The interesting history of the Miss America pageant

I have of course heard of the Miss America and Miss USA pageants and recall having seen bits of either or both (it was hard for me to tell the difference) on TV many years ago. To me they seemed to be two sides of the same coin, an opportunity to parade attractive young women in swim suits before a large TV audience. But in the August 31, 2020 issue of The New Yorker magazine, Lauren Collins says there are differences between the two, in that the Miss America organization insists that its contest is about more than looks.

To the long-standing annoyance of people involved with the Miss America contest, which bills itself as “first, and foremost, a scholarship program,” the general public often confuses it with Miss U.S.A., which freely admits to being a beauty pageant. As annual tournaments of unmarried, childless women in their late teens and twenties, the two events have much in common. In fact, one emerged out of the other. In 1950, Yolande Betbeze, a convent-educated coloratura soprano from Mobile, Alabama, entered the Miss America contest and performed an aria from “Rigoletto” as her talent. She returned to her dressing room to find the words “Hairy sits here,” a reference to her thick eyebrows, scrawled in lipstick on the makeup mirror. But she won, and, newly crowned, refused to sign a contract that would have required her to tour the country in swimsuits made by Catalina, one of the pageant’s sponsors. “I’m an opera singer, not a pinup,” Betbeze said

Catalina went and started its own contest, Miss U.S.A., scrapping the talent competition and offering cash prizes instead of scholarships. Despite the schism, Miss America endured, with a reputation as the more demure of the two franchises. Miss America finally did away with its swimsuit competition in 2018, in the wake of a scandal that began with male executives at the organization referring to one former winner as a “blimp” and to other contestants as “cunts.” Apart from their formats, the big difference between the two pageants is that, until 2015, Miss U.S.A. and its international offshoot, Miss Universe, were owned, in part, by Donald Trump.

Why would Trump buy the Miss USA pageant and its corresponding international arm Miss Universe? One obvious reason is that it is part of his general creepy character. He has boasted that he liked the ownership privilege of being able to wander into the dressing rooms and see the contestants in various stages of nakedness and that there was nothing they could do about it.

“He just came strolling right in,” [Miss Arizona Tasha] Dixon said. “There was no second to put a robe on or any sort of clothing or anything. Some girls were topless. Others girls were naked. Our first introduction to him was when we were at the dress rehearsal and half-naked changing into our bikinis.”

His position as the pageant’s owner entitled him to that kind of access, Trump explained, seemingly aware that what he was doing made the women uncomfortable. “You know, no men are anywhere. And I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant. And therefore I’m inspecting it… Is everyone OK? You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that,” he said.

Apart from satiating his voyeuristic needs, it also enabled him to gain contacts with business people around the globe during the Miss Universe contests and hustle them for money for his business ventures.

Collins writes about some of the interesting things that happened at the Miss America pageants since its inauguration as a whites-only contest in 1921. Contestants also could not be married or pregnant.

Later in life, [Yolande Betbeze] channelled her sparkiness into activism, picketing segregated lunch counters and campaigning for nuclear disarmament. In the sixties, she was invited to return to Atlantic City for an onstage reunion with other previous winners. “Why would I want to do that?” she replied. “You’re not Miss America, y’all are Miss White Christian.”

Recently, Miss America rebranded itself as “Miss America 2.0,” promising “a fresh take” for “a new generation of female leaders.” In addition to forgoing the swimsuit competition, participants were no longer to be judged on “outward physical appearance.”

Still, it was impossible to magic away the event’s fundamental dissonance. If recent contestants have been racially diverse, and even heroically outspoken (“From the state with eighty-four per cent of the United States’ freshwater but none for its residents to drink, I’m Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma!”), they also remain overwhelmingly gorgeous and skinny.

In 1988, a college student named Michelle Anderson infiltrated the Miss California pageant as a contestant, undergoing months of “bleaching, dieting, training, tanning, and feigning fundamentalist beliefs to get into the running.” Seconds before the winner was to be announced, she reached into her cleavage and unfurled a silk banner that read “pageants hurt all women.” Anderson went on to become a lawyer and is now the president of Brooklyn College. I think she was right. Miss America gets money for college. Everyone else gets lessons in sexism, racism, and capitalism that take a lifetime to unlearn. There is no scholarship for that.

Unfortunately the only way that these pageants will disappear is if audiences stop watching and advertisers start deserting them.

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