Thirty years ago this month, a nervous 19-year-old Lorraine Downes stood on a stage in St Louis, Missouri, in a royal blue dress. A dazzling smile was frozen on her face, as she waited to see if she would be crowned Miss Universe 1983.
Back here in New Zealand, as we watched the pageant on television, the nation was captivated by the sight of Lorraine with her big 80s hair, standing next to Miss USA and presenter Bob Barker.
Could “one of ours” win such an international title? Could a model from Auckland really take out $190,000 worth of prizes?
Of course she could. As the new Miss Universe, Lorraine Downes walked gracefully across the stage, doing her best to stop her new crown toppling off her head. Music played, with the lyrics: “It’s all over, you’ve done it, and if you want it, this night belongs to you.”
Three decades on, Lorraine sits in her sunny Auckland home and sips a cup of tea. Her face has become more streamlined than her teenage self, and Lorraine is still a rare beauty, whose poise and polish is enough to make anyone feel a little dowdy sitting next to her.
She is dressed in jeans and a sweater, surrounded by pictures of family and friends, reflecting on the effect that memorable victory had on her life.
“Winning the pageant definitely changed me,” says Lorraine.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I have done in the past 30 years if I hadn’t won.”
Since becoming Miss Universe, Lorraine has run her own model agency, and now has an image consultant business.
She tied the knot with All Black Murray Mexted, with whom she had her two children, Hilton (20) and Jasmine (15), and is now married to former cricketer Martin Crowe, who is in recovery from lymphoma and describes Lorraine as “the love of his life”.
“I rather naively thought that after I had done my year as Miss Universe in New York, after the pageant I would just return to New Zealand and life would return to normal,” says Lorraine.
“But, of course, it didn’t.”
“I’m very much a private person and don’t actually like being in the public eye, if the truth be known. Wonderful things have come from Miss Universe, but the part where you go to the supermarket and people recognise you, I don’t really enjoy.”
When Lorraine came back to New Zealand, she was very sensitive about being judged and the resulting expectations.
“I would take those things on board and worry what people thought about me. Not having the freedom to just be a normal person can be hard to get used to.”
“But now I’m old enough to know that, at the end of the day, not everyone’s going to like you. Hey, I don’t like everybody, and that’s okay.”
Lorraine says that when you win a beauty competition, you have to live with the fact that people judge how you look.
“They say, ‘Oh, you were Miss Universe,’ and I’m quick to say ‘Yeah, but in 1983!’”
Today, Lorraine is a strong supporter of natural ageing, announcing in 2010 that she would never use Botox, or any other appearance medicines.
“I actually have no problem with my own lines, or the lines on other people’s faces. They represent that person’s life. When people smile, all the
lines go into the right places!”
As Lorraine talks, she often refers to her children, and leaps up to show me pictures of them both – a very handsome, smiling Hilton with his arm around his mother, and a photo album of Jasmine dancing.
So, it is no surprise when she nominates her children as her greatest achievement of the past 30 years.
“Miss Universe never defined who I was. Being a mother is the best thing I’ve ever done, and has given me the greatest joy.
It is something I always wanted, even from a very early age.”
Over the years, Lorraine has protected her kids from any media attention surrounding her.
“Having a father and mother with a high profile is a pressure on them growing up, but now I think they are at an age where they can handle it,” she says.
And Lorraine is also very aware that both her children may soon have to.
Hilton’s passion is rugby, and he’d love a sporting career.
“Hilton will inevitably be compared to his father, even though he has a different body shape and plays a different position. But he’ll still have
to cope with that.”
One of Lorraine’s toughest decisions was leaving Hilton with his father in Wellington, when she moved to Auckland five years ago.
“I understood that he wanted to stay. Now, I look back and realise that, at 15, it was time for him to be with his Dad.”
“We [Lorraine and Hilton] have a great relationship. When we see each other, it’s special.”
Meanwhile, Jasmine has set her heart on being a professional dancer, and
is making great strides. She has been in the junior associates programme with the New Zealand School of Dance for three years, and could audition this year for a three-year diploma. She has also been accepted into
the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy in Sydney, but has made no decision yet on what she will do. She may complete her second year of NCEA.
Jasmine trains 15 hours a week at Mount Eden Ballet Academy, also working on jazz and contemporary dance.
“Jas has found something she is really good at, and this seems to be her journey. I have no control over that, as she is driving this passion herself.
But what I can give is my knowledge and experience.”
As Lorraine is talking about her daughter, Jasmine walks in the door, home from school.
