The Belle Curve

Once a year my feminist friends and I revel in the rhinestones and razzmatazz of that endearing throwback, the Miss America Pageant.

For most folks, September means schoolwork, football, and the promise of cooler weather. But for me, September represents something far more serious and significant: the Miss America Pageant. It’s a spectacle of blatant sexism, the pinnacle of political incorrectness—and the high point of my year.

I shamelessly confess that I adore watching Miss America; so do plenty of other viewers (some 18 million last year) who tune in to the annual parade of pulchritude the second Saturday after Labor Day. In fact, four fellow pageantophiles and I have made the telecast the linchpin for a no-men-allowed weekend of face-stuffing, wine-swilling, bimbo-jeering fun. We can identify dozens of former Miss Americas by name and year and sing the complete lyrics to “There She Is, Miss America.” This month marks our twenty-fifth autumn extravaganza, Miss America Weekend ( MAW). We had to chuckle earlier this year when the public relations firm for the Miss America Organization suggested, in a press release, that viewers start a tradition of Miss America parties. Since we’re ahead of the curve on that one, I offer, for both the experienced viewer and the virgin, a quick history of Miss America and MAW, as well as tips for maximizing your pageant-watching fun.

The tradition and title started in 1921 in the oceanside resort town of Atlantic City, where civic boosters sought to prolong the tourist season. The first winner was Margaret Gorman, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl best remembered for her bustline (or lack of it)—she was a flapperesque thirty inches. Contemporary pictures depict Gorman wearing an Old Glory cape and a crown that resembles an inverted octopus in the grip of rigor mortis. For the next few years, the pageant was a wildly disorganized affair. Women’s clubs attacked it as indecent (this in an era when even the most risqué swimwear resembled a medieval tunic). Several contestants turned out to be Mrs., not Miss; one even brought her baby along. But eventually the pageant went truly national and polished its image, soliciting a contestant from every state and standardizing the evening gown, talent, and interview requirements. The awarding of scholarships (begun in 1945) attracted even more wannabes; last year Miss America officials urged journalists to substitute the phrase “scholarship program” for “beauty contest,” which is like calling a football game an intellectual exercise. Then there’s the promise of fame and fortune: Joan Blondell, Dorothy Lamour, Cloris Leachman, and Vera Miles, among others, failed to win the title but moved on to successful film careers.

The first Miss America Pageant I clearly recall involved a contestant who steamrolled the talent competition with a ventriloquism routine. That was Vonda Kay Van Dyke in 1964, when I was ten; I haven’t missed a pageant since. Starting in 1974, when I was a senior in college, my friends and I instigated our first Miss America party. (Female friends, that is. Never ask men to a Miss America party. As the contestants glide down the runway, they’ll call out “Miss Grand Canyon!” or “Miss Twin Peaks!” They can’t help themselves.)

That 1974 party started the MAW tradition. What began as a one-evening gathering gradually expanded into a long weekend, in which shopping, sight-seeing, and wining and dining lead up to the big event. We visit a different city every year. Wherever we go—Memphis, Santa Fe, New Orleans; condo, hotel, cabin—our first question to the bemused reservation clerk is always, “Do you get good TV reception?”

After so many years of pageantry, my friends—Ilse, Cynthia, Dawn, and Stephanie—and I can offer some advice. First, as with any social gathering, you need lots of comestibles. We recommend salty and savory foods, to offset the sugar content of the evening. But one dessert is essential: cheesecake, of course. We used to set out white bread as a political statement about the Waspish nature of the event; then an African American woman won the 1984 crown. That was Vanessa Williams, for our money the most beautiful Miss America in history. We were delighted that a black woman had finally won—only to be stunned, like the rest of the nation, when pornographic photos of Williams turned up in Penthouse magazine eleven months later. The next year, in a salute to the entire debacle, we held a special banquet that included entrées of chicken breasts, rump roast, and tongue. (Williams’ scandal was by far the most publicized, but many other winners have caused gasps and, uh, titters with revelations of incest, domestic violence, and even a divine miracle that healed a leg crippled in a car wreck. Most recently, Elizabeth Ward, who won the title sixteen years ago competing as Miss Arkansas, made headlines by revealing that she had slept with  Bill Clinton when he was governor.)

Besides food, of course, you need beer, wine, or margaritas, if only to help you endure the ghastly antics of the Miss America Dancers, who fling themselves frenetically around the stage whenever the contestants need a few minutes to change clothes. Plus, after you’ve had a nip or two, you can entertain one another with imitations of the famous 1990 incident in which the late Bert Parks, longtime host and token ugly mug, launched into an apparently drunken rant about how the word “chicks” was demeaning to women, and had to be gently led offstage. (Frankly, we miss Bert, warts and all. For several years the emcees were Regis Philbin, who was fine, and Kathie Lee Gifford, who was another reason to serve alcohol.)

Second—and far more essential—each viewer needs a pencil and paper. The first event is the preliminary procession of all fifty contestants, in which each sashays up to the microphone and identifies herself. Jot down the dozen or so who impress you right off the bat with looks, dress, and demeanor. (You can tell an awful lot about a contender in the few seconds she has to say, “Hi, I’m Bluebonnet Fields, Miss Texas, a student at Aw-shucks University in Y’allcome!”) When the official top ten are announced, on a fresh sheet of paper

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