Miss France: glam - but not sexy

Miss France organiser Geneviève de Fontenay fears she is fighting a losing battle to protect her 'Cinderella dream' from vulgarity

Interview published 18 December 2009

KNOWN as la dame au chapeau as she is never seen without a hat, Geneviève de Fontenay, 77, has been helping run Miss France since 1954 (originally with her partner, now deceased, the contest’s former organiser Louis de Fontenay). Today she is president of the Comité Miss France, which organises regional heats throughout the year to supply the finalists.

Although she sold rights to the final to production company Endemol (which produced Big Brother) who run it through a subsidiary, La Société Miss France, for the French public she is still the face of Miss France. She still has input into the final and helps present the show, which will be on TF1 on December 5, with Robbie Williams as star guest. Judges will include the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Last year the final had 9 million viewers, TF1’s second-biggest audience for an entertainment show.

Compared to Miss World - which is not popular in the UK where it started and is seen as politically incorrect - why is Miss France so successful?

I used to go to the Miss World finals at the Albert Hall in the fifties - even then you got feminists holding up placards. We never had that. Miss France is about regional pride, values and dignity.

Once, before a Miss World election, they made the candidates practise in front of the jury and a guy was shouting “turn left, turn right, turn your backs” - it objectified them. They dropped it after I told my candidates not to agree.

Miss France is glamorous but not sexy, it was always respectable when I was in charge though in the last few years there is a tendency for more revealing swimsuits - you don’t pick Miss France based on a parade of belly buttons - it’s about bearing, elegance.

Miss France 1967 was a Norman farmer and someone wrote in the press “what have we got a cow-herder for?” but Agriculture Minister Edgar Faure said he was happy to congratulate such a charming representative of the Republic. It’s an institution, part of the cultural scenery. The same people watch it who watch the Tour de France go by.

When she goes to a foreign country she has a motorcycle escort like a head of state.

We mustn’t let the image be spoiled. One Miss France was found to have done Playboy photos - nothing that bad, but not a suitable publication. She couldn’t go back to Alsace for three years. They felt betrayed.

All kinds of people talk to me in the street and say not to change anything. They want their photo with me on their mobiles. The day that changes and people say they want it modernised, I’ll go. I hope Miss France will stay as it is for a few years.

Is there a secret to Frenchwomen’s beauty?

Beauty is indefinable. Someone can project beauty and charisma despite not having classic proportions. There is no formula. We have many Miss Frances with foreign origins. I want to see a North-African one before I retire.

In France you see a lot of beauty products on sale

It’s a consumer society - they tell us a product is going to make us younger but it’s probably poisoning you.

Miss Venezuelas all look the same because of plastic surgery - we’re not like that yet but society is changing and not always for the better.

Are we are going to see Côte d’Azur themes in the final, as it is held in Nice?

Yes, like the Carnival. I dressed as Grace Kelly once at a gala show for a final. She symbolised true elegance, good taste and never let her standards slip - and she was American. I never even saw her in trousers. These days people dress sloppily. I don’t change, I keep my values.

Today there are no limits to anything - the internet contains the best of things but also the worst, like pornography and violence. On newsstands we see girls half-undressed, with fake boobs, who sleep with one man after another.

In Gala they showed half-naked girls being sprayed with €20,000 champagne by Russian billionaires in Saint-Tropez. It’s scandalous.

Two million children in France live under the poverty line. The supermarkets throw away so much too. In my childhood we wouldn’t have thrown away a slice of bread - we’d keep it to make pain perdu (French toast).

So is Miss France all about elegance?

Yes, it should be; but I saw three Miss Frances photographed with that devilish Christian Audigier [a nouveau riche fashion designer]. Miss France represents la France profonde, the beating heart of France and her traditions, the terroir, our products, things that make up our real richness - not celebrity culture and bad taste.

I try to defend that, I am worried things might be slipping. 2008’s Miss France was found to have done sexual and blasphemous photos.

I got disgusting emails from people who must have been fantasising over her licking her pot of yoghurt with an expression that is not what you expect from Miss France. Endemol allowed her to keep her title.

When I saw her there on TF1 it sickened and irritated me. Miss France is meant to be a little girl’s Cinderella dream.

There have been controversies over the jury voting - this year only viewers will choose the finalist

I said we should do it that way. Everyone tells me what they think - you can get me on the phone day and night. You pay to vote and people said they had the impression their votes didn’t count.

This year we had a controversy again with Chloë Mortaud when the family of one of her dauphines [runners-up] as Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées complained the local heats were rigged.

There is a lot of local pride involved, people are attached to their traditional provinces like Quercy, Rouergue, Albigeois. The Comité Miss France had to go to court, and won. Chloë went on to be a dauphine to Miss Universe - and they were saying she should not have been Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées. Then there was Secret Story [France’s Big Brother], which was vulgar and tasteless.

Endemol tried to get a former Miss France to take part and one agreed, but she went out straight away. I thought “that limits the damage.” Then they brought her back to give the winner e150,000 - for a bimbo who has done nothing but talk rubbish for two months, it’s indecent. I won’t accept a Miss France should be involved. I won’t be an accomplice to that.

So, what were some special moments for Miss France in the past?

The most prestigious Miss France was Yvette Labrousse [1930], a tram driver’s daughter, who married the Aga Khan.

She had wonderful class, like Grace Kelly, and she was intelligent too - before, people thought the girls were pretty airheads. When the Khan died she continued to reign - over an Islamic country that was not her own. I wanted her on my jury and regret I never met her.

You got involved when you met Louis de Fontenay? [organiser from 1954]

I wanted to get away from the greyness and the factory chimneys in Lorraine. I became a model promoting beauty products and I was working in Brittany when I met Mr de Fontenay. That was the turning point for my life.