Billie Hallam wins the 1937 Miss Toronto beauty pageant.
On a sweltering Saturday in July 1937, May Alexandra Hallam—nicknamed “Billie” as a child by her grandfather—was cheered by the nearly 20,000 spectators jammed onto the CNE grandstand to watch the climax of the 55th annual Police Games. Her eyes went red with tears of joy at the news that she’d been chosen the winner of the first Miss Toronto pageant in 11 years. To the accompaniment of fanfare of trumpets, she walked out to the platform already crowded with photographers and a newsreel cameraman. With two-inch heels adding to her five-feet and 10-and-a-half-inches of height, she was taller than Mayor W.D. Robbins, who draped the white silk Miss Toronto sash over her shoulders as Police Chief D.C. Draper looked on. Stepping to the microphone, the athletically built beauty queen gave a brief speech amid loud adulation from the stands.
Since 1883, the Toronto Police had been competing against fellow officers from other cities in events like track and field, tug-of-war, and even pillow fights in the annual field day, also known as the Police Games. In early 1937, the Toronto Police Amateur Athletic Association (TPAAA) consulted with local journalists for ideas about increasing public interest in that summer’s event. One sportswriter suggested reviving the popular Miss Toronto beauty pageant which had been dormant since Miss Jean Ford Tolmie was crowned in 1926.
The TPAAA readily agreed, concurring that the pageant would provide the games with “punch.” But it was a risqué proposal because it had only been a year since a severe heat wave resulted in arrests for violations of Toronto’s sanctimonious bathing suit bylaw.
No sooner had the pageant been announced than it came under fire from the Local Council of Women of Toronto in a letter to the Board of Control and the chief of police. The council’s issue was not that the pageant objectified women—as feminists would assert in the future—but rather that the pageant was “not in good taste.” Their letter read in part:
We look to the heads of the police department not only to see that existing laws pertaining to standards of decency and good taste are enforced, but also to be most punctilious in seeing that nothing they sponsor may tend to have a lowering effect on the standards of the people in general.
The council added that the pageant’s “after-effects on some of the contestants [would be] far from being desirable.”
Young women flocked to drop off their Miss Toronto entries at police stations across the city and at Sunnyside Beach. The only criteria were that they be older than 16 and a British subject.
Among them was 17-year-old Billie Hallam, a softball pitcher and all-around athlete with chestnut hair and blue eyes, who’d been urged to enter by her grandmother. “If you don’t, Billie,” the grandmother threatened (one hopes in jest) after reading about the pageant in the newspaper, “I’ll never speak to you again.” Billie convinced her eldest sister Edith to enter the pageant as well, although a third sister, Violet, proved too shy to join them.
Starting Monday, July 5, preliminary eliminations took place over a series of weeknights in tents erected at Sunnyside Beach, with each entrant in their regular summer street clothes. There were over 350 entrants. Attending a preliminary on the Wednesday, Billie and Edith were both among the 66 selected to advance to the final of the pageant at the CNE grandstand on Saturday, July 17.
“What is feminine beauty?” antiques auctioneer Walter Ward-Price asked the press. “Is it a pretty face? Is it a pose? Is it something of paint and grease and powder?” With humourless gravity, Ward-Price, the chairman of the Miss Toronto judging committee, answered his own rhetorical questions:
Feminine beauty is made up of tangibles and intangibles. It is a blend of more than 20 or perhaps 20 times 20 ingredients and to permit any young lady to go forth, in this coronation year as Miss Toronto 1937, who is chosen by some superficial standard, yet whose beauty vanishes into the air the minute she speaks or smiles, is not to be thought of.
In the pursuit of finding a “natural beauty,” the use of cosmetics would be frowned upon, Ward-Price warned. His fellow judges included pioneering athlete and Star sportswriter Alexandrine Gibb, sculptress/sculptor Merle Foster, Telegram radio announcer Jim Hunter, and Globe and Mail columnist Roly Young.
