Best known nationally as the presenter of the Benson & Hedges (later Smokefree) Fashion Design Awards from 1982 until 1998, Maysie Bestall-Cohen’s fashion career began in the 1960s and lasted almost 40 years.
The daughter of a Dublin-based children’s clothing manufacturer, Maysie’s introduction to the fashion world came about when her father needed a model for a photographic assignment. "So he called on me," she remembers. "Not the best available – but I was free!" Participation in a fashion parade shortly thereafter led her to think that this was where her future lay.
When Maysie was 16, her family moved to New Zealand. While attending secretarial college, she was spotted at a cocktail party by two Auckland women involved in the modelling world, Winsome Goudie and Mary Bourne. They suggested she do some modelling. But, as Maysie discovered, this was easier said than done. "Models were not exclusive to one agency in those days, even if you were on their books. It was all done on a freelance basis and about 12 models had the whole scene sewn up." Maysie was listed with the Academy of Elegance until being approached by the June Dally Watkins Deportment School and Model Agency which signed her up exclusively.
Wide-eyed, slim, long-legged and great in a mini, Maysie’s looks were perfect for the Sixties. She became one of New Zealand’s top models, appearing in fashion parades and catalogues, product promotions and advertisements. She toured the country with the New Zealand Wool Board, graced the covers of Eve, Thursday and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly magazines and featured regularly in fashion shoots in the Auckland Star and the New Zealand Herald. She spent several seasons as house model for Rose Coats owned by Hymie Rose and worked part-time in reception for noted photographer Clifton Firth. Her first television commercial was for Catalina swimwear.
After leaving the ANZ Bank where she was employed as a typist/receptionist, Maysie’s only full-time jobs were those flexible enough to allow time for modelling. These included house model-come-secretary for fashion company Voyageur International, commercial photography saleswoman for Birch Rising and model agency tutor at June Dally Watkins. When June Dally Watkins’ owners Jack George & Associates decided to sell in 1968, Maysie and her husband Richard took over the company. In the course of expansion they founded a promotions company, running the two businesses side by side.
A request in 1969 from Janet Eales, in charge of special events at Auckland department store Milne & Choyce, led to the next stage of Maysie’s career. Janet asked Maysie to co-ordinate and compere a fashion parade. It was to be the first of hundreds of fashion shows she would produce and front throughout the country over the next 30 years.
In addition to store presentations, industry Fashion Fairs, shows in shopping malls nation-wide and launches for the likes of BMW and Van Cleef & Arpels perfumes, there were themed fashion shows inspired by The Great Gatsby, Casablanca and other movies, fashion spectaculars staged for individual designers such as Kevin Berkahn and Colin Cole, and morning and afternoon tea parades at Auckland’s Regent Hotel. Maysie also co-ordinated and compered fashion events on a regular basis for Miss New Zealand, Miss Auckland, Look of The Year, the Auckland Easter Show, the New Zealand Wool Board and the Dupont Fashion Awards.
Maysie was often asked to recommend a charity to benefit from a particular event and she would usually nominate the SPCA. A life-long animal lover, she says that if she hadn’t been directed into fashion she would probably have worked full-time with animals. She was made a Vice-Patron of the SPCA in the 1990s.
In the late 1970s, Maysie suggested to Wills NZ, sponsors of the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards, held bi-annually in Wellington, that she stage an Auckland show after the event, featuring Awards highlights and winning garments. She got the go-ahead and toured the show to other towns in the upper North Island as well.
In 1982, Maysie took over the organisation of the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards in their entirety. That same year she sold June Dally Watkins in order to channel her energies into the promotions company. Five years later she set up MBC Model Management and Promotions, recombining the two aspects of the business.
From 1984, at the behest of TVNZ, the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awardsbecame an annual event, broadcast live from the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. Apart from public relations and advertising, the domain of Joan Gilchrist and later Gillian Ewart, Maysie was responsible for every detail of the show from start to finish. The process took about 12 months. Immediately one show finished, planning began for the following year.
Maysie found category sponsors, selected judges and presenters and chose and fitted the models. She briefed designers, unpacked and catalogued their entries (numbering 400 by the mid-90s), arranged preliminary and final judging, had a hand in the set design and atmospherics (lighting and shade) and spent months looking for the right music. Choreographing and rehearsing the show could take up to three weeks with Maysie working at various times alongside choreographers such as Neridah Nicholls, Ricky Stratful and Lynette Perry, all veteran stage and dance performers themselves. Transporting hundreds of garments, a large wardrobe team and 40 models to Wellington from Auckland, where the show was co-ordinated, was another complex logistical exercise. As was ensuring designers, press and other VIPs received priority seating on the night. After the event, touring of the highlights and winning garments continued.
In her role as compere, Maysie was dressed over the years by the leading designers of the day, among them Patrick Steel, Barbara Lee, Colin Cole and El Jay for Christian Dior. Her co-hosts, whom she remembers with great affection, were veteran television presenters Peter Sinclair, John Hawkesby and Bob Parker.
When the government passed legislation banning cigarette advertising in 1995, Smokefree assumed sponsorship of the Awards for three years, after which time Maysie needed to find a new sponsor. She was unable to do so and in 1998 the Benson & Hedges (now Smokefree) Fashion Awards came to an end. In the final show she was presented with the Atrium on Elliot Industry Award in recognition of her contribution to the fashion industry.
In 2000, Maysie received an Honorary Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fashion Technology from the Auckland University of Technology.
In the course of her long career as model and fashion events co-ordinator, Maysie Bestall-Cohen also opened a hairdressing salon (Vogue Nouveau), launched a brand of natural cosmetics, presented fashion segments on TV One’s The Good Morning Showand established an MBC branch in Sydney’s Double Bay. She produced fashion content for the Auckland Star and the American Express house magazine Insight, wrote a NZ Guide to Beauty and Etiquette for Wilson & Horton and frequently travelled overseas to promote New Zealand models and offer contracts to international models to come and work here.
Maysie says the Benson & Hedges/Smokefree years were among the most rewarding and exciting. "It was sheer hard work and there were endless deadlines to be met but I had the privilege of working with the best in the business." She modestly attributes her success to "being good at organising people" and to her husband Richard’s business acumen and ongoing support.
In search of a more peaceful life, the Cohens relocated to Queensland in 1999. "I live in a different world now with daily practice in yoga and meditation," says Maysie. "Following a full-on career in the modelling and fashion industry this is exactly right for me now."
Text by Cecilie Geary.
Last published April 2016.