Flashback: Miss Universe win a life-changing moment

Lorraine Downes was a 19-year-old girl from Pakuranga when she arrived in St Louis 31 years ago. She left an international celebrity.

She was 19 and suddenly, officially, the most beautiful woman in the world.

"Miss New Zealand is Miss Universe," a packed crowd of 16,000 at the Keil Auditorium, in St Louis, Missouri - as well as 700 million people watching around the world on television - were told.

Lorraine Downes, a girl from Pakuranga, Auckland, who had arrived in the United States with just three gowns, was thronged by an excited mob.

Her life had changed for good in that moment.

In the television footage she is swamped, unable to be seen.

"All of a sudden you see all these girls coming to you and, in that moment, I would say it was frightening. They absolutely mobbed me.

"They are coming up and kissing you and then they are wiping the lipstick off your face."

Downes emerged from the mob unhurt and suddenly famous.

That was July 11, 1983 - 31 years ago yesterday.

Only a year earlier her family had loaded up the Valiant, hooked on the caravan, and driven to Mt Maunganui for their annual summer holiday, during which she entered her first beauty pageant.

Aged 18, she won that competition and her first overseas trip, to New Caledonia.

There was modelling work, but she entered for the Miss Universe New Zealand pageant only in the hope of winning the $500 awarded to finalists. She planned to use the cash to get to Sydney to pursue a modelling career.

"They announced the third- place getter and it wasn't me. Then second and I thought, well that's it, back to Auckland for you, girl. Then I had won."

The victory came with a ticket and entry to the worldwide Miss Universe contest in St Louis.

With two gowns designed by TVNZ's costume department - and training in how to walk down stairs without looking at her feet - she found herself in St Louis.

"I was a lone New Zealander - and I mean lone," she would write in 1986, three years after the win.

"So many of the other girls had their hairdressers, their make-up artists, their photographers, their back-up people."

The early 1980s were the high- water mark for beauty pageants and, for most of the girls, there were front-page spreads, interviews, life stories and public polls.

But for Downes, from New Zealand, there was little of that.

There was a hotel room she shared with Miss South Africa, Leanne Hoskin. It was two years after the Springboks had toured New Zealand to be greeted by orchestrated, violent protests against the apartheid regime.

Tensions between the two countries were peaking.

Downes was asked if she wanted to change rooms.

"I told him not to be so silly. I liked the lady and we became good friends. She was suffering from political pressure too."

There was a chaotic week of parties, rehearsals, media calls, late nights, and early starts.

For Downes, it was only the arrival of her parents that got her through to that night on the stage in St Louis.

She got to the final 12, then five.

"Somewhere among the 16,000 people were my mother and father. I had no idea where they were sitting. I looked up and directly into their eyes. In that communication I was sharing everything with them.

"It gave me, somehow, an extra oomph."

Five became two; a 19-year-old Kiwi and Miss USA Julie Hayek - the crowd favourite who had graced front pages for days.

"She had the presence of a winner. I assumed she was."

Then the now-famous announcement: "Miss New Zealand is Miss Universe."

Then followed the crush, a year of travelling the world as Miss Universe, chaperones everywhere, and an apartment in New York she shared with Hayek, a bitter runner-up who would barely communicate for months.

For 31 years, Lorraine Downes has been in and out of the limelight. There have been high- profile marriages to All Black Murray Mexted and now to cricket great Martin Crowe.

There was her 2006 victory in television show Dancing With the Stars.

These days she is involved with numerous charities, most notably as ambassador for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.

"I love being able to do this work, and if I didn't have that profile which came from winning Miss Universe then I would have never been considered to be one of their ambassadors."

But arriving back to her hotel room at 4am on July 12, 1983, she had no idea what was about to unfold.

In the lonely hotel room, Miss South Africa had packed her bags and gone home.

Before she left, the South African beauty planted a big red lipstick kiss on the mirror.

Beside it, in lipstick, she wrote: "You did it. I love you."

The Dominion Post