On a sunny but cool November morning in Shanghai, seven dark-blue tour buses pull up at the southern end of the Bund and disgorge 106 tall, scantily dressed young women. Within seconds the Bund is ringing with the sound of 105 pairs of stiletto heels; only Miss Norway wears flats. Astonished Chinese tourists turn from taking pictures of the Pudong television tower to stare as the 53rd Miss World bandwagon clicks past. Recalling their experience in Xian, where crowds of more than 50,000 required a security presence of 9,000 police and paramilitaries, Stephen Morley, son of Miss World doyenne Julia Morley, rushes ahead of the women and begins shooing away onlookers who are getting too close. 'We couldn't do this if people had known we were coming,' he says. The 10am start isn't exactly a dawn raid but, whatever the time of day, crowds gather fast in China and several busloads of foreign beauties attract a massive amount of attention. The commotion comes as no surprise. Since China welcomed Miss World into its arms by hosting this year's competition, the beauty bandwagon has been wowing everyone. Miss World 2003 is not just a one-night event, but a three-week tour of China that kicked off in Hong Kong on November 11, taking in Haikou, Sanya, Xian, Shanghai and Beijing before returning to Sanya for the finals on December 6. Without doubt, this has been a beauty pageant unequalled in the 54-year history of the People's Republic. Pushing the importance of faith, hope and charity (and the need to have the right cosmetics), Julia Morley's roadshow is a well-oiled machine; a tightly controlled product that wanted to create a sensation in China, secure a second year here - and make a lot of money. It has achieved its objectives. Miss World announced last week that next year's pageant will be held either in Sanya, the bustling resort town on Hainan Island, or in Shanghai. And while Miss World Ltd, wholly owned by the Morley family, is highly secretive about money, its experience in Sanya will almost certainly enable it to recoup losses incurred during last year's disastrous pageant in Nigeria, when Miss World-related rioting caused the deaths of more than 200 people and forced Morley to decamp the entire operation to London at enormous cost in plane fares and last-minute venue bookings. This year's competition is not without controversy - like those in the past, rumours have surfaced that the final was rigged. Miss World has come a long way since Julia Morley's late husband, Eric Morley, started the pageant in 1951 in Britain. The country was still suffering from the devastation brought by the second world war, and Morley was managing a London entertainment venue called the Lyceum Ballroom. A shrewd businessman, he decided a good way of drawing crowds to his dancehall was by hosting a beauty contest; not just any beauty contest, however, but a contest of beautiful women from around the world. The idea struck gold. Today, the annual event attracts entrants from 110 countries and is watched by two billion viewers. Since his death in 2000 at age 82, Julia Morley has called the shots. The contestants travel in coaches and Morley's grip on them is total. The 64-year-old, one-time beauty queen controls their every waking hour. Sex, drugs and alcohol are not on the Miss World menu; charity, fresh fruit and swimsuits are, along with 4.30am starts and lights out at 11pm. Many of the contestants are so exhausted by the end of the tour they don't bother showing up at the coronation ball. For the girls, as they are invariably called, China is a new and memorable experience. Standing more than 1.8 metres tall in her gold, 10cm high stiletto sandals, United States entrant Kimberley Harlan's blue eyes shine as she describes being a beauty queen in a country where official attitudes towards pageants may have relaxed but cultural prudishness dictates that underwear advertisements feature only western models. This means western women - especially scantily clad ones - can be objects of intense scrutiny. 'I'm having the time of my life,' says Harlan, 18, swaying slightly on her heels at a buffet dinner in Shanghai's Hong Qiao State Guest House in mid-November, halfway through the tour. 'It's more than I expected. It's like you're a rock star all the time. It's like, the crowds in Xian were huge, just so big, I feel like I'm about to cry. Now these are like perfect people. We're like celebrities for them.' 'It's out of this world,' agrees Miss Antigua, Ann-Marie Browne. For Miss Botswana, seeing snow in Beijing, where the contestants donned 106 red bubble jackets with fur-lined hoods and travelled to the Great Wall, was a highlight. That and the ocean, which she hadn't seen before either. 'Great, it was just great,' she says. 'I come from a country that is not on the sea so to see the ocean was so nice.' Miss Ireland, Rosanna Davison, who would go on to win the contest, is more circumspect. A sociology and art history student from Dublin, Davison is also the daughter of Lady In Red singer Chris de Burgh and no stranger to celebrity or the international lifestyle. Yet she still found Hong Kong overwhelming. Like the others, she had never been to China before. 