125th anniversary of Suffrage in New Zealand

Lorraine Downes crowned Miss Universe

11 July 1983

Lorraine Downes with PM Robert Muldoon and his wife Thea (New Zealand Herald via Te Ara)

When Lorraine Downes entered the 1983 Miss Universe New Zealand pageant, she hoped to win enough money to buy an airplane ticket to Australia. A few months later she was standing on the stage of the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, Missouri in front of 16,000 people and a global television audience of 700 million. Nineteen-year-old Downes had made it through to the final stage of the Miss Universe competition along with Miss USA, Julie Hayek, who had dominated media coverage and was favoured to win the title.

Downes wore a midnight blue ball gown designed by Dawn McGowan from Television New Zealand’s wardrobe department. The presence of Downes’ parents in the crowd gave her a boost after three weeks of rehearsals, media calls, parties, late nights and early mornings. The hectic schedule would only continue after she was announced as the winner.

Downes recalled that after receiving the coveted sash and crown she felt frightened as she was mobbed by fellow contestants and camera operators jostled for the best angles. She became a household name overnight and spent the next 12 months travelling the world accompanied by a chaperone, carrying out the duties of Miss Universe and meeting leaders such as US President Ronald Reagan. It was a life-changing experience for a young woman from Pakuranga who had arrived in St. Louis with a small suitcase and a bundle of nerves.

Downes went on to establish a successful modelling agency and image consultancy. She mostly stayed out of the spotlight, apart from when she married All Black Murray Mexted, and later cricket great Martin Crowe. In 2006 she won the second season of New Zealand’s Dancing with the stars television series, raising almost $112,000 for the Child Cancer Foundation.

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