Singapore's Golden Girls

Madam Ho Lye Toh, 92, won the Miss Singapore title three times - in 1941, 1947 and 1948.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

In recent years, the Miss Universe beauty pageant has undoubtedly become a global phenomenon - with representation from more than 80 countries and fuelling a global industry that produces "perfect" women with megawatt smiles.

But according to 77-year-old Mrs Marion Woodworth, Miss Singapore 1958 and the nation's second representative at the official Miss Universe pageant in Long Beach, California, there was hardly any of the brouhaha back then.

"When I participated, going to America seemed more like a cultural exchange programme than a cut-throat competition," she recalls. "It was a much more conservative time when women were celebrated for their natural beauty."

Born Marion Faulkner Willis to an English civil engineer father and Eurasian secretary mother, she was reserved and shy.

Not one to have taken the leap to compete in a beauty pageant, it was perhaps serendipitous then that at 18 she decided to take up a modelling course where she ended up being scouted for Miss Singapore.

Organised by Shaw Brothers, the day-long competition held at Capitol Theatre had only a swimsuit and evening gown segment and did not require any auditions.

Her pre-show preparation comprised of going to the then-famous Hilda's boutique in Orchard Road to have a simple floral dress tailored for her evening gown segment.

She beat more than 20 women to win the competition. She recalls receiving a prize package that included cosmetics, a new wardrobe by designer Roland Chew, cinema passes and $350 in cash.

The most exciting component of her win was a return air ticket to Los Angeles, California - reported in a June 1958 issue of The Straits Times to be worth $4,524.

Two weeks later, the 19-year-old got on a Pan-American airliner by herself and made her maiden voyage to the United States - spending the next 11/2 months visiting attractions and touring the city in between going for photo shoots and competing in the pageant.

"There was no bitchiness or back-biting among the girls," she says. "There was a real community spirit about the whole thing. We were hosted in the homes of American families and encouraged to stay on after the competition so we could visit the tourist destinations."

The women did their own simple make-up and had more meat on their bones. "It's not like today where girls starve themselves or go for plastic surgery," she says.

"Miss Colombia took the crown but, overall, the emphasis was on a fresh-faced beauty. No one was trying to be someone she was not."

Despite not placing in the competition, she returned home a mini celebrity.

Still, she is quick to point out that beauty queens then hardly had the opportunities that girls now get.

"Today, you can make quite a lucrative career after winning a pageant but not then," she says when asked about the modelling work she later did for brands such as Greenspot drink, Magnolia ice cream and Max Factor make-up.

"I barely got paid anything for the advertisements I did - it was more for the experience."

Mrs Woodworth says her priorities were different and she "faded away gracefully" from the limelight after marrying her husband, Mr Robert Woodworth, in 1959.

Mr Woodworth, 83 - whom she met at the Singapore Cricket Club and dated for a year - later became aide-de-camp to the first president of Singapore, Mr Yusof Ishak.

He says: "Perhaps it was a good thing that I was a police inspector - I was like her bodyguard so no one made any passes at her."

The mother to a son and three daughters and grandmother of eight says she wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

"I really enjoyed being able to represent Singapore in a small way."

Her one regret? "I wish one of my three daughters had competed in a beauty pageant - it would've been nice to have it run in the family."

Most beauty queen hopefuls would be content with winning Miss Singapore just once in their lifetime. But for Madam Ho Lye Toh, it was a title she snagged not once or twice but three times - in 1941, 1947 and 1948.

Referring to herself as "92 years young" this year, it is evident that despite her age, the sprightly mother of five, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of six, can recall vivid details of her pageant days during the colonial era like it was yesterday.

"It was nothing like the fancy competitions of today," she says. "I didn't know what I was even doing up there on the stage!"

For Madam Ho, the entry into the pageant world started in the most unconventional way - through weightlifting.

The oldest of four boys and four girls recalls being very sickly as a teenager, often feeling so giddy that she would black out.

On the insistence of her father, Mr Ho Peng Khoen, who was a Malayan weightlifting champion, she took up the sport at 15 to be physically fitter.

Over the next few years, she trained almost daily with her father, sisters and brothers. At her strongest, she could lift up to 130 pounds or 58kg.

Under the guise of entering them in a weightlifting demonstration, her father signed Madam Ho and her cousin up for the Miss Singapore beauty pageant, which was then organised by the Singapore Amateur Weightlifting Association Club in Geylang Lorong 14.

They did their weightlifting demonstrations in the garden, and were given two cheongsams by her father and told to change. It was then that they realised they would be participating in a beauty contest.

The then 22-year-old Madam Ho recalls feeling completely out of place when she saw the other dolled-up contestants.

"They were all so beautiful - all of them were Eurasian or Caucasian. My cousin and I were the only Chinese girls and were much more muscular than the others.

All we had time to do was wipe away our sweat and rub some 20-cent powder on our faces before running out."

The duo did not even know where to go to change for the competition and ended up hiding in the garden and changing behind a towel.

Despite their harried preparation, Madam Ho says she took her time on stage, walking slowly and posing confidently for the crowd of locals and Australian soldiers - unlike the other women who nervously rushed through.

The result? She took home the title based on popular vote.

It was the same result in 1947 and 1948 before she decided to retire from pageants at her boyfriend's insistence - graciously giving her sisters and cousins a chance to win as well. Her sisters went on to win other titles such as Miss Beach Queen and Miss Selangor.

She recalls: "It was a different world then. The only requirement was to be examined by a doctor to make sure our swimsuits were not padded. Other than that, it was not a big deal. Maybe that's why there was no prize either."

Her total haul of prizes from her days of pageantry consisted of a big white snakeskin bag, some cosmetics and a winner's cup - no cash or crowns to speak of.

Her most prized possession from that time, her Miss Singapore sash, was unfortunately burnt by her mother out of fear, during the Japanese Occupation.

"Now all I have are the photographs of me with the sash, I guess," she says with a shrug. "That's my only reminder of that part of my life."

"The competitions today are too elaborate," she says when asked how things have changed. "I liked that girls back then kept it simple. It was just for the fun of it."

She married her photographer husband at age 28. He died when he was 59.

She says: "All this Miss Singapore stuff was forgotten once I became a mother at 29. My only priority was raising my children well."

Her huge family is proud of her achievements. Says her grandson Samuel Wong, 27: "The family organises a Ho Lye Toh sports day every two years, where we challenge one another to telematches. It's a great way for us to get together and celebrate her achievements.

"After all, who else can say they have a grandmother who was a weightlifter and also a three-time Miss Singapore?"


This article was first published on August 9, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.