Helen Joseph never won the Miss Montserrat Festival Queen competition. In fact she never competed. But she holds the distinction of being the only woman to represent Montserrat in an international beauty pageant.
On Thursday, November 12, 1964, Joseph and 41 other contestants graced the Lyceum Ballroom in London as they competed for the coveted title of Miss World. Joseph, then 22 years old, advanced to the Final 16 but failed to reach the Final 7. Ann Sidney of the United Kingdom eventually claimed the crown.
Although Miss Universe is often regarded as the most popular international beauty contest, Miss World, which began in 1951 and is based in the UK, also has a storied history and prestige. Indian actress and singer Priyanka Chopra, twice listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, was crowned Miss World in 2000. Jamaica, the only island in the English-speaking Caribbean to boast a Miss World winner, captured the title three times: Carole Joan Crawford (1963), Cindy Breakspeare (1976) and Lisa Hanna (1993). Breakspeare drew additional publicity for her relationship with reggae legend Bob Marley, a union that produced their son Damian “Junior Gong” Marley, also a reggae artist.
The story of how Joseph came to represent Montserrat in the competition is interesting. She was already residing in England and working as a model when she was approached about entering the contest. The only country she could logically represent was her native Montserrat, even though she left at a young age. There is no rule stating that a Miss World contestant has to have won a previous pageant representing her country. As long as she provides proof of her birthplace, meets the age requirement and is unmarried, she qualifies.
In December of 1963, Pamela Nanton (Arthurton) was crowned Miss Montserrat during the annual festival. The conventional progression should have meant that she would represent Montserrat in any regional or international pageant. It didn’t happen that way, but she has no regrets.
“No one asked me to enter Miss World,” said Mrs. Arthurton, who now resides in Antigua and has run Carib-World Travel since 1973. “When Helen entered some people thought it was me because we’re both light-skinned and tall. I think it was one of those things where she was living in England and someone sponsored her. She was a very beautiful girl. I admired her and was proud that she represented Montserrat well.”
Helen Joseph was born Edith Iona Kirnon on April 27, 1942, at Glendon Hospital in Plymouth, Montserrat. Like many locals, she was given a “pet” name, as everyone called her Helen. The Kirnon family was based in Cudjoe Head Village in the north. Helen’s mother, Edith Augusta Kirnon, took Helen to live with her in Dominica at an early age. When Edith married carpenter Stephen Joseph, she not only changed her surname from Kirnon to Joseph, but Helen’s as well. The identity of Helen’s biological father is unknown.
The Joseph family migrated to England in January of 1955 when Helen was 12. They lived in Highbury, longtime site of the famed Arsenal Stadium in north London. As Helen matured she began to draw attention with her stunning beauty. Slender and fair-skinned with a gleaming smile, she fit the mold of what modeling agencies and talent scouts were seeking. She was encouraged to enter the Miss World contest.
Although she fell short in the pageant, she earned critical attention and was soon fielding movie and TV offers. She appeared in two movies: The Girl With a Pistol (1968) and Virgin Witch (1972). Both were small parts, but in Virgin Witch she had an extended scene in which she sang You Go Your Way, accompanied by piano in a lounge setting. She also had guest spots on several British TV shows, including Love Story (1967), Out of the Unknown (1969) and Doomwatch (1970).
In 1966 Helen was featured in a short British Pathé film at her north London flat. During the two-minute clip, which has no audio and has been uploaded to YouTube, she is seen feeding and playing with a pet fox.
During her show business career she was billed as Helen Downing, the surname of her first husband. Virgin Witch turned out to be her final role as she settled into family life.
Helen, who married three times, later relocated to Montserrat and built a home on the Kirnon family property near Rendezvous Bay. Due to health problems, she returned to England for treatment. She passed away on June 17, 2008 at age 66.
“She was a very beautiful girl. I admired her and was proud that she represented Montserrat well.”— Pamela (Nanton) Arthurton, Miss Montserrat 1963-64
For several reasons, Helen’s inclusion in the Miss World pageant went mostly unnoticed in Montserrat. For one, in 1964 the main source of news was the radio. Surely, in today’s age of instant news and social media, her quest would have gotten much better exposure. Two other factors aided the obscurity: She left Montserrat at a young age and had not built a local following, and also she was not sponsored for the Miss World show in conjunction with a group on Montserrat such as the Jaycees. Helen herself was also not forthcoming in her later years about her pageant and show business careers.
“She didn’t really talk about it much,” said Helen’s cousin Charles T. Kirnon, a former minister with the Government of Montserrat. “Only if you asked her about it.”
At any rate, Helen Joseph should be prominently included in the annals of Montserrat history, and not just as the answer to a trivia question.