without their critics. The competition has survived in New South Wales and Queensland while not in Victoria. Understandably entrants passionately defend the competition.

None of these issues have been a problem for 2011 Camden Showgirl winner Hilary Scott, a 22-year-old horse-loving university student from The Oaks.  She appeared on the front page of The District Reporter, all glammed up in the paddock, under the banner headline ‘Showgirl Hilary supports agriculture’. Hilary is a confident young rural woman that projects the contemporary vibrancy and complexities of Miss Showgirl.

Camden Showgirl Winners

1962 Helen Crace 1963 Helen Crace 1964 Sue Mason 1965 Barbara Duck 1966 Dawn Dowle 1967 Jenny Rock 1968 Heather Mills 1969 Michelle Chambers 1970 Joyce Boardman 1971 Anne Macarthur-Stanham 1972 Kerri Webb 1973 Anne Fahey 1974 Sue Faber  1975 Janelle Hore 1976 Jenny Barnaby 1977 Patsy Anne Daley 1978 Julie Wallace 1979 Sandra Olieric 1980 Fiona Wilson 1981 Louise Longley 1982 Melissa Clowes 1983 Illa Eagles 1984 Leanne Reily 1985 Rebecca Py 1986 Jenny Rawlinson 1987 Jayne Manns  1988 Monique Mate 1989 Linda Drinnan 1990 Tai Green 1991 Toni Leeman 1992 Susan Lees 1993 Belinda Bettington 1994 Miffy Haynes 1995 Danielle Halfpenny 1996 Jenianne Garvin 1997 Michelle Dries 1998 Belinda Holyoake 1999 Lyndall Reeves 2000 Katie Rogers  
2001 Kristy Stewart 2002 Margaret Roser 2003 Sally Watson 2004 Danielle Haack 2005 Arna Daley 2006 Victoria Travers 2007 Sarah Myers  2008 Fiona Boardman 2009 Lauren Elkins 2010 Adrianna Mihajlovic 2011 Hilary Scott 2012 April Browne 2013 Isabel Head 2014 Jacinda Webster  2015 Kate Boardman 2016 Danielle Rodney 2017 Tess Madeley 2018 Corinne Fulford 2019 Nicole Sandrone 2020 Tiarna Scerri  

These women have come from diverse backgrounds and acted as a rural ambassador for the Camden Show.

The Land Sydney Royal Show Girl Competition for 2022 website states:

The Competition aims to find a young female Ambassador for rural NSW and the agricultural show movement.

The Showgirl Competition is definitely not a beauty pageant. Entrants must have a genuine interest in, and knowledge of, rural NSW. The Competition encourages the participation and awareness of issues faced by women in rural NSW.

https://www.camdenshow.com/members/itemlist/category/133-show-ball

Originally published as ‘Miss Showgirl, an enduring anachronism’ in The District Reporter 3 October 2011

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Miss Showgirl, an enduring anachronism

A rural pageant

The Miss Showgirl competition is in many ways an anachronism from the past. It has survived for over 45 years under the onslaught of feminism, post-modernism, globalization and urbanisation. A worthy feat indeed.

The competition is still popular and the local press are always strong supporters. The 2010 Miss Camden Showgirl competition  attracted seven young women.

Camden Show Signage 2018
The Camden Show attracts over 40,000 people to the two day festival in the country town of Camden. (I Willis)

So what has been the continuing appeal of the competition? Probably the most important criteria has been that it has been true to its aims of promoting rural interests. The competition has always been associated with the major rural festival, the country show, a celebration of rural life.

Show time, the show ball and Miss Showgirl are representative of notions around Camden’s rurality. People use the competition as a lens through which they can view the past, including the young women who enter it. In 2008 Showgirl Lauren Elkins ‘was keen’, she said, ‘to get into the thick of promoting the town and its rural heritage’. Camden people yearn for a past when the primary role of town was to service the surrounding farmers and their needs. Miss Showgirl is part of the invocation of rural nostalgia.

The winning showgirl projects the values and traditions of the local community according to Suzie Sherwood, a member of the organizing committee in 2004. She said that ‘the winner will have a strong connection with the community and be aware of rural issues’.

The organising committee seems to be successful at identifying entrants who have a sense of belonging to the local area. After winning the 2009 Camden showgirl competition, Adriana Mihajlovic said, ‘I will tell people that Camden is a beautiful rural country town with a wonderful community’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack said, ‘Camden is a lovely country town and I am proud that I can be involved in promoting it to other districts’. The showgirl competition connects the country town to the city. The entrant acts a publicity agent for the Camden Show, which is one of the largest regional shows in Australia.

The resilience of the showgirl competition can also be put down to its representation of the changes of rural life and rural women themselves. It is a mirror to the expectations and aspirations of young women. 2010 entrant Karina Ralstan said, ‘She sees it as an opportunity to raise issues concerning rural women’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack felt the competition was an opportunity to raise rural issues and all 2010 entrants were concerned about the promoting the importance of agriculture.

Part of the success of the competition in Camden has been its ability to attract young women who want to make a living in the agricultural sector. University of Sydney veterinary science student Danielle Haack said she wanted to ‘improve the quality of cattle’ and her studies will help her in animal genealogy and herd health. 2010 entrant Brooke Mulholland is an owner/manager of a Suffolk sheep stud.

The showgirl competition is a relic of a time when gender expectations stated that rural women were confined by home and family. Today’s young women want a career and travel. Something that the Miss Showgirl competitions have supplied. In 2004 the grand prize at the Royal Easter Show was a world trip for two, and Camden’s representative Danielle Haack certainly felt that, ‘a world trip would be a lovely end-of-year treat for me once I finish my degree’.

Miss Camden Showgirl for 2018 in the Australia Day Parade on the float for the Camden Show. (I Willis)

The competition has given entrants the opportunity to fully experience showtime in Sydney. The annual city visit can be a big deal for those who experience it. 2002 Miss Showgirl Margie Roser stated that staying is Sydney ‘was one of the best times of her life’. She said that her time is Sydney was ‘full of social engagements, media coverage and cocktail parties’. At a local level the party element is not ignored and the annual Camden show ball is an occasion to ‘frock up’. 2004 Camden Miss Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘The ball in itself was great fun’.

Over the years showgirls have found that the competition has been good for making friends, personal development and new experiences. 2003 Camden Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘the experience was rewarding. It is a wonderful chance to network and meet many other like-minded young women’.

Yet showgirl competitions have not been without their critics. The competition has survived in New South Wales and Queensland while not in Victoria. Some have seen it as daggy, while some have seen it as the commodification of women. The entrants defend the competition. Danielle Haack maintained that the contest ‘was anything but a beauty pageant. Some of my friends have asked me how the swimsuit category was going, but its nothing like that’.

The competition and the strong field of entrants  is a testament to the ongoing popularity of the Camden Show and its representation of Camden’s rurality.

Originally published 28 February 2014. Updated 6 April 2021.