She is a tall, beautiful and confident girl. Not the spitting image of her mother, but she has a look and presence which is just as captivating.
She teases her mum about being a “control freak”, and nagging her about keeping her bedroom tidy.
“Every mother/daughter relationship gets stressed,” says Jasmine.
“But we get on really well, except for the tidiness issue. I’m a teenager, I can be a little bit messy, but she goes into my bedroom and tidies.”
“I do not!” says Lorraine.
“She will pester me so much that she gets so mad and tidies it herself – so I win either way.”
Jasmine often misses out socially, because she is at dance competitions on the weekend.
“It’s hard sometimes, but I can manage it. I don’t think I could dance six days a week without being 100% committed. Why make yourself do that, if you’re not going to do your best?”
But she does have one day off – and that’s where her “control freak” mother also takes some time out.
“Even I blob out on Sunday,” laughs Lorraine.
“Jasmine will lounge around in her pyjamas, and I sometimes do too.”
Jasmine says that growing up with a former Miss Universe has been relatively painless.
“It hasn’t really affected me. People do ask if my mum was Miss Universe, then just say, ‘that’s cool’, and that’s it. I’m really happy for my mum.”
And what happens if her dance career makes Jasmine as famous as Lorraine?
Lorraine has become a “ballet mum”, learning how to sew on sequins, apply stage make-up, and drive Jasmine to and from classes and competitions.
“I support her so she can get through the full-on schedule, but she’s the one that has to do all the work, and I admire her for that. She has discipline and resilience – I’m so proud of her.”
Jasmine takes me to their kitchen and shows me the wall planner that her mother designed, to organise Jasmine and the rest of the family’s life.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” she laughs.
“I admit I’m a control freak,” says Lorraine.
“I’ve always been disciplined, because I know things can be achieved if you run your life like that. I can run my business, be a mum, a wife, see my friends – but it’s not going to happen if chaos is in my life.”
“Marty and Jasmine will moan a bit, but you know we get things done and everybody’s happy.”
Lorraine will mark the 30th anniversary of winning Miss Universe this month with the help of Te Papa, who are presenting a six-month show.
“I gave them all my things, so people can see the dress and the sash and crown – and I will be doing an interview.”
Lorraine will also be in touch with her chaperone, Ruth Romero, who looked after her 30 years ago.
She is a style consultant who lives in New York and turns 79 this month. Her motto is: “Be the rage at any age!”
“I have so much to thank Ruth for,” says Lorraine.
“She has become my very close friend and one of the most influential women in my life – a mentor for all these years.”
Lorraine also has wonderful memories from her year as Miss Universe, including meeting US president Ronald Reagan at the Oval Office, and Meryl Streep and Tina Turner.
“Just being based in New York for the year was amazing,” says Lorraine.
Then there was the opportunity of travelling all over the world, including to see her Miss South Africa roommate, Leanne Hosking.
“I also developed a passion for South American countries – Mexico was a favourite. I loved the people and the food.”
But possibly the best outcome for Lorraine has been the ability to use her profile in a positive way. She is already an ambassador for Variety and the Child Cancer Foundation, but following the recent recovery from breast cancer of her mother Glad, she is now involved with the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“I really want to work with them to create awareness and, quite frankly, if I hadn’t won Miss Universe in 1983, I wouldn’t be much use to them. So I have the pageant to thank for that. ”
We then talk about what else is in the future. Lorraine has had a tough time, supporting her mother Glad and husband Marty through cancer treatments, and she’s now facing the fact that her children will soon fly the nest.
“Hilton is on his way, and I’ve probably got Jasmine for one more year,” she says quietly.
“I know that because I’ve been such a hands-on mum, it’s a huge adjustment,” she says.
“I will probably need counselling!” she laughs, burying her head in the couch.
And there it is. The trademark humour and self-awareness that has made Lorraine Downes, former Miss Universe 1983, the woman New Zealand
so admires today.
Wendyl Nissen.Photos: Monty adams • hair & make-up: Stefan Knight • stylist: Sonia Greenslade • Lorraine and Jasmine’s hair blow-dried by Gareth & Co • Lorraine’s shirt from huffer. Jasmine’s dress from Huffer. Lorraine wears white shirt from smith & caughey’s and braceletes & necklace by silk & steel. Lorraine wears silk shirt from hailwood and white cami from country road and pink j brand jeans from Adorno. Jasmine wears shirt by country road. Lorraine wears pink shirt from Hugo Boss and earrings and rings from Shellshock.