Heroine of yesteryear to be celebrated on stage

Francesca MannGeraldton Guardian
In June 1926, Western Australia’s Beryl Mills was plunged into the spotlight and into a sash, with her selection as the first Miss Australia. The 19-year-old beauty was born and grew up on a sheep station near Geraldton.
Camera IconIn June 1926, Western Australia’s Beryl Mills was plunged into the spotlight and into a sash, with her selection as the first Miss Australia. The 19-year-old beauty was born and grew up on a sheep station near Geraldton. Credit: Western Mail

Back in 1926, Beryl Mills, a humble 19-year-old from Geraldton, became a national treasure when she was crowned the first Miss Australia.

Whether she was overseas or in her home town, Mrs Mills was treated like royalty, with screaming crowds and adoring fans greeting her. But memories of the “queen of beauty” have since faded, her name all but forgotten 93 years after she was picked from 1000 competitors as the “ideal” Australian woman.

That was until Madeline Clouston and Amelia Burke stumbled across the lesser-known heroine and decided to immortalise Mrs Mills in a new musical, Miss Westralia. “We wanted to create something for Fringe Festival last year and knew we wanted a strong female protagonist,” writer and co-producer Clouston said.

“Just for inspiration we started looking at women in Australian history and we came across Beryl, and the more we looked into her life, the more she popped out to us.

Kelly Fregon and Madeline Clouston spent four days in Geraldton researching Beryl Mills, the first winner of the Miss Australia competition, to further develop the musical.
Camera IconKelly Fregon and Madeline Clouston spent four days in Geraldton researching Beryl Mills, the first winner of the Miss Australia competition, to further develop the musical. Credit: Geraldton Guardian, Francesca Mann

“She was a huge celebrity ... but she seemed like a bit of a rebel as well.”

Alongside the title of Miss Australia, Mrs Mills also won an all-expenses paid trip to the US to attend the Miss America competition as an honoured guest.

Upon her return to Australia, Mrs Mills gushed about the warm reception, the “marvellous” shops – “or stores, as they’re called” – and how well-dressed the American women were. But Mrs Mills also warned Australia not to follow in the US’ footsteps, stating, in her elegant accent, they were “blinded by their nationalism”.

When Clouston and Burke discovered the speech, recorded in 1927, they knew Mrs Mills would be the focus of their musical.

“I got the impression she shouldn’t have been saying that,” Clouston said.

“A lot of what she said rang so true to today, and it’s important now to reflect back on her life.”

Miss Westralia, the premiere production of Blonde Moment Theatre, explores the parallels between the past and present, uncovering how much has actually changed since the 1920s. While the pageant world has changed over the years, Clouston said the way women were often treated in the media had stayed the same.

“What we talk about a lot is the scrutiny women still get with their appearance, and how Beryl handled that,” she said.

“Back then newspapers listed her measurements like how you’d talk about a pig at a show.

“People are quick to say things are so different, but you still get pictures of celebrity women zoning in on their cellulite, listing their weight.

“Certain things may now be deemed inappropriate, but what’s the difference?”

Clouston and production designer Kelly Fregon visited Geraldton last week for a research residency to further develop the show.

The two worked with Euphorium Creative, the Geraldton Regional Library, the Museum of Geraldton and a number of residents to discover more information about Mrs Mills.

Miss Westralia will debut at Perth’s Blue Room Theatre in May. The musical will be performed in Geraldton early next year.

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