The judges would assess each contestant’s “face, head, shoulders, torso, arms, legs, hands, feet, teeth, mouth, eyes and expression, walk, grace of carriage, voice, speech, and last of all, general natural charm.” In other words, the winner would have to not only be beautiful, but also exemplify the prim-and-proper image the TPAAA wanted the Miss Toronto pageant to project.
On the morning of the pageant, Edith and Billie Hallam got up early to have their nails manicured and hair done—although the judges would later make Billie comb out her “hairdresser’s curls” in the middle of the pageant. Worrying they would be late for the 2:30 p.m. start time, they frantically threw on their bathing suits and robes, and caught a taxi to the Exhibition Grounds.
Spectators streamed into the grandstand, eventually reaching almost 20,000 in number, the largest crowd ever for the Police Games. The price of admission—$1 in advance for reserved seats or fifty cents at the gate for general admission, with all proceeds going to the police force’s widows and orphans fund—included the sporting competitions and a display of daredevil riding by the Detroit police force’s motorcycle squad. These events occurred in the background while the pageant was staged on a 200-foot-long runway built on the edge of the stadium infield.
The beauty contestants gathered in a dressing room under the stands, guarded by two policewomen. Billie anxiously paced up and down the dressing room while others passed time chatting with fellow contestants until they were all finally called out to the stage and lined up according to their entry number. “I felt nervous and excited. We couldn’t get there fast enough for me,” she later recalled. “I like to get things started and over with. My cheeks get red when I’m nervous, and I could feel them blushing as we walked out.”
Most observers commented on the wide variety of contestants—in terms of hair colour and body type—but the Star‘s well-travelled writer, Frederick Griffin, disagreed. “There were a number of striking dark girls, but the absence of girls of races other than Anglo-Saxon was noticeable,” he reported. “It seemed a pity, for there must be beauties among them.” The only diversity he noticed, Griffin wrote, was that one contestant appeared to be a Slav and another a Swede.
After the initial promenade, the contestants were called back in groups of six for closer inspection by judges while the rest waited in the dressing room or off-stage, hiding from the blistering sun under Japanese-style parasols. Unlike present-day pageants, there were no costume changes or interview questions. The contestants just walked and posed on the runway in their swimsuits.
“For a moment I felt self-conscious, when we were all lined up on that runway in front of all those people,” Billie said of showing off her tanned, athletic body on stage in just a white bathing suit. “I thought for a moment of all the thousands and thousands of eyes, and I got the silly feeling that they were all staring at me. It soon passed, in a minute I was myself again.”
Impressed with Hallam’s appearance on the stage, journalists tried outdo each other’s floridity. She is
“straight as a sapling, with a flashing smile and natural dignity,” swooned one. She has “a straight aristocratic nose which could have been carved from Italian marble and a graceful, almost languid carriage,” gushed another. Every recap in the Monday newspapers described her physical attributes; she was five-feet and 10-and-a-half inches tall—making her the tallest in the contest—and between 140 to 152 pounds. “I’d like to know how the man who said I weigh 152 pounds got that way,” she later complained, “because I don’t even know how much I weigh myself, but I’m sure it’s not that much.”
Little by little, contestants—including Edith Hallam—were eliminated over the course of more than three hours: first whittled down to 32, then 18, and again down to 12. With each round, those that remained grew relaxed and friendlier. The dressing room filled with chattering and laughter. They borrowed each other’s lipstick, pocket mirrors, powder, and combs. They offered words of encouragement, reminding each other to keep smiling.
Again and again, they were judged in small groups on the platform in the sweltering heat until the top seven were reduced to three finalists. Hallam was among them. She was joined by the 17-year-old blonde Betty Thompson of Admiral Road, a recent graduate of the Northern Vocational School and now a stenographer at the T. Eaton Company, and the 28-year-old wife of a customs agent from Weston, Olive Lane Johnson, who’d entered the contest “on a dare from another girl.” The two finished second and third respectively.
