Julia Morley doesn’t want to change the world. “I’d be crazy to think I could,” she says. But she is changing Miss World.
Sitting next to her during Grand Hyatt Singapore’s buzzy mezza9 dinner service on a Friday night, and leaning in to better hear her gentle but eloquent voice, it’s hard to see that Julia Morley is actually approaching 80. Her skin radiates from within; she’s dressed in a green polka-dot dress, matching the colour of her eyes, and often beams a megawatt smile in between sentences.
The First Lady of the Miss World organisation took over the reins as CEO in 2000, after the passing of her husband Eric Morley, who created the pageant. Since then, she’s flipped the format of the show on its head. Now, besides girls in bikinis, there is a talent show, sports competition, Beauty With A Purpose contest, and Dances Of The World segment.
And don’t try classifying Miss World as a beauty pageant in front of Julia Morley. She’d have none of it. “Miss World is not just a beauty pageant,” Julia Morley asserts. “When you watch our show, you must identify it as something different: There’s fashion, fitness, awareness programmes. It has a purpose — our idea is to make women comfortable.”
It is clear Morley’s true passion lies in philanthropy and humanitarian work. She actually started Beauty With A Purpose long before she was crowned head of Miss World. Founded in 1972, the project has empowered contestants to use their abilities to make real and lasting contributions to the lives of the sick and disadvantaged. Eight countries participated in its inaugural year and now, every Miss World entrant, from about 120 nations, is involved. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been raised and donated to making tangible changes the world over.
And this entire do-good arm was inspired by a profound encounter in Singapore. The Londoner first visited the city-state in 1971 and was intrigued by an old lady she’d observe each morning from her hotel room window. Julia Morley recalls, “The old lady would walk out on the streets with two bags in her hands — one had clean towels, the other was filled with food, in which she would pass to people on the streets. This was 1971 and people were still quite poor in Singapore. But I watched her going around, putting her hand on people’s shoulders, helping them cope daily.
“The last day that I was there, I wanted to go talk to her so I got into the lift and out of the hotel to catch her before she did her morning walkabout. I asked her why she did what she did. She looked at me and said: ‘My dear, is it not better to light one candle in the darkness than not to see at all?’ And I realised that was her purpose in life. Looking at that, I felt we must do it too. We’re all women and we’re in this show — we must all have a purpose. Young women cannot just look beautiful and wear bikinis. And it’s not their fault, it’s because people instruct them to do so. But I thought if I had the power, I can change what we do.”
Julia Morley talks enthusiastically, like a proud parent, about what some of the young Miss World contestants have done in the past. She describes ‘The Golden Bridge’ Beauty With A Purpose project, thought of and instructed to be built by Miss Indonesia 2014, as a benchmark of what can be achieved through Beauty With A Purpose. Even Stephanie Del Valle, Miss World 2016, who tagged along for this interview, chimes in: “It’s so beautiful. Everyone on the show talks about it and I even have pictures of [the bridge] on my phone.”
The exemplary Indonesian, Maria Rahajeng, took it upon herself to rebuild a dilapidated bridge used by students to get to school, after she’d noticed a young boy with serious injuries sustained from falling from that broken bridge. Rahajeng helped to raise the funds and even convinced villagers to come together for the construction of the “golden pathway to better education and opportunities”, which links two villages in Banten, a province near Jakarta.
Julia Morley is happy that the pageant is able to cultivate a sense of purpose for women. “The projects these ladies have embarked on have given them a new impression on life and the future. Now, they’re not looking inwards, they are looking outwards.”
And in order to continue such drive for helping the needy, Julia Morley is very selective of who she partners with. Just this year, Sean Wong became the official licensee and director for Miss World Singapore. “We had a lovely lady who ran Miss World Singapore for a long time but sadly, she passed away and when it came time to look for a new partner, many nice people approached us but they didn’t have a clear understanding of ‘beauty with a purpose’ so I’m so proud that we have Sean Wong now who has the same passion. He shows it by his projects, including helping the elderly get free healthcare and medication in Singapore.”
One to say “we’re all in it together, it’s not just one person”, Julia Morley is a real social person — though not on social media. “It’s a terrible thing. I mean, it’s good to a certain degree but I’d rather turn my phone off for days to have a conversation. Nobody talks anymore. It’s a library every room you go into. People looking down, and not around.”
The Blackberry user also despises WhatsApp. “I don’t have WhatsApp or whats-about or whats-doing-who — I hate it. I don’t want to know. I don’t care. I’d rather have someone call me and tell me they’re getting married or they’re having a baby or if they screwed up.”
Though for a technophobe, Julia Morley does prefer living in present times than in the past. “People are much more open and ready to learn, and there isn’t the same gender bias anymore — there’s much better things around now than there were in the past. But my only complaint is that phones are overused by us all. Well, except for me. It’s just me and my Blackberry. I’m not paid by Blackberry by the way.”
A bona fide entrepreneur, Julia Morley has well paid her dues in sustaining Miss World through thick and thin. And while son Steve Douglas works as an event director for the Miss World organisation; so far, there isn’t a plan that’s been put into place that sees him succeeding the business. It’ll be a legacy to the world, perhaps. But Julia Morley says she isn’t going anywhere just yet. “My aunt lived ’till she was 103 so I think I have a few more years. But honestly, I’m not afraid to die. I’m only afraid not to have lived.”