LOOKING FOR MISS AMERICA
A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood
By Margot Mifflin
First of all, in case you wondered, Donald Trump does not own, nor has he ever owned, the Miss America pageant. He owned the other one — Miss USA. Margot Mifflin makes this clarification a few times in the course of her book “Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood.”
“When I tell people the topic of this book, 90 percent respond by saying it’s timely because of Trump,” Mifflin explains in one parenthetical aside. The president has bragged about surprising teenage pageant contestants in their dressing room and once “famously fat-shamed a Miss Universe.” In the minds of many, including Mifflin’s interlocutors, “this was all Miss America scandal,” she writes — but no.
The need to draw the distinction is revealing. Today, the Miss America pageant is culturally marginal enough for the average person to possess only a blurry awareness that it persists. This average person isn’t keeping it straight from rival pageants, much less reliably tuning in. But at the same time, for its partisans, there’s also long been a need to hold Miss America apart from other pageants. In the words of Lenora Slaughter, the woman who gave Miss America its enduring shape and served as the pageant’s director for 32 years: “It couldn’t just be a beauty contest.”
The challenge Mifflin sets herself in “Looking for Miss America” is articulating what exactly makes this nearly 100-year-old institution something more. For Slaughter, distinguishing Miss America meant offering a talent competition and scholarships; today, the pageant touts itself as “one of the nation’s largest providers of scholarship assistance to young women,” with $3 million awarded annually. This branding sidesteps the question of what scholarships have to do with swimsuits — Miss America maintained its swimsuit competition until 2018 — and thus tends to inspire a certain amount of skepticism. (“It is not a beauty pageant; it is a scholarship program!” Sandra Bullock snaps, of the fictional pageant in which she competes in “Miss Congeniality.”)
Mifflin is no Miss America apologist. She’s cleareyed about the pageant’s many hypocrisies and failures, which include a legacy of racial exclusion that endured long after a rule requiring contestants to be “in good health and of the white race” was scrapped in the 1950s. But Mifflin, too, is invested in the pageant’s sense of specialness; she’s mining Miss America for meaning, which requires making the case that there’s meaning to be found. “The pageant has wormed its way into our national subconscious,” she writes. A different kind of book might be written about the subculture that has sprung up around Miss America, about the feeder pageants and local traditions that make up the lived experience of the pageant for most of the thousands of women who compete. (Today, they number around 4,000; in the 1980s, the figure was more like 80,000.) “Looking for Miss America” focuses instead on the pageant’s mass-culture significance — the stage it has offered and the kind of public figures it has produced.
Who is Miss America? She’s not quite a first lady and not quite a Playboy Bunny, but she shares some qualifications and job responsibilities with both. She plays a ceremonial role that’s patriotic without being democratic, simultaneously quasi-royal and girl-next-door, and also, on occasion, under-clothed. She represents some unstable combination of qualities that Americans might want to salute, feel up or be.
Mifflin tracks the evolution of that peculiar role alongside the shifting expectations and ideals of femininity in America, from flappers to Rosie the Riveter to Helen Gurley Brown to “empowerment” doublespeak. The marks she hits are largely familiar, and her galloping pace through a century of pop culture — 310 pages pass swiftly — produces some moments of Wikipedia on speed. (“In the 1970s, punk music channeled white-knuckled anger and nihilistic despair, and ‘Saturday Night Live’ lampooned celebrities and politicians.”) “Looking for Miss America” is at its best when Mifflin pauses this sweeping summary to tell the stories of individual contestants. The pageant’s tensions and ambiguities emerge most vividly through the way particular women understood them in the context of their particular time.
For Yolande Betbeze — the 1951 winner, and one of Mifflin’s most affectionate portraits — Miss America was a ticket out of Mobile, Ala., to New York City, where she studied philosophy at the New School and acting with Stella Adler. Betbeze got involved with the civil rights movement and started an Off Broadway theater; in later life, she became a fixture of D.C. society, maintaining a long-term affair with an Algerian resistance fighter turned diplomat.
She became a vocal critic of Miss America, particularly its white-bread homogeneity, but her own experiences gained literary immortality: She advised Philip Roth on his portrayal of an ex-Miss New Jersey in “American Pastoral.” And she also managed to rewrite Miss America’s job description by refusing to model swimsuits during her reign. (The pageant’s swimwear sponsor was sufficiently aggrieved that it abandoned Miss America and launched a pageant of its own — Miss USA, eventually acquired by Trump.)
As much as the history of Miss America is about womanhood, it’s also about celebrity, and the developing American attitude toward fame. In the pageant’s earliest years, seeking to capitalize on the event’s publicity was considered unsavory; in the modern era, the contest has been matter-of-factly regarded as a steppingstone to public life. Perhaps the pageant’s most illuminating winner is Vanessa Williams: In 1984, Williams became the first Black woman crowned Miss America, and was applauded as a barrier-breaker even by some pageant skeptics — while also becoming the object of death threats from strangers and racist jokes from Johnny Carson. Then, 10 months into her reign, Williams learned Penthouse planned to publish nude photos obtained without her permission. When the magazine came out, she was given 72 hours to resign her title. Mifflin writes, “Williams was the pageant’s own Hester Prynne, the first and only winner to be dethroned, whose transgression only intensified her aura.” Indeed, a funny thing happened after Williams stopped being Miss America: She became more successful than any Miss America had ever been. Her debut album went platinum; she collected Grammy, Tony and Emmy nominations; she’s enjoyed a long career onstage and onscreen. Her ascendancy to the status of actual famous person made winning Miss America seem provincial in comparison.
In 1970, the pageant had 22 million viewers; by 2000, viewership had declined to 8.8 million. The 21st century grew increasingly removed from the years in which Miss America had been a prime target for feminist protest, when a critic might plausibly write of “turning on the TV to watch at least one or two beauty contests each year,” as Pauline Kael did in 1975. Reality TV has usurped its appeal as entertainment, and ambitious young women who want to capitalize on looks and charisma don’t need an organized competition; they’ve got Instagram.
The Miss America pageant’s earliest origins, back in 1921, lay in local business owners’ desire to extend the Atlantic City tourist season from the summer months and into early fall. After the 2018 pageant, the city’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority pulled its subsidies and ousted Miss America from its traditional venue at Boardwalk Hall — a mighty symbolic blow to an institution already struggling to find its footing in a changed world. (Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989, assumed a leadership role in the aftermath of #MeToo, but her tenure was controversial and short-lived.) The commercial promise that saw the pageant through shifting winds of feminism and fame would seem, at present, to have mostly disappeared. Mifflin’s lively book reads as an obituary.