Miss World Australia Taylah Cannon.
Miss World Australia Taylah Cannon. Mark Stewart

A whole new world for beauty pageant entrants

With less than a month before the Miss World pageant, you'd be forgiven for thinking preparations would involve high rotation beauty treatments and walking in heels with books on your head.

But just a couple of weeks before she leaves for China, Australia's entrant Taylah Cannon is off on a tour of dusty, drought-stricken farms, not worrying too much about what it might do to her fingernails or her proximity to designer vitamin water.

If you need proof that modern beauty pageants are changing, this is probably it.

Since 2015, Miss World contestants have not needed to pack their bathers for swimwear judging - bust, waist and hip measurements are considered immaterial in the current political climate.

These days it's supposed to be about "purpose”, the cause entrants champion on an international stage.

Taylah's choice is a topical one, the plight of farmers and towns in eastern Australia as drought tightens its grip on the land, with the country now on official El Nino alert.

On a global scale, particularly in Asia, it means sharp drops in food production and the devastation of large swathes of agricultural land.

It's not the typical concern of a beauty queen but then 24-year-old Taylah is probably not your usual pageant princess.

The trained vet nurse has never modelled before - she was always a bit shy, she says - and the Miss World Australia pageant was the first one she'd ever entered. It came about from a New Year's promise to herself to do something out of her comfort zone every day.

That she is almost impossibly beautiful is a given, but it's her sincerity that's most touching.

"I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about the drought first hand,” she says. "I've done a bit of reading and I'm expecting it to be quite confronting, particularly the animal side of things.”

Taylah is an avowed animal lover. The Gold Coast woman has never ventured too far west but will be part of a team putting together a documentary on the drought's effects and current relief efforts.

An edited version will follow Taylah to Sanya, China, where five entrant-supplied documentaries will be chosen for worldwide broadcast to more than a billion people in 74 countries.

It's all part of the so-called "beauty with a purpose” judging category that pageant organisers will tell you is a key criteria for pageant success.

It's used to gauge an entrant's intelligence, personality, commitment and ability to speak on humanitarian or social issues. In a complex judging system, the category winner is also catapulted straight into the pageant semi-finals.

Just as well it's the judging area Taylah feels the most comfortable taking part in.

"I feel like that part is something that comes naturally for me,” she says. "It's not something like walking that you have to practise.

"It's just something that comes from the heart and touches people's lives.”

Taylah has barely had time to find a spot to stow her crown since winning the Miss World Australia title at Palazzo Versace in late August.

In the couple of months, she's been to Malaysia, the Maldives and Noumea as part of her official duties. Then there's her homework, about two hours a day, studying up on current affairs, world events, arts, culture, geography and whatever else she may be asked about as part of the judging process.

The Miss World franchise, the planet's oldest international beauty contest, will have you know there's a lot more to winning Miss World than looking great in an evening dress, standing up straight and smiling.

Taylah needs to be in China a full month before the Miss World 2018 winner is announced on December 8. She's not lying when she says she's not entirely sure exactly what lies ahead.

"I've had a lot of help from the Miss World Australia team,” she says. "They've been great. It's a big learning curve.

"I've spoken to past titleholders and they've said it's like nothing you can ever imagine. Courtney Thorpe, who was Miss World Australia in 2014, even got goosebumps telling me about it.

"One thing they've all said is it's an incredible experience and you'll be amazed at the friends you make.”

While some nations, particularly in South America and South-East Asia, turn out polished pageant performers from purpose-built academies, Taylah's plan is to just be herself.

"I'm learning what I can,” she says. "I've got my own little practising regimen that I do - walking and speaking and questions and answers.

"I take a bit of advice from everyone I meet and just take on board what resonates with me.

"One thing people said to me after I won Miss World Australia was that I was 'relatable'; I was just myself.”

Indeed, Miss World Australia national director Deborah Miller, a pageant doyenne previously at the helm of Australia's Miss Universe franchise, says part of the charm of Australia's pageant entrants over the years has been their natural approach.

"The Australian girls are a bit unique in that way,” she says. "They're not over-trained like you can get with contestants from some countries who've been prepared for pageants since they were five years old.

"Australian girls have a more laidback aura about them, sometimes a raw innocence, and that can go over very well.”

Deborah says the international beauty pageant scene has undergone major change during her years of involvement.

"It's getting tougher and tougher I think,” she says. "They look at the overall person now. They expect high intelligence, high achievers and emotional intelligence, the ability to connect with people.

"Pageants used to be for supermodels but Miss World is a charity - the ethos is 'beauty with a purpose'. There's a lot of work they do in Third World countries so they're looking for someone who can travel to those places, can resonate and be a great ambassador.

"The model category is still an important part of the judging but it's really not just about looks any more.”

Gold Coast make-up artist Taylah Cannon, who was crowned Miss World Australia 2018, with her dog Lilah.
Gold Coast make-up artist Taylah Cannon, who was crowned Miss World Australia 2018, with her dog Lilah. Glenn Hampson

There are several official judging categories, some a little more left-field than others. The sports challenge sets competitors athletic or fitness endeavours, sometimes in a team event or a knockout format, with the eventual winner given automatic entry in the semi-finals.

Taylah has been incorporating fitness training into her regimen but is not exactly sure what might be involved.

Then there is the talent contest where entrants can put up their hands to sing, dance or showcase their special gift in a bid to be noticed. Again the winner of the category gets fast-tracked to the semis.

Taylah is still unsure whether she'll nominate. She used to sing when she was younger and would've liked to have had time for the odd singing lesson to polish up her vocals before she leaves but her other commitments have taken precedence.

"That's where some girls perform their national dances or songs. We'll see what happens,” she says simply, a live example perhaps of the Australian laidback approach.

And in a concession to the modern world, there's now a multimedia category that judges contestants on their social media savvy.

"To tell the truth, I was never a big social media user,” Taylah says. "I might have taken a photo and uploaded it every couple of months.

"But I've made a point to stepping it up lately and posting a lot more.

"One thing that's been so lovely out of it has been the feedback. I've been touched by the messages I've got. One girl the other day told me my story had inspired her to sign up for Miss World Australia next year.

"Even just an inspiring quote can change someone's day or help them. It can be good thing to have that influence.”

In the meantime, in the days before she sets out to discover what awaits her in China, Taylah will do her best to incorporate what she learns first-hand about the drought with her other homework and look after her health. She says she'll worry more about the beauty side of things closer to her departure.

It hasn't escaped her that Australia has experienced its own Miss World drought since Belinda Green last won the title in 1972, some 46 years ago.

"I would be lying if I said I didn't want to win,” Taylah says. "It really has become my biggest dream and I want to give it everything and make my country proud and bring the crown home.

"But, at the end of the day, I really am in it for the right reasons. I just want to make a difference in the world and help anywhere that I can so I'm just grateful to have the chance to do that.”

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