'Hong Kong was so vast, and the height of the buildings - it was mind-blowing for me coming from Dublin,' says Davison. 'And then the thousands and thousands of people on the streets. In Ireland we don't know enough about this country.' Speaking later in Sanya, Davison says the highlight of the tour for her was Xian, where she was able to take a close-up look at the terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Chinese authorities relaxed strict rules keeping visitors away from the clay figures for Miss World. 'That was amazing because I have been studying the terracotta army at college,' she says. But this has been no sight-seeing tour for Davison and her counterparts. In Xian, the women were also presented with the key to the city and took part in a 400-seat charity dinner, switched at the last minute from a local restaurant to the Sheraton after Morley grew alarmed at the size of the crowds. 'We got a phone call at 4am from the Chinese organisers who had been called by Morley, asking us to put on a dinner for 400 that day,' says Belinda Jin, of the Sheraton Xian. 'It was no problem for us. We are used to doing such big events'. In Beijing, as well as touring the Forbidden City and Great Wall during their four days there, officials wined and dined the contestants at the Great Hall of the People. The women also shopped at a special, 80 per cent discounted event in their honour at Sogo and other stores, with some of the proceeds going to charity. Then it was back to Sanya for a series of bridge-openings, walkabouts and filming by the Miss World crew for footage to be broadcast on the big night, as well as four mini-contests to select a Miss Beach Beauty, Miss Personality, Miss Talent and Miss Sport. Hovering over the whole event like the teacher of an unusually large and physically mature sixth form on a class trip was Julia Morley. Morley is a controversial figure with a fearsome reputation. She has described herself as a 'tough bitch'. Her sons Stephen and John co-organise the event, with Stephen working the crowd at events, exhorting them to clap louder, harder and longer, while John manages the all-important franchise issues. Morley's presence colours everything that happens at Miss World. Take an incident in Shanghai, when the girls are nearly an hour late for a photo shoot. Restless, the media move in on the buffet and the evening is threatening to flop. 'Where the hell are they?' hisses a Miss World employee, storming down from the rooms above the hall in the Hong Qiao State Guest House. 'Julia's going ape****.' But if Miss World is a well-oiled machine, there was grit in it this year in the shape of a Chinese Organising Committee. Morley, who in public sports the kind of fixed grin that would make one of her girls proud, is keen to emphasise that relations with the Chinese organisers were good. 'We have no difficulties with the Chinese Organising Committee. We are like one family,' she says. Yet Chinese organisers complain that Morley constantly interfered with their programme, countermanding orders and rearranging events. 'It's really difficult but I can't talk about it,' sighs one. 'The reason we can't tell you what is going on is that one, Mrs Morley controls everything the press does and two, she keeps changing the schedule,' says another. According to Paul Ridley of Paul Ridley Ltd, a London public relations company hired by Miss World, the Chinese organisers struck back at their perceived lack of control by organising impromptu events that Miss World was not informed of. For a company that tries to exert a Svengali-like control over the media, and for whom image is all important, this was a grave affront. Then, three days before the finals, Chinese authorities organised a press tour of Sanya's Beauty Crown Cultural Centre, where the winner was due to be announced. It ended in chaos. The Chinese organisers received a furious phone call from Miss World demanding to know why the press were shown the venue before the big night. Morley tried to impose a retrospective ban on the photographs and Chinese organisers compromised by issuing a bizarre plea to the media to 'try as hard as possible' not to use them. More damaging was the furore over the logo. After 53 years in operation, Miss World is a slick, international brand with its own logo (an angular capital 'M' atop its mirror image, a capital 'W'), and rich takings from franchises, licenses and other deals that hinge on branding and exclusivity. According to Sanya mayor Chen Ci, the city paid Miss World US$4.8 million (HK$37 million) for the licence to hold the event, a figure the company refuses to confirm to the press. So when Morley saw a brand-new Miss World logo, a pretty, butterfly-shaped gold pin on publicity material and banners festooning Sanya city, designed by the Chinese Organising Committee without prior consultation with Miss World, she was furious. 