As the search for the 2023 Miss Northern Ireland gets underway today, the competition’s organiser, Victoria Withers, tells Local Women why she’s cancelling the swimwear section after 43 years.

EXCLUSIVE By Maureen Coleman

The Miss Northern Ireland competition is set to make history this year by axing the swimwear section for the first time since the event’s inception in 1980.  

The decision to cancel the ‘controversial’ segment was revealed to Local Women magazine by the contest’s organiser, Victoria Withers of ACA Models, to coincide with the launch of Miss Northern Ireland 2023 and the hunt for this year’s winner. 

In an exclusive interview with Local Women, Victoria, who took over as owner of ACA in 2020, said she felt the focus had been on the swimwear segment for too many years now, detracting from the real message and meaning of the contest. 

“I have girls entering the contest who are working as engineers or in cancer research; girls who have really strong personalities and who want to use the platform to do good work or help other people, but too often all that is overlooked,” she said.  

“In recent years the spotlight has solely been on the swimwear section. It’s the number one issue the Press want to talk about. 

“I understand that and, in a way, I feel my hand has been forced but I can’t let something that is considered controversial take away from the competition and what it is really about.”  

In 2014, organisers of the Miss World pageant announced plans to eliminate the swimwear round, citing lack of purpose as the reason. 

At the time, Chris Wilmer, national director of Miss World America, said: “It’s not just a beauty contest, it’s beauty with a purpose. There didn’t seem to be a purpose to having the swimsuit section.” 

Wilmer went on to say that the winner of Miss World should be ‘more of an ambassador, not a beauty queen.” 

In 2021, however, the section was quietly reintroduced at the finals in Puerto Rico, as part of a Top Model beachwear competition, open to those who wanted to take part. 

Victoria said that the swimwear segment of Miss Northern Ireland had always been optional and that many of the contestants found it empowering and confidence-building. 

Agreeing with Wilmer’s assessment, she said she felt swimwear no longer served a purpose and that she didn’t feel its absence would negatively impact the competition. 

“I was flicking through Instagram recently and came across a finalist from 2016, who said that taking part in the swimwear catwalk had been one of the proudest moments of her life,” said Victoria. 

“I understand that many of the girls found it empowering and we should all be encouraged to love our bodies after all, but I do think the competition could run just as well without it.

“Normally at the Miss Northern Ireland final, I’m running around with a headset, working frantically, but I got to sit down with my family and watch the last one.

“That’s when I realised that the swimwear section didn’t add to the competition at all.

“I really hope that by removing it, I am making a statement – that we have girls taking part who are doing wonderful things and making a difference and that by taking the controversy away, we’re putting the focus onto more important things.” 

The news comes as the search to find a successor to Daria Gapska, the current Miss Northern Ireland, gets underway. 

The contest was launched today (Feb 2) at the Observatory at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast, with the first heat due to take place at Nu Delhi, one of the associate sponsors, on February 19. 

In total, there will be 12 heats across Northern Ireland, with the final itself taking place on May 22 at the Europa Hotel. Two contestants from each heat will be chosen to take part in the final. 

Victoria is hoping to find a winner who will use the platform to do good; to raise awareness of issues they are interested in. The contestant who is crowned Miss Northern Ireland must also be 100% committed to the role during her reign. 

“The role lasts for a year and the winner must be aware of that and her year-long commitment,” said Victoria. 

“For me, I look for someone who is selfless; someone who will use her year to do positive things, like raising awareness for charities. 

“When Anna Leitch won, for example, she spoke passionately about teaching in a primary school and how she felt some children were left behind by the system. 

“She wanted to use her year to shine a spotlight on that.” 

The ACA boss said she wanted to encourage people to set aside preconceived ideas about the competition, admitting she’d had them too before she began working in the industry. 

“I was a bit judgemental at the start and wondered why these girls needed to validate themselves but of course, now I know that’s not the case at all,” said Victoria. 

“There’s such a feeling of solidarity and sisterhood in Miss Northern Ireland and it’s lovely to see.  

“Also, with the agency, we very much promote inclusivity. We have an amputee and plus size models on our books because we want everyone to see themselves represented. 

“Representation is important to us. It’s good to see yourself in someone else.” 

Former owner of ACA, Alison Clarke, was crowned the winner of the first Miss Northern Ireland contest 40 years ago. She went on to set up the modelling agency ACA and to run the annual pageant before Victoria took over three years ago. 

Alison recalled wearing swimwear on stage in Belfast and London and said she had ‘no qualms or issues’ about her ‘modest one-piece’ back then. 

But she said she thought it ‘fitting’ to change with the times and to ‘move with what is more appealing and comfortable’ in the modern world, particularly in the era of social media. 

“I find it welcoming and admirable of the Miss World Northern Ireland Contest to make the change to not include a swimwear section on the final evening,” she said. “Things move on and boundaries change. 

“There’s a lot more substance to the qualities required in a Miss Northern Ireland winner than a swimwear body. 

“Whilst modelling is a large part of the role, there are times for swimwear and that’s on the beaches or the swimming pools, on the fashion catwalks, but it’s not necessary to be on the stage at Miss Northern Ireland final, especially now with swimwear getting more and more revealing in the current fashion world.” 

Alison said that every young woman was different and should have the right to feel comfortable in all aspects of the contest. 

“Removing the swimwear round from the final evening event is a refreshing, modern and feminist move,” Alison said. 

Anna Leitch, Miss World Europe, Miss United Kingdom and former Miss NI, agreed. She said: “As a judge I am particularly thrilled about the removal of the swimwear section, as it allows us to focus on the qualities and characteristics that truly define a Miss Northern Ireland.” 

Daria Gapska, who will hand her crown over this May, also welcomed the move.  “Removing the swimwear section allows contestants to focus on their achievements, goals and beliefs rather than their bodies, which will be incredible to see,” she said. 

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