After being introduced as the finalists on the podium, the three were brought to the judges’ table where they were engaged in informal conversation so the judges could better inspect their manner—as well as their teeth and hands—up close. Over her sister’s protest, Billie had worn the lucky bracelet—given to her by philanthropist and supporter of women’s athletics, F.G. “Teddy” Oke—she sported during every softball game. “They took off my bracelet—I suppose to see if I were hiding anything, like a scar, or a burn, or something—or was it to keep my attention away from them while they looked at my hands, or at my face?” Hallam recalled of the up-close inspection. “I wonder.” Afterward, she had to be called back by the judges because she’d retreated without remembering the bracelet.
The master of ceremonies appeared in the dressing room 10 to 15 minutes later and called Billie back out to the stage. “It was the most thrilling moment of my life,” she said of her announcement as the winner. “I felt as if it were all a dream.” With her sister Edith excitedly jumping up and down in the dressing room, Billie tried in vain to locate her parents in the grandstand crowd as she received the sash from Mayor Robbins.
Inspector Moses Mulholland and another policeman had to escort her to a waiting car through a mob scene of autograph seekers. Despite the excitement, Billie has admitted her thoughts were elsewhere. She was scheduled to pitch that evening for the Maple Leafs of the Beaches Ladies’ Senior Softball League. Now, as Miss Toronto, she was to be the guest of honour at the TPAAA’s banquet at the very same time.
Alexandrine Gibb provided a solution, chauffeuring the beauty queen home to trade her bathing suit and robe for evening wear. Then, escorted by a police car with sirens blaring, Gibb and Hallam sped to Kew Gardens to be introduced to the crowd at the softball game and to be congratulated by teammates. “I felt as important as a movie star,” she recalled.
Then she rushed back across town to sit at the banquet’s head table at the Royal York. She danced with policemen and was serenaded in the rooftop garden by the country’s premier big band leader, Mart Kenney, late into the evening. When she finally got home after midnight, the house was filled with extended family and the Hallam clan continued to celebrate Billie’s victory until almost four in the morning.
She awoke the next morning at 9:30 a.m. to the sound of knocking at the door. A gaggle of reporters and photographers descended upon 191 Booth Avenue, the Hallam’s modest east-end house, all eager to call on Miss Toronto.
Journalists peppered Billie, her Belfast-born mother, and her father—a London-born mechanic—with question after question. The Star alone carried four separate articles from bylined writers in the Monday edition, along with the first of a series of reminisces penned for the paper by Billie herself. The result was a jumble of contradictory information, with her responses to similar questions varying from reporter to reporter. Regarding her future ambition, for example, some quoted her as wanting to become a model, and others that she wanted to emulate her favourite actress, Myrna Loy, to whom she bore a striking resemblance.
Prior to the pageant, they asked, had she believed herself beautiful enough to win? “She had never considered herself beautiful,” the Globe and Mail stated, emphasizing her humility. Gordon Sinclair concurred in the Star: “The most natural thing about her is her easy manner, unspoiled, unsophisticated and just downright glad to have won where she didn’t expect to win.” Newsmen, it seemed, wanted their assumptions of demure womanhood confirmed.
In her autobiographical piece, Billie gently contested the assumption that she was surprised by her victory: “It wasn’t that I thought I was a bit nicer-looking than any of the other girls, but I just had a sort of a feeling inside me—just a hunch, I guess you’d call it. I wasn’t surprised when I won, because I felt I was going to, just like I do in a ball game.”
The press asked her about whether she had a boyfriend and what she hoped for in a husband. And they asked the avid athlete—who ice-skated, swam, golfed, and played basketball and volleyball in addition to softball—about her view on women in sports. She replied that “there is nothing like exercise and sport to make a girl a real lady.”
When the reporters were through, it was the photographers’ turn. In an effort to recreate a supposed day in the life of the beauty queen, they snapped her lying in bed, applying makeup at her vanity, posing with her parents and five siblings, cuddling her pet kitten Tarzan, striking softball poses, and carousing on the beach. “I guess they must have taken about 120 different pictures of me,” she said of her exhausting day. “I know I changed my clothes at least 20 times, or so it seemed.” Then, that evening, she was off to be interviewed on the radio.
