Former winner Karen Jean Cookson relives those days and how she’s trying to bring back the fun and sparkle
For Karen Jean Cookson it’s not so much My Blackpool as Miss Blackpool.
The 44-year-old (“I don’t mind,” she says. “Everyone has to grow older.”) was born in Garstang and is based in Cleveleys. But her heart – and the beauty title she won in 1995 and now owns the rights to – is pure Blackpool.
She first entered the Miss Blackpool competition at 17, won it at 25 and along the way scooped Miss Wyre, Miss Southport, Miss North West and was the last Miss Holiday Princess at Butlins.
“There was a long list – but there were a lot of competitions back then,” she says.
She started modelling when she was 14 and her parents got her into a modelling agency in Preston.
I love seeing girls when they start off and how they develop
It was her then boyfriend, now husband, Neil, who suggested she tried the beauty circuit.
“So with his support I had a go and I never looked back really,” she says. “I met loads of girls, built friendships up and the memories I’ve got from entering competitions I’ll never forget.”
But the downside?
“Some people said it’s not the sort of thing you should be doing but nobody ever forced me – I did it because I wanted to do it, I earned money, got prizes, gifts, and the confidence that I gained was brilliant.
“I’m still friends with a lot of girls I entered competitions with.”
But having grown up here the title she always wanted was Miss Blackpool.
“At the time it was one of the biggest ones in the country and everybody wanted to be Miss Blackpool –girls came from everywhere to be in it.
“It was a lovely title to have in 1995 and led onto bigger and better opportunities. Exciting things.
“Most venues had their own competitions back then - Sequins, Springs, Addisons, Queen of the Lights - there was a lot of them.”
So what happened?
“Times changed, people put a spanner in the works saying girls shouldn’t be doing it, that it wasn’t right to parade around in a swimming costume. But I don’t understand what the problem is if the girl wants to do it.
“But also I don’t think people have got the money these days for sponsorship. When I started they were giving cars away, holidays, the cash prizes were amazing.
“These days running Miss Blackpool myself I can see that companies have not got that amount of money to spend.”
She runs Angels Elite, a leading modelling and promotions company originally set up in partnership with friend Sue Knight.
“We used to work together constantly and had the absolute best time of my life,” she says. “We were all over the country, and people used to ask could we provide more girls.”
They arranged the first “walk on girls” for Sky Sports and PDC Darts and the business took off. “We thought we were onto something. We loved putting fashion shows on, the first was for Freeport and we got local girls to do it. It was a bit of fun and the business grew from there.”
Then there were the children - Rio (10) and Madison (seven).
“So I couldn’t be out on tour and it was ideal to work at home. I could rock the baby while I was working. Clients used to phone up and I’d just say I was baby casting if they were crying their eyes out.”
But she never got off the catwalk completely.
“I get other girls work and earn commission from them. So I’ve never actually dropped out of the business, it still gives me a buzz and I still do ‘mature’ modelling myself.”
Today the Miss Blackpool competition she runs is different from its heyday.
“It never vanished but the numbers dropped when girls didn’t think it was the in thing to do, so we changed it and brought it more into a pub/club atmosphere and it has built back up.”
Having first helped choreograph the event in 1996 she and Sue took it over completely in 2001.
“The image has changed from just being girls on a catwalk so each year we create a different opening of a full-on dance routine. It’s fabulous and gives the girls the opportunity to try something some of them have never done before.”
Last year she added sarongs to the swimwear section.
“A lot of the older girls who are not around anymore used to say they loved doing the swimwear, they loved the glitz and the glamour of it all. Let’s face it, girls wear shorter outfits on a night out – some hardly wear anything at all.”
Despite its changes – contestants can be aged 17 to 30 and don’t have to be single (which means to the title holder doesn’t automatically qualify for the Miss England contest) – the competition still has an allure.
“Right from the days when it was held in the open air baths everyone wanted to be Miss Blackpool, everyone wanted to wear the sash.
“It was such a big thing then. Miss Blackpool and Miss Queen of the Lights used to be invited to everything. We need more people to make more use of Miss Blackpool.”
