One of the Illawarra’s longest running shows hosted by one of the oldest agricultural show societies in the country is returning for its 176th year, with the annual highlight set to attract foodies, pet lovers, brewers and thrill seekers and those with strong ties to the region’s agricultural roots.
Just two decades after the town was proclaimed and before it even became a municipality, the Kiama Agricultural and Horticultural Society started a tradition by hosting the inaugural show, which soon became a staple for the seaside community.
Over the years, the show has meant many things to many people – a chance to exhibit their stock or have a go on the rides. Sixty years ago a new component started a tradition which has provided the opportunity for ambitious young women to step out of their comfort zone and take on leadership roles.
Kiama’s first showgirl competition, Miss Kiama Show Girl Quest, was held in 1963 in conjunction with the Royal Agricultural Society, with a final held at the Sydney Royal Easter Show – the first prize being a trip around the world.
Back then participants were judged on their charm and beauty, personality, general appearance and general knowledge and 25 entrants competed in its initial year.
But the attraction didn’t always remain that strong.
There were no Kiama Showgirl competitions between 1965 and 1970, but in 1971 it was revived and although now it is a central part of the show, there were many years it was unable to run or failed to attract any participants.
Alison Burgess grew up attending and enjoying the show but had never been heavily involved. In 1991 when she returned home from studying in Sydney for the summer break, she decided to enter the showgirl competition on a whim.
“I was at uni and was not a super confident public speaker or anything and saw it advertised and just thought it would be great to do,” she said.
“I don’t know if a lot more thought went into it other than thinking it would be a great experience, and might be something good to have on my resume.”
The decision not only led to her connecting with her community but gave her greater confidence and life skills.
And her experience was not anything like what some people perceived it to be.
“It certainly did not feel like it; it was not a beauty pageant but I think people kind of felt it might have been,” Alison said.
“It was more about the public speaking, your knowledge of the show, your knowledge of the local area, your friendliness and if you were outgoing.”
The show has continued to grow and change to meet the community’s needs and expectations, as has the showgirl competition.
Sarah Young has been part of the show her entire life, entering exhibits, assisting at the entry gates, selling raffle tickets and helping pack up and pack down, so when she became the face of the show in 2019 it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“For me it was something that I always wanted to do because I grew up in the show,” Sarah said. “My family was always very involved and it was something that I’d always watched other girls do and wanted to be a part of it once I was old enough.
“At the time I was really passionate about being part of my community in all the ways I possibly could and I also wanted to learn both public speaking and interviewing skills as well because I was in that transition period between uni and full-time work.”
And the competition took Sarah beyond the small town when she was selected as one of 14 participants from country shows across the state to be part of the Sydney Royal Easter Show.
Now entrants are judged on personality, confidence, ambitions, general knowledge, rural knowledge, personal presentation, volunteer and community presentation and an on-stage interview.
“The most I got out of it was interviewing experience and being confident in answering questions both about myself and my community,” Sarah said. “But also I learned how to talk about my achievements in a way that didn’t make me sound boastful which I found really helpful.”
And in 2022 the competition underwent a statewide name change to better reflect the spirit of the program, becoming the ‘Young Woman Competition’.
“I’ve definitely felt like there were misconceptions,” Sarah said. “When I’d mention the word ‘showgirl’ people would automatically assume beauty pageant or walking down the catwalk in your bikini or something like that.
“I think with the name change hopefully people start to understand that it’s completely the opposite of that.”
The Young Woman Competition is open to any local woman aged between 18 and 25, with a junior competition run for those 13 to 17 years old.
The show runs Friday 26 January and Saturday 27 January 2024 from 9 am.
To find out more visit the Kiama Show website.