In addition to a $200 cash prize for winning Miss Toronto, Hallam won free trips to appear at police games in Detroit, Buffalo, Moncton, and Hamilton. She was invited to attend the Miss America Pageant—although as a Canadian she was ineligible to compete—but turned down the trip to Atlantic City to fulfill official duties at that summer’s CNE. Moreover, she received gifts of jewellery and clothes from local merchants; endorsement deals with companies as diverse as Pond’s Produce, Bonat Hairdressing Equipment, and Star Taxi; and a potential screen test for the R.K.O. studio.
“I have had a lot of fun shopping and opening a bank account, and getting nice clothes,” she recounted of these Miss Toronto activities, “but I don’t think I have had any bad after-effects”—a reference to the pre-pageant criticism of the Local Council of Women.
Her duties as Miss Toronto included numerous public appearances in fashion shows and at corporate events, with Miss Niagara Peaches aboard the steamer Dalhousie City, and chaperoning impoverished children to the Sunnyside Amusement Park to promote the Star‘s Fresh Air Fund. Years later, she admitted, she’d even received a request that she pose nude for an artist. She signed legal papers with the Toronto Police, assigning Inspector Crawford as her de facto agent, vetting all Miss Toronto appearances. The police department, in general, was quite protective of Hallam, regularly sending cruisers past her house to ensure all was well and offering to escort her around town.
Billie admitted being anxious at the sudden, overwhelming opportunities presented to her as Miss Toronto: “I keep remembering that I’m only a girl of 17, who was just another girl who played softball until to-day, and that I don’t know very much about the world, and what it’s all about.” But she felt confident that, with the support of her parents, she would be fine—confirming the press narrative of the level-headed and straight-laced pageant queen.
When Billie returned to the baseball diamond for the first time on the evening of July 22, it was a media circus. In front of more than 10,000 spectators—the largest crowd to ever watch a softball game at Kew Gardens—Billie was given flowers and gifts by teammates and opponents before the game. With a loudspeaker truck parked over second base, she read a speech, prepared for her, that she immediately regretted as a pompous declaration of herself as the prettiest girl in town. “I’m not the prettiest girl in Toronto, but just the luckiest,” she corrected the following day in another reminisce for the Star. She added, betraying some exhaustion with the public expectations of being Miss Toronto:
And when I said it some of the people tittered, and I felt miserable and wanted to explain, but I couldn’t. It seems that when I make a mistake some people laugh, but they laugh with their faces, and they aren’t laughing happily, but sort of in a mean way, if you know what I mean. But not many of them are like that, thank goodness.
In 1986, Paul Watson from the Star caught up with Billie Hallam—now Billie Maeda—at the modest home she shared with her husband of over 30 years. In the wake of the 1937 pageant, she established a modelling career—having had a few similar gigs prior to the pageant—appearing in Eaton’s catalogue, among other venues, during the Great Depression. Although she emphasized her positive experience as Miss Toronto, she acknowledged that “sudden fame taught her much that she disliked.”
By any criteria, the 1937 Miss Toronto pageant was a smashing success, quickly prompting a Mr. Toronto knockoff (as a fundraiser for the St. Clair YMCA). Almost immediately, the TPAAA declared that Miss Toronto would be an annual feature of the Police Games. In the years to come, the Miss Toronto pageant only gained in popularity, becoming a feeder for the Miss Canada pageant in 1971. Facing increasing backlash from feminists and declining sponsorship revenues, both pageants were discontinued in rapid succession in January 1992.
Other sources consulted include: Metropolitan Toronto Police Amateur Athletic Association Centennial Book (M.T.P.A.A.A., 1982); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 10 (Dundurn Press, 2010); and articles from the Globe and Mail (June 15, July 3 & 19, August 26, and September 2, 1937); the Toronto Star (June 10, 12, 22 & 25, July 2, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27 & 29, August 4 & 7, 1937; July 5, 1986; January 7, 1992).