On 'Being Miss America' and Exchanging Ideals

The lyrics to the Miss America theme song say, “There she is, your ideal.” But what does that mean today?

Being Miss America: Behind The Rhinestone Curtain

Publisher: University Of Texas Press
Length: 236 pages
Author: Kate Shindle
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-09-01

The phrase “beauty pageant” brings many different things to mind. We've all heard the rumors of ridiculous beauty regimes, catty backstage behavior, seedy scandals, and rigged results for a show that essentially asks brainless bimbos to parade in swimsuits and answer simple questions in order to win a sparkly crown. Well, in the case of the Miss America pageant (or as they would prefer to be called, “scholarship competition”): most of those rumors are either grossly exaggerated or simply untrue.

If anybody was ever going to write a book about Miss America, it would be Kate Shindle. Crowned Miss America 1998, she used her scholarship money towards a degree in sociology and spent her reign (or as official pageant literature more correctly refers to, “year of service”) researching and speaking about HIV/AIDS prevention. She applies those same extensive research skills throughout her book, Being Miss America: Behind The Rhinestone Curtain.

Make no mistake, Shindle is a “true believer” when it comes to Miss America. Her idea of fun “is to look back through the old Atlantic City program books at the sheer creativity the contestants employed to describe their features -- not to mention their measurements.”

Growing up near the pageant's headquarters in Atlantic City, she describes it as “the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards rolled into one.” Her mother was a member of the “Hostess Committee”, one of the organizations staffed by many unpaid volunteers who do everything from hosting fund-raisers to keeping people out of the contestants' dressing rooms. Putting Shindle in a somewhat unique position is the fact that her father, a former member of the pageant's security team, became a member of the board of directors, which she describes as “like finding the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant buried behind your house.”

Before you think the fix was in the year she was crowned, however, you should note that she was judged by local Illinois panels and then “celebrity” judges, and her father no longer held his position at the time. Still, she was a surprise winner, a relative rookie to the pageant circuit who still faces online criticism from pageant fans who preferred that year's runner-up.

Despite the title, her personal experiences comprise only about one-third of the story. That's not a complaint, as her reign doesn't really contain enough drama or interest to carry the entire book. Instead, she jumps back and forth between her story and the history of the pageant, closing with a damning summary of what's wrong with the Miss America Organization and what can be done to fix it.

Shindle also makes a convincing case that the pageants' early popularity can be tied to the current fascination with reality shows and instant celebrity. From the '50s to the '80s, Miss America served as an annual combination of American Idol, America's Next Top Model, and all those red-carpet fashion roundups at award shows.

She describes its appeal to television viewers as “wholesome enough” for little girls and their mothers, with “enough eye-candy for the man of the house to shrug his shoulders and watch from his recliner.” But like all trends, the popularity of Miss America faded. Instead of evolving and/or picking a consistent re-branding strategy (like TV talent shows or comic book superheroes have), every year's telecast “jerks erratically back and forth”. For every step forward, such as an emphasis on platform issues, the show takes three steps back, with sleazy swimsuit montages, cheesy dance numbers, and/or poorly planned reality shows.

Don't expect her to trash-talk the other contestants or previous Miss Americas, however. Despite the modern stereotype of arrogant, cat-fighting queens, Shindle declares, “If I had a dollar for every Miss State who was likely to go on national television and thoughtlessly talk trash about another contestant (much less flip over a table or start a food fight), I would never, ever have any dollars.” Instead, the women share a sort of kinship, as former winners send out group e-mails with prayer requests for those who are ill or have recently passed on. At one point, Shindle and a diverse group of past Miss Americas gather together to offer better publicity and sponsorship deals through their many industry connections in exchange for board representation. (Three former contestants do eventually make it onto the board, but only one of them were among the women who showed up at that meeting.)

Perhaps her biggest revelation is the fact that most modern aspects of “Miss America” didn't come from the businessmen calling the shots, but from the women, who (more often than not) were criticized and pushed aside by the same people who selected them. In 1927, Norma Smallwood leveraged her win into lucrative and previously-unheard of endorsement deals. Management would later disagree with her insistence on receiving an appearance fee for crowning the next winner. Bess Myerson (1945) launched a speaking tour with the help of the Anti-Defamation League about the vicious anti-Semitism she faced. Pageant officials then accused her of “making communist speeches sponsored by Jewish manufacturers.” “Executive Secretary” Lenora Slaughter pushed to include talent competitions and offer college scholarships in order to make Miss America more than a beauty contest, but she also instituted a rule that required contestants to “be in good health and of the white race”.

Shindle devotes the final third of her book to attacking the crooked, unskilled executives who engage in outright fraud while young women are exploited at the hands of their local pageant representatives. To be specific, allegations of rigged state competitions go unchecked, especially in South Carolina, which encouraged their contestants to “write letters of support to a former executive director” who was convicted of child molestation! She also notes that the organization's CEOs took home six-figure salaries while they sent bills to 2002 winner Katie Harman for clothing alterations and her own post-crowning ceremony. But perhaps worst of all is the fact that up to 60 percent of the contestants' donations and fundraising for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals go directly to the Miss America Organization, instead. That's technically legal, but still unconscionable.

She admits that no one really owns the Miss America organization, though, adding that “it has been created and sustained by a massive effort from hundreds of thousands of people, over the course of nearly a century.” These days, the only thing that can save the Miss America contest will have to come from the vast majority of those unpaid volunteers. In her epilogue, Shindle states that, “Miss America will survive only if she decides exactly who she is, develops a lasting identity, and rejects the many temptations that run counter to that identity.” Sounds like an “ideal” to me.

Splash image: Kate Shindle, Miss America, 1998


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