France's "Battle of the Misses": Flesh v. Decorum

PARIS Tue Nov 30, 2010 1:10pm EST

Malika Menard (C) reacts as she is crowned Miss France 2010 in Nice, southeastern France, December 5, 2009. Malika Menard is flanked by by Genevieve De Fontenay, President of the Miss France committee (L) and Sylvie Tellier, director of the Miss France company. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Malika Menard (C) reacts as she is crowned Miss France 2010 in Nice, southeastern France, December 5, 2009. Malika Menard is flanked by by Genevieve De Fontenay, President of the Miss France committee (L) and Sylvie Tellier, director of the Miss France company.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

PARIS (Reuters) - In her trademark black and white hat and severe pancake make-up, 78-year-old Genevieve de Fontenay has reigned supreme over the Miss France beauty contest for more than half a century.

But shocked by a series of nude photo scandals, the self-styled doyenne of decorum has set up a rival pageant in a moral crusade against current Miss France owners, the reality TV company Endemol which she accuses of cheapening the contest.

The dispute is gripping France, where despite a popular history of intellectualism and demure dressing, the masses are as hooked as the rest of the world on the skimpily dressed celebrities made famous by reality TV and beauty contests.

The battle will come to a head this weekend, when de Fontenay's "Miss Nationale" is picked in a modest ceremony in Paris, a day after the official Miss France contest is broadcast on prime-time under the patronage of veteran actor Alain Delon.

"Miss France's image of dignity and respectability has been flouted," said de Fontenay, a fashion model in her youth who took the reins of the pageant in 1954 alongside her now deceased partner Louis Poirot-de Fontenay.

"I've decided to do something different, and public opinion is behind me," de Fontenay told Reuters by telephone.

A striking beauty in her day, the now heavily made-up de Fontenay is a familiar figure in France, and well-known for her public rants against society's moral decline.

Her battle with Endemol dates back to 2002, when she sold the rights to the Miss France contest to the reality-TV giant, which is owned by Silvio Berlusconi's media empire Mediaset.

Although de Fontenay continued to preside over the pageant, the partnership was never an easy one. Endemol France are the makers of a local version of the Big Brother TV franchise and no strangers to naked flesh. De Fontenay is a straitlaced matriarch who was once elected "Miss Elegance" in the 1950s.

UNDIGNIFIED POSES

The cracks soon began to appear, with both parties notably clashing over whether to allow Miss France contestants to swap one-piece swimming costumes for more daring bikinis.

Then came the scandal over a series of erotic photos of Miss France 2008, which sparked public outbursts from de Fontenay.

The final straw came earlier this year when Endemol paid a former Miss Paris to appear in one of its reality TV shows, after previously stripping her of her title for publishing photos de Fontenay criticised as "pornographic."

"Miss France should be dignified under all circumstances, show respect for others -- a girl with her legs apart is hardly what I'd call dignified and I can't allow that," de Fontenay told Reuters.

Accusing Endemol of hypocrisy, she has since traveled around France, drumming up support for her own version of the contest which she says focuses on traditional values.

But her moral stance is up against the media might of Endemol, whose televised Miss France drew 8 million viewers last year, or 40 percent of the total viewing population.

Miss Nationale is due to be elected in front of an audience of 500 and has so far failed to find a broadcaster.

For Sylvie Tellier, organizer of the current Miss France pageant and a former title-holder herself, Endemol's bikini-clad contestants are more in tune with modern tastes.

"You have to face up to the fact that people want to see physical beauty," Tellier told Reuters.

"We get them to express themselves so viewers can chose an ambassador, but ultimately it's a beauty contest."

(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato)