If any Miss World competition put the issues of its day on full display, it was the 1970 event. As the anti-apartheid movement took off in South Africa, organizers allowed the country to send two women — one White and one Black — to compete. And as the women’s rights movement continued to reverberate around the world, women’s liberation activists protested at the event, throwing flour bombs onto the stage.
That year, history was also made: Grenada’s Jennifer Hosten became the first Black woman to win Miss World — and generated controversy for doing so.
Now, a new movie called “Misbehaviour,” directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, is retelling the story of that buzzworthy competition. Although the film focuses on the divide between the women’s liberation activists and the competitors, it also puts Hosten front and center.
For Hosten, “Misbehaviour” excavates a time in her life that “helped to shape me, but it has not defined me,” she says. She was an air hostess when she won the competition. Since then, she has completed two master’s degrees, become a business owner and served as Grenada’s high commissioner to Canada. She has also now had the opportunity to watch as an actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, portrays her on-screen.
We eavesdropped on a phone call between Hosten and Mbatha-Raw ahead of the movie’s Friday release. Keep reading to find out what the process was like for both of them, what Hosten thought of the portrayal and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer Hosten: Hi, Gugu, so good to be speaking with you.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, so good to be speaking with you, too.
Jennifer Hosten: And where are you now?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I’m in Atlanta at the moment and just got back to work. It’s good to be back on set, and it’s nice to feel creative.
Jennifer Hosten: But you are so creative in so many other ways. During the covid situation, you’ve really shown yourself to be multitalented. The artwork that you shared was just amazing, Gugu. And your natural talents as an actress.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Aw, thank you. I know, it was really special to get to paint you, as well — I’ve brought my sketchbook with me in case there’s another lockdown.
Jennifer Hosten: We’re prepared for everything here.
So you know something? I don’t know whether I have ever told you that I saw you in the movie “Belle.” I was looking at Belle with a friend, and that person said to me, knowing that they were looking to find an actress to portray me, “She could play you.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: [Laughs] Wow.
Jennifer Hosten: And that was exactly in 2018, like two weeks before I went and met with the production crew in London. And when they showed me your picture, I recognized you instantly from “Belle,” and I told them that story. I think from that point, I thought that you were somehow destined to play me.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, that’s so nice.
Jennifer Hosten: And then of course you reached out to me, and there was one other thing that I could never forget. You said, “Jennifer, I have never played anyone alive before.” That was priceless. First of all, it made me wonder if I was really that old. And then I realized that it probably put a bit of pressure on you knowing that I would still be able to see how you portrayed me. How was that for you?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Acting, obviously, it’s all pretend. But when you are playing a real person, I think that there is an added layer of pressure, self-imposed or not, because it’s that fine line of doing an interpretation that honors the person and an impression as such.
It was a real treat because so often, when you’re working on, say, Shakespeare, you can’t call up Shakespeare and say, “Hey, what did you mean by this line?” [Laughs]
Whereas for me, I could ask you, “Hey, what did this feel like? What was your favorite perfume? What did you do to work out? What was Grenada like?” I really had you, and you’ve been so generous in your time. And especially that you agreed to meet me in Grenada. When I first asked you over email, I thought, well, this is a bit cheeky.
Jennifer Hosten: But, you know, that was another thing that made me think that you were the perfect person to play my part, because that’s probably what I would’ve done if I were in your place. I do believe in doing the extra stuff, you know? And not everyone does.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, I just knew how important you are to Grenada, if you don’t mind me saying. You’re such a cultural icon there, and I thought, I cannot hold my head up playing you if I haven’t even been there.
Jennifer Hosten: The other thing is that, talking with you, I realized that you had not previously viewed beauty contests. So I’d like to know why. Was it something consciously you avoided, or did it just never happen?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I think it’s one of those, you don’t know what you don’t know. Growing up, they just weren’t around me. Dance and musical theater was really where I directed all my energy in my teens. I just wasn’t really aware of it.
Jennifer Hosten: And when you started researching the role, what did you think, then, about them? After you got involved, how different was that than what you had imagined?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, I have to be honest, Jennifer. I think I probably was a little bit judgmental. I think that I felt that it was a bit superficial or, you know, that the people who got involved in these competitions had sort of vacuous intentions, that it was all about looks.
And I think that meeting you and talking to you about your experience was an eye-opener for me, because it made me understand that it is much bigger than that. And it’s about opportunity for so many people, getting into these competitions — either a steppingstone for something else, or also just a chance to get some confidence and to channel your energy somewhere and to travel the world.
What do you think about beauty pageants now? Do you still keep up with them? Do you feel like they’ve changed since your time?
Jennifer Hosten: Gugu, to be honest with you, over the years, people call me and say, “Oh, Miss World or Miss Universe is on.” And if I’m not doing something, I might tune in. But I honestly never know when they’re on, and it hasn’t over the years — because my interests have gone on to so many other things, it’s not something that I follow at all.
I have consciously focused on other things that are interesting to me, too. I always wanted to do something useful in my life. So whatever I’ve chosen to do is something that might be justified as one of the helpful or helping professions, you know.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: So, psychotherapist.
Jennifer Hosten: Yes, exactly, as that’s where I’ve felt that I was most useful. But I have enjoyed all the different things I’ve done. So I have to be honest and say that the Miss World experience helped to shape me, but it has not defined me.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: You know what I wanted to ask you, because somebody asked me about your perspective, and I thought, “Let me ask Jennifer that,” because I don’t fully know what the experience was for you. But in terms of being the first woman of color to win Miss World, and the controversy around that, did that weigh on you? Did you feel surprised about having to somewhat become the poster child for women of color in that way?
Jennifer Hosten: Well, Gugu, coming from the Caribbean upbringing that I had, I think I always really had a sense of self, an appreciation of who I was. But the thing is, I wasn’t thinking particularly about that, growing up in a multicultural community and society.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, you were never a minority in Grenada.
Jennifer Hosten: I was never in my village. But certainly, when I got there, realizing that no one expected someone from a small country and one of the minorities [would win]. Of course, there were representatives from African countries and Asian countries. But as it turned out, the issue of apartheid became writ large, because that was the height of the anti-apartheid movement.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: That’s something I could never get my head around, the fact that South Africa, under pressure for only ever sending a White contestant, sent two — sent Pearl [Jansen] last minute.
Jennifer Hosten: First of all, it seems unfair. It seems unfair that one country would have two representatives. One the political side, other countries thought maybe South Africa should have been precluded from taking part. Instead, they were given the opportunity of sending two people.
But the positive side is that it gave Pearl a chance to be included. And as you say in the brilliant foreword that you have written for my book, representation is a very important thing.
And here she was, she did extremely well — she came in second. And then she returned to South Africa, where she was ostracized.
I also just want to say this before anything else. You did a wonderful job of portraying me. You seem to have truly understood my essence.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: That means so much.
Jennifer Hosten: More important than anything for me was that my children, Sophia and Beau, were really happy with the movie and how you portrayed me. They said, “Mom, Gugu’s interpretation of you was just excellent.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, wow. Well, I can’t ask for any higher praise.
Jennifer Hosten: I also have to tell you, that when I came to set —
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, yes. I was so nervous when you came to set, but I don’t think I saw you.
Jennifer Hosten: You didn’t see me, because I was crying because you brought tears to my eyes. First of all, you looked so much like me there with the makeup and the hairdo. I just felt so proud of you for some reason, that you had really caught, as I said, the essence of me. And obviously it’s your interpretation, but I couldn’t be more pleased. But I am pleased and proud of the movie.
So my last question to you is, was it a really good experience for you?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, it’s been an amazing experience. The whole experience of making the film was really special, getting to know you and getting to go to Grenada.
And also just because it’s such an uplifting story and I feel like now even, you know, even within the pandemic and everything, this story has so much spark to inspire people. I feel like we really need a bit of that, and the feminist message, especially losing icons like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Jennifer Hosten: I noticed today the results of the Breonna Taylor inquiry will be announced. And you know, even though we’re not in the same country, we are affected in so many ways, especially women of color.
I think one of the most important things that has come out of the women’s movement and the Black Lives Matter movement is that you see real collaboration between women, White women and women of color, and people of all ages. It’s people realizing equality and justice are no longer something that should be just for a few. It’s something we owe to all people.