Homegrown heroines

Former Miss Taranaki Bianca Brons.
Former Miss Taranaki Bianca Brons.

The Miss Taranaki contest has changed from being a major event where the winner became a household name in the province to a more low-key event held on the beach. This year it is changing again.

At the beginning of January 1968 Christine Griffin (nee Antunovic) was celebrating her 18th birthday and looking forward to going to nursing school at Waikato Hospital.

For a bit of fun before she went to Hamilton, Griffin entered Miss Taranaki. She won. And then in June she won Miss New Zealand.

By the end of the year she had travelled the world and met Hollywood stars Bob Hope, Jackie Gleeson and Gregory Peck, mingled with the British Olympic team and had tea with Imelda Marcos at the residential palace in the Philippines.

Griffin was Taranaki's second Miss New Zealand. The first was Mary "Bobbie" Woodward in 1949. The third, and last, was Miss Taranaki 1987 Shelley Soffe, who won Miss Universe New Zealand in 1989.

Miss Taranaki no longer enters Miss Zealand, nor is she the household name Griffin - who was often asked for her autograph - was during her reign.

In 1968 Miss Taranaki was held on Opunake Beach, with Howard Morrison as compere.

The promoter had seen Griffin in the street and asked her father, Max Antunovic, who owned the Hi Fry restaurant in New Plymouth's Brougham St, if she could enter.

After she won, she says, it seemed as if she went from a gym slip to a ball gown.

"It was crazy."

She represented the province at a pageant at the Auckland Easter Show, which she won, and then she toured the country with the Miss New Zealand contestants.

"We visited shopping centres and big department stores, there were big parades, we'd do fashion parades."

Griffin was crowned Miss New Zealand and then attended the Miss Universe competition in Miami and went to London for Miss World and the Philippines for Miss Asia.

The slogan "Life is great in Taranaki" was put on all her luggage, she says.

"The New Zealand Wool Board was one of my sponsors and I could only wear woollen clothes. Even my swimsuit was made out of wool. So you promoted New Zealand and New Zealand tourism. I went with the blessing of the Prime Minister. It was a big deal."

She never made it to nursing school.

"After that year with all this travelling I was a little unsettled. All I wanted to do was travel. My greatest ambition was to be an air hostess, but you couldn't go overseas unless you were over 21."

But life took another turn and after her travels Griffin came back to New Plymouth and had a baby girl. Years later she moved to Australia and got married. As well as her daughter, Griffin has four stepsons and eight grandchildren. She manages a boutique in Main Beach on the Gold Coast.

In 1949 Ms Woodward was a 20-year-old student. She ended up Miss Taranaki and then Miss New Zealand "by mistake".

Some friends were in the Lions and they asked her to represent them at an event. She thought it was a sort of Miss Carnival or something. And as a poor student she was interested in the prize money, she says.

But, as it turned out the prize money was accounted for - it paid her entrance fee into Miss Taranaki, which was held in Palmerston North.

She then went to Wellington for a week for Miss New Zealand.

"It wasn't a beauty contest."

As Miss New Zealand she was an ambassador for New Zealand and spent about five months in Britain, travelling around on behalf of the Royal Air Force Association. She also went to visit the Paris branch.

She was invited to stay for an extra month, she says, and got to visit her brother in Geneva.

Back in New Plymouth a big reception was held in her honour. A dias was placed at the Devon St end of Robe St and Devon St was blocked off. She walked up the street to the dias and was welcomed by the mayor.

"It really was an amazing thing."

Ms Woodward married and had four children. She is now a writer and lives in Auckland.

Throughout the years Miss Taranaki has gone from being a big deal to something a lot more low key. And it has been run by different people and held in different places. And this year it's changing again.

After being held at the Oakura Beach Carnival for nearly 20 years, Miss Taranaki is moving into town and back on to the big stage, organiser Lois Finderup says.

"I made the decision to revamp it and go back to the beginning, revitalising the competition and making it more swept-up and special."

It was Finderup who had first taken the competition to the beach.

She took over running the contest in 1983 and after a few years all the travelling the contestants did visiting people around the mountain became a struggle, Finderup says.