And create the old atmosphere of it all again.
“The current title holder, Jessica Bradder, was at least invited to the Christmas Lights Switch-On by Radio Wave so perhaps we’re getting back there. She’s done a few openings, been invited to a few things but it would be so nice to get back to the days when Miss Blackpool was a VIP who was invited everywhere – just to get back to the fun and sparkle that everyone loved.”
Another change to the competition has seen the traditional heats dropped in favour of selection by photograph.
“There’s no sponsor throwing loads of money at the competition any more so the easiest option was to go straight to a semi final and grand final at Viva.”
Likewise the previous traditional black tie dinner has gone.
“We did the option of a meal or just pay to come in. It’s down to funding again. A lot of the girls’ have families who are not loaded, they haven’t got a lot of spare money but still want to watch their daughter in the spotlight, so again it was giving people a bit of a chance to have a bit of fun, create a smile, create a bit of entertainment, it’s what Blackpool is about – entertainment.”
There is no date fixed yet for a 2016 contest but Karen is crossing her fingers.
“It used to take us from when the final finished right through,” she says. “But we had to cut it down because you’ve got to think of the fact there’s no money involved. If we made lots of money out of it we could go bigger and bigger.
“I love seeing girls when they start off and how they develop. You see their confidence build and it makes you feel good that you’ve helped them on the ladder.”
She’s sorry there is no council involvement these days.
“It’s not seen as the thing to do. They don’t look at what it has achieved for girls, they don’t look on the bright side just the bad side. Some of these girls wouldn’t ever have had the chance to be on a stage or model in a fashion show and build up their confidence, meet new friends and have a good time.”
So is it hurtful reading bad things about Blackpool when someone’s wearing the winner’s sash?
“You are always going to get people who want to show the bad side rather than the good. Every town has a bad side, there’s nowhere that’s perfect.
“I’ve worked all over and can’t wait to get back to Blackpool. If you live inland you can’t go for a walk along the Prom, you can’t do the silly things we take for granted.
“I’ve always lived here and I’d always come back to it because it’s got something special – but it’s what you make of it yourself, I’d still come here if I didn’t live here already.”
Last summer her two youngsters were involved in a children’s entertainment company.
“They went round hotels singing and dancing and I got to see the holidaymakers and talk to them and it’s amazing how many people still come to Blackpool and love it.
“I think the only thing we miss is the weather. Who’d get on a plane with all the hassle if we had the weather here?
“Maybe Blackpool is quite expensive to do the full holiday thing but it’s fun.
“The only downside is the litter. Kebab packaging and chip wrappers send out the wrong message”
These days she and Neil share their own busy lives with chaperoning their children but still get to see what shows they can.
“We do the Grand panto, the children’s ice show at the Pleasure Beach and visit the Tower Circus twice a year, the Tower building is amazing - all the pictures of families sitting there at the circus – being better behaved than now!”
With the maximum shelf life of a Miss Blackpool being 30 and most models being on the young side what does the future hold?
“In theory modelling could go on to your 90s, though it might be in an old peoples’ home!” she says. “I’ll keep going. There’s a bunch of us now who are getting older and we keep saying we’ll be there with our walking sticks. I’ve graduated from doing bride shots to being mother of the bride! It’s great. But there is one company that still uses me, twice year, as an older bride! Second time rounders want to see what they’d look like.”
As for Miss Blackpool she would like to see it go on forever.
“I wouldn’t ever like to see it stop because it’s obviously a part of Blackpool. If I can’t keep it up because of costs I hope somebody else would step in and do it after me.
“It’s one of the few beauty contests that is still free to enter but it would be nice for someone to throw lots of money at it. If the finance was there it would go on forever. Radio Wave always help, the G Casino only left because the age limit dropped, Houndshill support us by putting so much in it, The Gazette gives us publicity.
“The town does support us but no one has actual money to throw at you anymore.
“We get help with prizes. The Sandcastle has let us do a video shoot, the Pleasure Beach lets us film. They still want us to succeed. But the money just isn’t there.”
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