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.

September 1998By Comments

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 write the names down in a column on the left. Then make additional columns for the swimsuit, talent, evening gown, and interview segments. This will help you track key details, like who sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” off-key and who wore the Glinda the Good Witch ball gown. As the official MAW archivist, I have hung on to our score sheets from pageants past. Here’s a smattering of typical notes: “horse teeth,” “lip line foul,” “can’t walk in heels,” “killer thighs,” “Greek goddess look,” “wants to be president,” and cryptically, “naked mole rat.” Cleavage gets more than its share of notes—“serious bazongas,” “tremendous tatas,” “leads with her best feature.” By and large, though, the pageant is demure compared with Donald Trump’s Miss Universe spectacle, which encourages jiggle and plunge. (We acknowledge that our zaftig, middle-aged selves have no business criticizing these sweet young thangs—but hey, it’s no different than a paunchy armchair quarterback yelling at his fumbling team.)

First comes the swimsuit competition, the most venerable part of the pageant and, of late, the most controversial. In 1995 Miss America officials, who strive futilely to pretend that theirs isn’t a sexist event, considered eliminating the swimsuit modeling altogether in future years. During the broadcast, viewers could call in and vote yea or nay. The public—including MAW members—clamored overwhelmingly to keep it. Contestants used to be issued the same modest maillot in their choice of pastels (and featuring, until 1970, the oh-so-charming modesty panel). As of last year, however, they could choose either a one- or two-piece—a golden-anniversary homage to the 1947 pageant, the only previous year in which bare midriffs were allowed. Organizers messed with the swimsuit event in 1994 too: They nixed high heels and decreed that every Miss Whozit would pad barefoot while showing off her wares. That experiment fizzled too—it eliminated a certain element of sex appeal. As all women know, heels make your calves look shapelier—I know that’s why I wear them to the beach.

Next—and our favorite part by far—is the talent competition, which accounts for the single biggest chunk (40 percent) of a contestant’s official score. Alas, most opt for singing, which means they scrunch up their faces dramatically (distinctly unflattering) and engage in excessive double-handed mike clutching; one 1996 finalist opened her mouth so wide that viewers could easily see her bright blue tongue, obviously the result of a pre-performance throat lozenge. The second most popular category is piano, which usually involves exaggerated overhanding at the keyboard. (Texas’ Phyllis George, Miss America 1971, refrained from this excess, but then “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” isn’t exactly prima donna material.) Other talents are far preferable. I still remember the tiara-cinching trampoline routine that made Judith Ford Miss America 1969. Shirley Cothran, the last Miss Texas to go national (she won the 1975 crown), played the flute; rumor had it the medley she tootled was the only piece she knew. Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, Miss America 1988, performed a hip-blurring hulalike dance. To older fans, her shimmying was surely reminiscent of the performance of Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959, who—midway through a rendition of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”—threw off her chiffon gown and satin slip to reveal a scanty top and shorts. Officials promptly outlawed stripteases. They banned flaming-baton routines too, after one landed in the judges’ booth and another singed the twirler’s eyebrows. Entrants have recited poetry, ice-skated, fenced, and delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps the most universally remembered talent was a demonstration of how to pack a suitcase. I don’t recall the contestant’s name or state, but I still roll up my sweaters so they won’t wrinkle.

After all that fun, the evening gown competition is a bit of a letdown. In the fifties full skirts were in, the sixties introduced the tailored look, the seventies involved a lot of empire-waisted chiffon, and the eighties emphasized heavily sequined or bugle-beaded bodices. Nineties women have a lot more latitude: You may see elaborate wedding-cake confections or slinky black floor-length sheaths. Hairdos are equally diverse—there’s everything from classic chignons to teased manes.

While still gussied up, the finalists move on to the last half hour of the competition: the onstage interview. Back in the good ol’ days, it was an off-the-cuff question, such as “Where would you most like to spend your honeymoon?” or “You’re proficient at tennis or golf. You know you can beat your date. Would you? Should you?” (To the latter, one interviewee replied, “Ah wouldn’t and Ah shouldn’t, because Ah did once and Ah never saw him again.” That was Mississippi belle Lynda Lee Mead, who deservedly won the 1960 crown.) Starting in 1988, though, contestants were required to adopt a personal platform championing a social or political cause—AIDS prevention, adult literacy, mentoring at-risk youths—on which they expound briefly. Their answers are still sincere, maybe even noble—but clearly rehearsed.

