The beauty pageants that were once broadcast live from capacious town halls are now characterised by hired dresses and tired conference rooms. Susan Edmunds gets out the lipstick and hairspray and investigates.

Twelve big-haired, spray-tanned girls in tiny silver hotpants gyrate suggestively on chairs in front of a 450-strong audience. They teeter in sky-high heels across a stage, constructed around a pole holding up the ceiling. Lights flash and false eyelashes flutter.

This isn't a strip show - it's Miss World New Zealand, held at Auckland's Alexandra Park.

The title is much the same but the experience of becoming a beauty queen in New Zealand has changed dramatically from 29 years ago, when the country's most famous winner, Lorraine Downes, won the international title.

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Downes' name will be forever linked with her Miss Universe tiara, but few people could now name 18-year-old Collette Lochore as the winner of this year's pageant, held three weeks ago.

Over the past two decades pageants have switched from glittering, glamorous events to slightly seedy sideshows that escape most people's attention - aside from the odd scandal.

This month, Miss World Fiji, Torika Watters, was stripped of her crown because she was only 16, not old enough to compete in the worldwide pageant.

Back here, even confirmed supporter Colin Mathura-Jeffree says New Zealand's pageant scene is in serious trouble. "They're on a slippery slope," he says, "slipping all the time."

And former Miss New Zealand Liz Aitken says she sees no future for pageants in their current form. They are, she says, "degrading".

UNIVERSITY OF Auckland historian Caroline Daley says there are a number of reasons pageants have dropped off in popularity. There are more options in what we watch on television , the contest is split into confusing rival camps (Miss Universe NZ and Miss World NZ) and people are not comfortable with the idea of women vying to be the prettiest, no matter how many world-peace questions are thrown in.

People are often surprised at how recent the decline in pageant popularity was, Daley says. We might be happier thinking 1970s advances in women's rights were the death knell for beauty competitions but she says they didn't start to become seriously unfashionable until the middle of the 1980s.

"It's almost like people now don't like to remember that we liked these contests until the 1980s."

Perversely, pageant-aficionado Mathura-Jeffree may have hammered the final nail in the coffin of the beauty queens. Television programmes such as New Zealand's Next Top Model, on which he is a judge, fill the pageant niche in a way most people are much more comfortable with, Daley says. "We're happier to think about beauty as a career option than just being beautiful and lovely for the sake of it."

Val Lott, organiser of the Miss Universe New Zealand pageants, says straitened finances also play a role in the shift from town hall to shopping mall. A big, glitzy pageant for television costs a lot of money to stage. After the 1987 sharemarket crash, the last year the pageant was on television, that money was a lot harder to find.

TVNZ spokeswoman Katherine Klouwens says: "The world is quite a different place from the 80s and we would rather spend our local production money on other priorities, which have much public interest."

Now, only nine regions hold competitions for Miss Universe New Zealand, so many of the finalists are models or promo girls, recruited by the organisers to compete for the overall title. They have to find their own sponsors to cover the $3000 needed to enter. Lott would like to find more franchise holders around the country. "You get sponsors, girls, run it like a business."

But she says people have unrealistic expectations of making a lot of money from the pageants.

DON'T MISUNDERSTAND her: Lott remains the biggest cheerleader for beauty pageants. She says they have lasting appeal and provide glamour. "People love it, they love to see girls doing well. They learn the most amazing skills. There will always be gorgeous girls and there will always be people running pageants."

Some competitors do it hoping for celebrity, others just want to gain confidence, she says. Lott's interest in pageants started when she watched them on television, scoring the contestants on her notepad. When she always picked the winner, she decided it was something she should get involved with.

But Miss Universe New Zealand 2006 isn't convinced of their merits.

Elizabeth Aitken was 23 when a friend talker her into entering.

A week in an East Auckland motel and a trip across the Langham Hotel stage later, she was Miss Universe New Zealand 2006.

But a year with the crown wasn't enough to convince her of beauty pageants' merits.

"If beauty pageants have any future they need to change in a big way. Times have changed - women work in important jobs, they raise children, they contribute to the world in a lot more ways than just how they look," she says. "Women should not be judged and given a ranking of how beautiful they are or how they look in a swimsuit. I feel it is degrading and needs to change."

At the Miss Universe competition in Los Angeles, Aitken was horrified to find the eventual winner, Miss Puerto Rico, had had six plastic surgery operations by the age of 18.

"If I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her enter a beauty pageant," she says. "It's a very degrading thing to do."

In the heyday of Miss New Zealand, contestants would travel around the country before the final and even tickets to the dress rehearsal would sell out.

THIS YEAR'S Miss Universe NZ will be selected at Queen's Birthday weekend. But winning isn't quite what it used to be, either. These days, life doesn't change much for our reigning beauty queens.

Lochore admits she's keeping a low profile. She went straight back to work teaching drama to schoolchildren after her win. There haven't been any public events to attend or ribbons to cut, although she will help plant a vegetable garden at New Lynn Primary School next weekend. Aitken's most memorable venture, apart from a stint on Celebrity Treasure Island, was a provocative photo shoot for Zoo magazine that led her to fall foul of the contest's organisers. Yes, controversy again ...

Of course, people who just want to show off are now more likely to post a few risque party photos on Facebook than take to a pageant stage in swimsuit and heels.

Tracey Cameron, a finalist in 1987, now runs Ican Models and Talent in Queenstown and agrees the interest now is in modelling as a career, not being a pageant queen. "It has lost that glamour, spark and power," she says.

"If you are an A-grade model, you don't need a beauty pageant, you'll be signed by an agency. It used to be another avenue to get into that world but now everything is bigger, faster."

And, as Torika Watters may discover, modelling agencies don't wait until girls turn 17 before signing them.

Lochore is happy she entered this year. She has even started a beauty contest at the drama school to give schoolchildren a taste of a pageant. "It's been the best thing I've done to date in my life."