From stilettos to soundbites: Miss America enters the '90s

It started as cheesecake, detoured into diversity, and now resembles the GOP convention. Who says the Miss America Pageant doesn't reflect America?

By Sara Kelly
Published September 17, 1996 9:37AM (EDT)

As the Sunday morning sun breaks through the smog, a smelly shroud of salt air and pee descends over the Boardwalk. Even in the absence of mid-summer's heat, the air is cloying. Every piece of metal touched -- a park bench, a pay phone, a newspaper honor box -- coats the fingers with a thin drizzle of rust-repelling WD40. Hairdos go frizzy in the humidity, and Boardwalk strollers must resign themselves to feeling dirty.
Welcome, Delegates, to America's most degenerate shore town -- Atlantic City, New Jersey, the 19th-century playland of the rich and powerful, killed by Donald Trump in the '70s, eulogized by Bruce Springsteen in the '80s, and populated by poor people forever and ever -- or at least until the next wave of casino development plants them firmly on the sidewalk.
Welcome to the spectacular site of the Miss America National Convention 1996.
"Thank God someone's finally decided to do something about this place," visitors remark as they pass the glassed-in model of the new Atlantic City Convention Center, on display in the lobby of the decrepit old convention center. The new place, under construction at the end of the Atlantic City Expressway, will complete an uninterrupted ribbon of highway that runs from Philadelphia, to Burger King, to the new Convention Center.
The old Convention Center, a concrete art deco monument whose ceiling tiles fall to earth with regularity, is inscribed with the following cryptic words:
Just what the ideals of a city that long ago sold itself to Donald Trump and various mob figures from Pennsylvania and Nevada might consist of is unclear. It's a question that would be worth posing to those benighted folks who still think the Miss America Pageant -- now in its 76th year --is a beauty contest. And there are many. In crowds throughout the Convention Center, the shrill intonation of catty female attendees can be heard echoing the same familiar complaint: "Miss Montana, she's a dog. What is she doing here?"
The point is -- as any pageant official will be happy to inform you (but won't, because only Miss America Organization CEO Leonard Horn is entrusted to handle such essential press questions as "How many times will Regis Philbin change his clothes during the show?") -- Miss America has changed.
She's spruced up her airhead image and gone the moralizing-Republican-career-girl route. It's a move, says CEO Horn, that the pageant made some years ago to honor the "intelligent, sophisticated and goal-oriented, yet wholesome, genuine and truly compassionate" young women currently in fashion on this particular part of planet earth.
And it means, much to the relief of the less attractive women of America, that today's contestants can be borderline dogs. In fact, judging by the judges' decisions in recent years, being ugly just might be a contestant's biggest asset. Ever since profoundly deaf delegate Heather Whitestone took the Miss America mantle in 1995, disabilities have been all the rage. And ugliness, it seems, is this year's hottest cause.
Like the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature and the inscrutable rise and fall of Kremlin leaders in the old Soviet Union, fashions in Miss America go in cycles. Miss America's first move toward progressiveness was introducing African-American women to the pageant mix. The move toward black started in the late '70s and peaked in 1984, with the crowning (and subsequent defrocking) of Penthouse poser Vanessa Williams. She was replaced -- in the last two months of her reign -- by runner-up Suzette Charles, who was also black. Having crowned two black Misses since then, the Organization apparently feels it has proven its point: Miss America's black thing is now officially over.
After last year's Oklahoma City bombing, was there any doubt the Sooner State would clean up on collective national guilt? Sure enough, the judges predictably worked the disability angle by selecting Shawntel Smith, a freckle-faced redhead from Oklahoma, to represent their romantic vision of America as a land of survivors. Besides, it had been 52 years since the last red-haired Miss America was selected.
This year's selection is a bit harder to figure. Tara Dawn Holland of Kansas, an aspiring teacher of "middle school chorus," free-lance vocalist and waitress by trade, is beautiful and clearly not disabled. The more conspiracy-minded of Miss America-watchers see a dark significance in the fact that Kansas is Bob Dole's home state. In all probability, however, Ms. Holland won simply because once in a while, a regular old-fashioned beauty queen has to take the crown. God forbid the pageant gets a reputation for awarding titles to women who really need the ego boost: The pageant would devolve into a freak show in five years' time.
This year's back-to-basics festivities, clearly aimed at restoring the pageant's venerable glory, featured a parade of unimpeachably all-American judges -- Nancy Ann Fleming, Miss America 1961 and star of PBS's Sewing Today; soap opera star Joe Barbara; motivational speaker Barbara De Angelis; oft-fired news anchor Deborah Norville; Olympians Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Janet Evans; and U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady, the man who, as you may recall, lived off bugs for a week after getting shot down in his F-16 over Bosnia. The whole flag-waving deal reflected the happy confluence of the Summer Olympics, an impending presidential election, a burgeoning war in the Middle East and Regis Philbin's ceremonial dethroning of defunct American (and former pageant co-host) Kathie Lee Gifford.
This year was Miss America's Roots Extravaganza, but next year the status quo will have to go. After all, the pageant must, in the immortal words of Leonard Horn, keep "in step with society today." The most likely coming trends are the selection of Asian and Hispanic Miss Americas. But that demographically-inclusive day might be long in coming, for only one of this year's delegates (Michelle Kang, Miss Virginia) was Asian, and only one (Michelle Martinez, Miss Texas) Hispanic. There were two black contestants -- Veronica Duka, Miss Kentucky, and Michelle Tolson, Miss New Hampshire. The odds were clearly stacked against a minority win, but one thing was clear from the start: Were a minority to snag this year's Miss America title, the odds were pretty good she'd be named Michelle.
But skin color isn't everything these days. As Horn himself is quick to add, the modern-day pageant is first and foremost a philanthropic affair -- the Miss America Organization is the world's biggest scholarship fund for women. And the focus of the pageant's enlightened judges is on the politically-driven insides of a delegate, and not her sequiny exterior. According to Horn, the contest in its present form is all about "providing young women throughout this country with a venue that enables them to achieve their goals." But there are, of course, requirements: every young hopeful must actually possess a goal -- one that she can articulate, preferably in complete sentences; she must not be woefully hard on the eyes (though she can come awfully close); and she must at all times act as if she's vying for a spot in Bob Dole's cabinet.
Actually, Miss America didn't get smart until just after World War II, with the introduction in 1947 of the impromptu question designed to measure contestants' "intellect" and "personality." (It would be, though, another two pageants before -- after a freak accident involving Miss Montana's horse -- animals were banned from the fledgling talent competition.) Who says chicks haven't come a long way in the last half century?

Sara Kelly

Sara Kelly is executive editor of the Philadelphia Weekly.

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