It’s easy to see how Nanette once swept away the competition in the glitzy world of beauty pageants.
Six decades later, she still has the dazzling smile, impeccable posture and winning combination of warmth and elegance that have won over juries across the country.
In her prime, Nanette won over 200 titles, even traveling to New York to represent England.
When the Suffolk model and dancer met a handsome US Air Force pilot, their perfect romance soon led to a marriage and two children.
Nanette and Bill Olson, aka Ole, traveled the world while posted in the US, South Korea and Germany before returning to the UK and settling in Hethersett, near Norwich.
Then tragedy tore their fairy tale apart.
Early one stormy November morning in 1980, Bill was about to leave for work.
Nanette remembers saying to him: “Surely you’re not going to fly in there? He replied, “Honey, we are flying above this. See you.”
It was the last conversation they ever had.
At 9.15am that morning, two US Air Force Tankbuster planes from RAF Bentwaters, near Woodbridge in Suffolk, collided over Norfolk.
A pilot ejected before his plane crashed in flames near Itteringham, between Aylsham and Holt. Bill Olson flew at sea, trying to return to his base in Suffolk without flying over populated areas. But the damage to his plane was too great and he ejected into the sea off Winterton.
Minutes after the collision, a search and rescue helicopter was dispatched from RAF Coltishall. His crew spotted Ole in the water and David Bullock was winched in an attempt to free the American from the waterlogged parachute dragging him through the waves and to safety.
In high winds and waves up to 15 feet, the winch became tangled in the pilot’s parachute lines. As rescuers attempted to hoist them up, the steel winch cable snapped. By the time divers from a second rescue helicopter arrived to free the two men and pull them out of the water, it was too late.
The double tragedy went around the world.
The men were only 38 years old; both leave a widow and two young children.
Helicopter Hoist David Bullock, of Aylsham, had served in the RAF for 22 years and was posthumously awarded the George Medal for outstanding gallantry. Ole was praised for his efforts to avoid crashing into a built-up area.
Her children were nine and six, and Nanette devoted her time to rebuilding their shattered lives without their father. Ole had been an academic and an athlete as well as a military hero, with a master’s degree in economics and the Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal.
Every November, a group gathers in a graveyard in Aylsham for a poignant ceremony to honor David and the American pilot he died trying to rescue.
As the 40th anniversary of the tragedy approached, in what should have been their 50th wedding anniversary year, Nanette began planning a memorial event for her friends and family at the home she had. shared with Ole and still lives there today. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and instead she searched through photographs and letters, and asked friends, family and colleagues for their memories of her beloved husband.
Collected in a book, published in 2020, the project helped her relive the happiest and saddest moments. Two years later, she created a sequel centered on her own story.
It’s also a social story, starting with his grandmother – one of 13 children born into a family living in a top-floor apartment in the East End. Nanette was born after her parents moved from London to Stutton, near Ipswich.
When she was three years old, she started dancing lessons. “Since that day, dancing – and everything that goes with it – has become my absolute passion,” she said.
Nanette continued to dance throughout her childhood and when Anglia Television was launched in 1959 she began dancing on its live shows, in costumes created by her mother. Her dream was to become a professional ballerina.
Aged 15, on holiday with her family at Butlins in Skegness, she entered a ‘holiday princess’ competition – and won. Had she won the £1,000 national prize it might have paid for another year of ballet training, but she came second, so swapped ballet shoes and tutus for high heels and swimsuits and began to participate in dance and beauty contests.
In 1962 she was named Ipswich Town Football Queen – and received her trophy by Alf Ramsey.
But she still loved to dance and, with her modeling and pageant career going well, competed in the National Ballroom Queen Championships. While walking through freezing London on her way to the competition, she was hit by a lorry. Nurses at the hospital where she was treated for a month said only the curlers in her hair, hidden under a hat in anticipation of her glamorous dance-competition hairstyle, saved her life.
It took months for her injuries to heal, but she ended up dancing and winning beauty contests again. At 18, she was named Miss Margate – with the prize including a vacation to Dubrovnik. It was his first trip abroad.
She went on to win the national title of Butlin’s Holiday Princess, the prize money paying for a brand new car for her parents (their very first car), and then the prestigious ballroom dancing competition National Ballroom Queen of Great Britain.
“I was very proud to win Butlin’s Holiday Princess title because of all the competitions it started with the most entries across the UK. I was also extremely proud to win the Miss Anglia title for obvious reasons… my part of the world! But I have to say the title that topped them all for me was Queen of Great Britain National Ballroom because I had to show that I could dance too,” said Nanette.
Nanette at 21 years old (Picture: Archant)
Many companies held their own beauty pageants, which meant Nanette became the face of brands ranging from vodka to cruise ships. She finished third in the Miss UK pageant, third in Miss Great Britain – and represented England in an international pageant in New York.
“I enjoyed meeting many famous faces along the way. Probably the best known internationally was Roger Moore, but other stars included Tom Jones, Barbara Windsor, Norman Wisdom, Des O’Connor, Lonnie Donegal, Englebert Humperdinck, famous footballers and sports personalities, the list goes on!
As her career progressed, opposition mounted to competitions involving parades of scantily-clad young women, but Nanette said she never felt taken advantage of. Of one scene of the assault, she said: “I understand the reasons for the protest, but I don’t think the women with their banners and their flour bombs knew we weren’t being manipulated by men. or the management behind the scenes – I certainly wasn’t anyway!
Nanette had met Ole Met at an East Anglian air show and they were married at St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich in 1970. Their daughter Alexandra was born the following year. They then moved to the United States where Ole was appointed professor of aeronautical studies at the Virginia Military Institute.
Their son Tony was born in the United States in 1974 and they were later posted to South Korea and Germany before returning to East Anglia and settling in Hethersett, near Norwich, where Nanette still lives.
Tony’s birthplace became an issue when Nanette discovered that a British woman could not pass on her citizenship. As soon as the family were back in Britain, they wrote a letter to a national newspaper about the issue – and were surprised to see it making headlines. Advised to consult her MP, she contacted John MacGregor and within a month children born to British women overseas could apply for British citizenship.
The MP for South Norfolk was also a member of the Magic Circle and Nanette once joined him on stage at a charity fundraiser. She also became a dance teacher at the Central School of Dancing in Norwich.
Today, her daughter is a dancer in Las Vegas, where she lives with her family, and her son and his family live in Hethersett.
After the overwhelming tragedy of Ole’s death, Nanette had to find the strength to fill the terrible void left in their lives.
Now they have children of their own – and, after Nanette’s book on Ole, they asked her to tell them about her years as a model and beauty queen. The result is And The Winner Is…, available from [email protected] and lulu.com