In Miss America's early days, interview questions were simple enough to accommodate society's moderate expectations of women. Contestants of the '50s (still mostly high school students) were pitched softball queries along the lines of "Where do you plan to continue your studies?" and "What are the qualities of a good citizen?"
No doubt because they tended to elicit the dreaded "promote world peace" response, the questions were dropped in 1972. For the next 16 years, a contestant's best chance at exhibiting native intelligence was not letting Bert Parks adjust her swimsuit. But by the time the questions debuted again in 1988, Miss America's political propensities had come full circle. The young women of 1988's America were self-possessed and confident. They were newly-imbued with hopes, dreams, points of light. And after a few near slips into the orchestra pit, they were at last coming to grips with their true feelings about wearing stilettos with swimsuits.
Unfortunately, and much to the chagrin of Miss America officials, it was soon discovered that pageanteers hadn't gotten all that much smarter in the last 16 years. So the question-and-answer element of the competition was again scrapped, to be replaced in 1989 by rehearsed oral presentations. The evolution from cheesecake revue to political convention soundbite was at last complete. Having perfected their memorized "platform" speeches way back at the state pageant level, the contestants were no longer obliged to publicly humiliate themselves with 30 agonizing seconds of poorly delivered platitudes. Instead, they danced around issues with the skill and shallowness of our nation's leading political figures.
It's been seven years since the introduction of the Miss America platform. And it's taken most of that time for pageant delegates to figure out just how to play this politics business. Many -- mostly from the pageant's old-guard Southern states -- still don't quite get it, but that's okay in its own Darwinian way. After all, as the Mennonite mother of a former Miss Lehigh Valley once explained, pageant failure quite simply "separates the wheat from the tear."
Since platforms were initiated, back at the beginning of the Bush administration, Miss America has taken on a distinctively Republican feel. And 1996, in keeping with President Clinton's recent rightward swerve, was no exception. This year's platforms pretty closely toed the GOP line. There was much talk of family -- mostly from Miss Texas, Michelle Martinez, and Miss Montana, Aubrey Jo Hiller, who chose the ever-popular "family values" for their pageant platforms, and from Miss Vermont, Nicole Juvan, a 22-year-old self-professed virgin who spoke out on behalf of -- you guessed it -- sexual abstinence.
Then there was Miss Washington, Janet Reasons, whose platform was "Women in Prison." Since Reasons wasn't among the 10 semi-finalists, we never learned if she was pro or con.
The Religious Right also made an impressive, late-race showing. Even though Pat Buchanan was silenced by his party months ago and Pat Robertson was kept offstage at the convention, a teeming residue of their '90s revivalism somehow seeped into this year's Miss America Convention, in the form of a weird plethora of future seminarians. Miss New Mexico, Trisha Williams, is hoping "to become a world evangelist." Miss Michigan, Jennifer Lynn Drayton, plans to become an ordained Lutheran minister. And Miss Illinois, Tania Joy Gibson, hopes "to obtain a degree in ministry with a minor in music." The list continues ad infinitum, with the pageant's ubiquitous youth group leaders, gospel singers and cheerleaders for God.
There were, of course, a few platform throwbacks -- like Miss Indiana, Shani Lynn Nielson, who advocates the "therapeutic benefits of pet therapy," and Miss South Carolina, Angela Michelle Hughes, who preaches "the power of self-esteem."
Sadly, though, as we only get to hear the five finalists speak their minds, we may never get the chance to find out how we might benefit from pet therapy -- or self-esteem, for that matter. The truth is that, with rare exception (as in the case of "School-to-Work," an actual government initiative adopted by Miss America 1996's Shawntel Smith), the platforms, like the politics they mimic, seldom amount to much but rhetorical babble and double-talk. Even the most avid Miss America fans have little clue what contestants are talking about when they drop such important-sounding words as "mentoring" or "intervention."
At the Ocean One stores, in a ship-shaped shopping mall off Atlantic City's Boardwalk, a yearly tradition pits store managers against each other in bid-offs to represent various Miss America delegates in storefront window shrines. Frederick's of Hollywood manager Sheila Keith says she chose to honor Miss Rhode Island, Brown University modern dance major Elana Eve Chomiszak, with a display of nautical-theme underwear because, she says, "she's into early childhood prevention." It's unclear whether "early childhood prevention" is related to the chastity program advocated by Miss Vermont, but it doesn't matter much. Prevention, intervention -- it's all the same in pageant politispeak.
In the end, however, it is not the happy-talking contestant that looks the fool -- it's the rest of us who breathe a deep sigh of collective relief once we know our favorite contestant has successfully avoided answering a simple, personalized question posed by, of all people, Regis Philbin. When Regis asked Miss America winner Tara Dawn Holland, whose issue is illiteracy, what she'd do if approached by a stranger who needed help filling out a job application, her response was classic pageant-ese -- but with a cryptic twist. "I would tell them to go to the nearest intervention center," she said, stumping everyone. Then, as if possessed by some kind of momentary clarity, she miraculously managed to squeeze out a 10-second plug for her own personal product line, adding, "And I would give them a copy of my book and my tape."
Like the profiteering political missionary she was born to be, Miss America '97 satisfies the Right's needs to a T. But even her sequinned train probably isn't big enough to carry Bob Dole down the aisle in November.