"It was so expensive and a huge number of my girls were winning the beach resort contest (held at the Oakura Beach carnival). We decided this is ridiculous. It would be much better if we amalgamated it."

So Miss Taranaki became an integral part of the Oakura Beach Carnival held on New Year's Day.

This year , however, it will be held on March 9 at the Theatre Royal in New Plymouth.

"It will be a gala evening. There will be the crowning ceremony, along with full show and an exhibition of really exotic fashions from the Daily News fashion art awards."

But the winner won't be going off to Miss New Zealand, because Finderup became disillusioned with the competition in the early noughties.

In 1998 Shannon Tobek represented Taranaki and was runner-up to Miss New Zealand.

She was only 17 and the organisers felt she was too young to win, Finderup says.

"She was robbed. From then on I lost my desire to put them through it, when they get left out and you know they have the talent and ability."

Finderup finally pulled the plug after a nightmare national contest which was held in Auckland.

"It was so low key and badly organised, I was disgusted."

It was an ignominious end to an event that had been important to many New Zealanders.

In 1981 more people watched the Miss New Zealand contest on TV than watched the broadcast of Charles and Diana's wedding.

Miss Taranaki 1985, Maree Watson, went to Auckland for 10 days for Miss New Zealand.

"They took us all around. And then we went to Dunedin for the last week. It was great fun."

She finished the runner-up.

"The TSB Bank sponsored Miss Taranaki, so I was Miss TSB Bank Taranaki and for years people thought I worked for the TSB.

"When they used to have the branch in Centre Court they had my photo on the wall where people were queuing."

People still try to work out where they know her from, she says.

"But it's actually difficult to say 'oh I was Miss Taranaki'. If you had represented your province for sport or something like that then you say oh I played netball for . . . but to say I was Miss Taranaki sounds pretty . . . " she shrugs.

Watson worked at the Post Office and Air New Zealand for a few years before going overseas.

"The mountain called me back."

She plans to organise a reunion for all of the Miss Taranaki contestants from the 30 years Finderup has been running the pageant.

Watson says she had a "great year" as Miss Taranaki, but it became politically incorrect to do pageants.

The night of the Miss New Zealand final in 1985, people protested outside the venue, she says.

"We were vaguely aware. We thought, we're doing our thing, they're doing their thing."

During one Miss New Zealand pageant a protester hurled a large slab of raw meat on to the stage.

At the 1994 Miss New Zealand pageant in Christchurch there was a bomb scare and Miss Taranaki, Raewyn King, nee Gibson, remembers being evacuated.

"There were some protesters outside saying 'It's just a meat market, you shouldn't be having it.' We just laughed it off."

When she was younger King was bullied because she was overweight and the contest gave her confidence a boost.

"It was about trying different things and meeting new people. The whole experience was really neat."

She would be happy to let her daughters, Phoebe, 5 and Nina, 20 months, enter if they wanted to in the future, she says.

"Miss Taranaki was about fun and different experiences and meeting a great bunch of girls your own age, whereas Miss New Zealand concentrates on the competition a bit more."

The year before, King had been crowned the Rose of Tralee for Taranaki and was runner-up in New Zealand.

"It was lots of fun. A big party really. They really spoilt us in Auckland."

After Miss Taranaki King went back hairdressing and then went overseas.

After a few years of travelling, she came home and got married.

She now combines looking after her wee girls with running her business Be Gorgeous with a friend. They do hair and makeup for bridal parties.

In 2008 Bianca Brons, 23, a former Miss Teen Taranaki, was about to start her last year at Spotswood College when Finderup rang and asked her to enter Miss Taranaki.

"I thought, why not?"

As Miss Taranaki she received a copy of the New Plymouth mayor's diary every week, she says.

"If there was anything I wanted to go to I could just go. I wish I could have done more."

After Miss Taranaki Brons studied photography at Massey University in Wellington and now works as a freelance photographer in New Plymouth.

The best thing about being Miss Taranaki was the actual competition, Brons says.

"You meet people and make friends and it's a boost in confidence. It was something scary.

"Everybody was so lovely. I just remember laughing a whole lot. We were all quite close and having a good time. It was great."

Taranaki Daily News