As the moment of truth approaches, use the final (whew) contortions of the pageant hoofers to review your notes. The time has come to bite the bullet and rate your top picks, from fourth runner-up to the queen of femininity herself. We say whoever correctly picks Miss America deserves a suitable prize—long-stemmed roses, say, or a year’s supply of Nair. MAW members pass around a highly coveted satin sash and heavy rhinestone tiara (which looks great on the Longhorn skull in my living room). In case of a tie, the winner is decided by comparing correct predictions of runners-up. If two people have identical lists—it’s happened more than once during MAW—you can always toss a coin.

MAW’s killer competitor is Dawn. In 1995, as Shawntel Smith, Miss Oklahoma, stepped up to the microphone during the opening procession, Dawn declared, “There’s your Miss America.” I scoffed: “She’s a redhead. They hardly ever win.” “Then it’s time,” Dawn retorted, “plus, she’ll get the sympathy vote for the bombing.” And she did. Cynthia is almost as adept; after back-to-back wins in the eighties, we presented her with a vintage campaign button that read “No Third Term.” She didn’t take the hint—but did retake the tiara. Stephanie is a relative newcomer to MAW, but at her very first pageant, she picked eight of the ten finalists out of the preliminary walk-through; we veterans debated how to un-invite her. And last year four of us woke up on the morning of the pageant to find Ilse, clad only in her nightshirt, reading the paper and sporting the tiara. “I’m gonna take it home this year,” she warned us after we quit giggling. For the first time since 1986, she did.

As even casual pageant-watchers know, titleholders from certain states are losers from the get-go. Inevitably, these are women who represent states with comparatively low populations. Texas is home to thousands of coeds, whereas states like Wyoming, Alaska, and Rhode Island have a harder time coming up with a smart, pretty, talented, poised contender. (Or, perhaps, an interested one—although the top prize, a $40,000 scholarship, ain’t hay.) Which brings us to an urgent question: Why hasn’t Miss Texas won the tiara in 24 years? Despite the state’s reputation for producing beautiful women, Miss Texas has racked up a mere three wins in 77 years. California and Ohio have each won Miss America six times, and Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mississippi, and Oklahoma four. Oklahoma!

Pageant-watchers over the age of, say, thirty will remember when Miss Texas—any Miss Texas—was a shoo-in for the Miss America top ten. For decades she was, typically, a tall, regal brunette, twinkling with sequins and delight. More recently, the state winners have mostly seemed to be unimpressive—even robotic—blondes. That’s because they’ve practically been laminated, thanks to the professional glitzmongers of the Miss Texas Organization, the infamous Fort Worth—based pageant mill. In MAW’s collective opinion, this hyperglossing may account for the state’s failure to produce a queen since Shirley Cothran (who was indisputably regal, if a bit reminiscent of Betty Crocker). Four years before, Phyllis George, now famous as a broadcast journalist and purveyor of chicken dishes, had taken the 1971 state and national titles; she was possibly the most appealing Miss America ever (it’s hard not to like a woman whose tiara falls off during her victory walk). Jo-Carroll Dennison’s movie-queen looks made her a wartime winner (1942). Not that other Miss Americas aren’t Texans. Debra Sue Maffett of Cut ’n’ Shoot, for example, who had failed three times to win Miss Texas, moved to California, took the state title there on her first try, and walked off with the 1983 Miss America crown.

The good news is that this year’s Miss Texas, an Arlington college student, is a doozy—confident, curvy, bright, and pretty enough to make a man plow through a stump. She’s yet another blonde, but she looks and sounds thoroughly modern, like a Miss America for the millennium (even her name—Tatum Hubbard—is both folksy and au courant). She doesn’t, praise God, belt Broadway tunes but performs jazz dance. If she can withstand the blandification of state pageant officials, she’s bound to make the top ten—hell, the top one. Go for it, Tatum. Gazillions of Texans will be rooting for you.

Friends and relatives have suggested to MAW members that, for our silver anniversary, we travel to Atlantic City’s Convention Hall ourselves, to see Miss America crowned in person. No way—and not just because tickets are hard to come by. One snicker, and the rest of the audience would pound us senseless with their mascara wands. We’re content to view the pageant as an annual opportunity for fun, philosophizing, and female bonding. Currently MAW lasts four days, which intensifies the pre-pageant suspense. Cynthia’s little boy asked her recently, “Mom, how come you have to be gone four days?” She replied, “Because you’re still young, honey. When you’re older, I’ll be gone a week.”

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