'Julia hit them over the head,' says one insider, making flapping motions with her hand as if someone were being slapped. Yet this is China, where copyright infringement is routine, and Morley found few allies outside of her organisation. The Chinese logo stayed, although it wasn't displayed on the night or shown to the televised show's two billion viewers, most of them in Latin America, Asia and Africa. It wasn't the only issue to strain relations. In Shanghai, overzealous security guards even managed to kick an amazed Miss World TV crew out of their own gala charity dinner. Wails of 'But I'm with Julia Morley!' failed to impress and the three-man crew was led out of the tent and dumped brusquely on the lawn. Faced with a formidable enemy-cum-partner, Morley had one unbeatable card up her sleeve: the girls themselves. Asked who had the final say over what happened in China, Ridley makes it clear that if push came to shove, Morley would win. 'Well, we would just withdraw the girls,' he says. Not that the Chinese organisers didn't seek to accommodate their visitors. Chen says the city provided two Hainan Airlines airplanes free of charge for the China tour. The city bought 20 new tour buses at a total cost of nearly 20 million yuan. Hotel accommodation along the way was provided by the Chinese organisers, who set up complicated barter deals involving free tickets and publicity for the hotels. New roads and bridges were built for the event. The city also solicited 'donations' from private companies for the new Beauty Crown centre, a building which has a roof shaped like a crown with round 'jewels'. atop skyward-pointing spires. Built in just four months, the structure showed some flaws: a large fountain at its front overflowed on the night, obliging guests to walk through fast-flowing water two centimetres deep, and more water dripped from the ceiling in bathrooms. For China, the cost of hosting the event may have totalled US$31 million, excluding the licence fee, although the figure varies according to whom you speak. Chen declined to give an estimate before the pageant, promising to release figures afterwards, but the city was determined to use the event to promote Sanya as a tourist destination. The head of the Chinese Organising Committee and Sanya's deputy mayor, Zhang Qi, says the committee hopes to recoup at least 1.1 billion yuan in tourist dollars. 'What we are trying to do is establish the image of Sanya as an international, important tourist city,' Zhang says. 'When we were organising this event we always put economics first.' But Miss World needs China as much as China wants Miss World. Suffering from an identity crisis after 53 years in operation, Miss World is seeking a softer, charity-driven image that suits China perfectly. Miss World also wants a piece of China's booming beauty market. It plans to launch a range of Miss World products including swimsuits, a cosmetics and hair-care range and a magazine that it hopes to sell in China and around the world. By holding the 53rd contest on the mainland, Miss World has joined the ranks of hundreds of foreign companies pursuing its one billion consumers. Holding the pageant in China was Morley's idea. 'I was the driving force behind bringing Miss World to China,' she says. 'I just love China and I love Sanya.' Her enthusiasm nearly masks a deeper problem facing the organisation as it grapples for a new, more politically correct identity in the 21st century. The Miss World product was able to slot easily into the New Lad culture of the 1990s with its jokey, soft-porn magazines such as Loaded and FHM. But that trend for knowing irony has run out of steam. And even though the lads were always a big audience for Miss World, they didn't spend enough money on cosmetics. At the same time, fashion photographers Corinne Day and Juergen Teller were taking pictures of child-like, flat-chested models such as Kate Moss for magazines like The Face and Vogue. The super-skinny, heroin-chic look didn't suit Miss World's rounder, more feminine image at all. Which leaves Miss World in the 21st century pitching itself at the developing world, with its relatively untapped markets for haircare products and its patriarchal societies that still tolerate unreconstructed beauty galas. In China, it may have found a perfect home: a potentially huge market and a relatively unsophisticated population eager to buy into the western beauty ideal. Standing outside the Beauty Crown Centre on the big night, 18-year-old college maths student Yang Liu says: 'I really want to see Miss World, and when I go back home I think it will make me try harder with my own appearance.' With negotiations between Miss World lawyers and authorities in Shanghai and Sanya already underway for next year's contest, the show may be in China to stay, at least for a few years. As Chinese-German businessman Henry Wang, attending a Miss World charity dinner in Shanghai, says: 'It's infamous in Europe, but they don't know that here.'