Swimsuits -- and more!

Once a year, the Miss America extravaganza recaptures Atlantic City's old glory. Beverly Gage portrays the pageant's -- and the city's -- past and present.

Published September 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999, believes in God, perseverance and
Elizabeth Dole. According to the official pageant program, she is 24 years
old, a Roanoke, Va., native, and hopes some day to be a "national news anchor."
Her hair is brown; her "talent" is "jazz vocal." Her "best compliment" was
being told that "she has a special light that shines through her smile and
her eyes -- a light that shows her heart." As a diabetic, she hopes to use the
"power of the crown" (one of this year's pageant slogans) to raise
awareness of that disease -- making her, in the judges' estimation, the Miss
who best represents this year's pageant theme of "self-expression." She is
not, as former title winners repeatedly reminded last Saturday's television
audience, simply a bathing beauty.

In a bid for respectability, the Miss America Organization has tried in
recent years to distance itself from a flesh-peddling, flesh-pleasing past.
"What's Hot" for women this year, according to the official pageant
program, is "being a role model, healthy living, swimsuits with sandals, a
natural look, volunteerism, brains." "What's Not!" includes "being an idol,
fad diets, swimsuits with 'pumps,' lots of makeup" and "being worshipped."
The "platform" issue -- Miss America's chosen social concern -- is the buzzword
and focal point of the pageant, with 51 young women crusading for causes
from the vague ("Promoting Character Development," "Youth Motivation") to
the of-the-moment ("Freedom Through Choice: Teenage Sexual Postponement,"
"Privacy Rights for Public Figures") to the ultra-specific ("Literacy:
St.A.R.T. -- Students and Athletes Reading Together"). The perennial swimsuit
debate notwithstanding, the public makeover of Miss America from a "passive
beauty queen" to a "dynamic, relevant community activist" seems to be
proceeding with the utmost sincerity and determination.

Yet, somehow, Miss America is not a woman of the '90s. The very ethic of
the Miss America pageant -- wholesomeness, perkiness and smiles good; ennui,
sarcasm and worldliness bad -- seems to beam out over ABC from a time long
past. It does not simply recall a pre-feminist era when some considered
swimsuits proper attire for a scholarship interview. It also harks back
to a disappearing tradition of community boosterism and shameless optimism,
a tradition once perfected and exploited in the pageant's hometown of
Atlantic City. Each September, that tradition briefly flares to life again,
as 51 Miss America contestants descend on the city for a full two weeks of
rehearsals and preliminaries capped by the effervescent telecast and a gala
parade down the boardwalk.

Atlantic City's first Miss America pageant, held in 1921, was more a
business proposition than a social statement. A post-Labor Day presentation
of pretty girls, the city elders supposed, might extend the summer tourist
season in what was then the freewheelingest resort area on the Eastern
seaboard. They came up with an "inter-city" beauty contest as one segment
of Fall Festival '21, which culminated with a parade down the famous
boardwalk. In the 78 years since then, Atlantic City has
changed far more than the pageant itself, evolving from summer hot spot to
ghost town to casino capital of the Northeast. The annual tradition of the
boardwalk parade, however, has survived; for a single night each year,
Atlantic City's -- and Miss America's -- past is on display for all to see, to
explore and, perhaps, to enjoy.

In 1921, as now, the parade was an exercise in community support,
patriotism and corporate promotion, a chance to make a buck while
displaying what some folks thought was best about America. And now, as then, the parade draws locals, passersby, pageant supporters and glory
seekers to a full-blown bonanza of marching bands, tap-dance girls, honor
guards, baton twirlers, giant floats and, most importantly, 51 (albeit increasingly
clad) contestants for the title of Miss America.

Last Friday, each begowned
contestant rode in her own car, each displaying, according to tradition, a
pair of shoes specially chosen for their wackiness: plastic pancakes and
maple syrup on heels for Vermont, Swedish troll slippers for North Dakota.
While the Miss America organizers might worry about the pageant's
"relevance" for American society, the roll-by persuaded at least one tiny
spectator of the glamour of the crown. As each young contestant passed, a
6-year-old girl standing on a wall above the crowd, braids
flailing, piped out, "I want to be like you! I want to be like you! I want
to be like you!"

Aside from contestants and their miniature fans, the three-hour march down
the boards drew a wide range of participants, from Vanna White, the Philadelphia Eagles
Cheerleaders and the New Jersey Lotto ("It Pays to Dream!") to
lesser-knowns such as the Original Pitman Hobo Band from Pitman, N.J., the
Chattanooga/Rocket Mania All-Stars ("30 cheerleaders from Tennessee and New
Jersey celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Cheerleading"), the Casino
Career Institute of Atlantic Community College ("reflecting 20 years of
casino gaming, 20 years of casino training") and the Utah Express
Clogging Team. It also included a stunning, overwhelming stream of no fewer
than 32 mostly high school marching bands, mostly grim-faced and sweating,
mostly in sync. Local businesspeople turned out, too, heeding the call first
trumpeted in 1921: "Join Up! Be a Wise One! Mr. Business Man, Show Your
Faith in Your Home City -- Make the Pageant a Representative Civic

Despite lingering traditions, it would be easy to overstate the continuity
between the Atlantic City of the past and that of the present. It is no
longer the frenetic mix of amusements high and low that inspired Theodore
Roosevelt to declare that "a man would not be a good American citizen if he
did not know of Atlantic City." Today, it is a one-industry town, and that
industry is gambling. The boardwalk is lined with massive casino hotels,
and the patrons who once crowded the planks in expensive evening wear are
more often inside, in the air-conditioning, playing the slots or perhaps
grazing at the buffet. The boardwalk itself likely smells and sounds much
as the boardwalk of the past, with that peculiar mix of damp wood, sea air,
gull cries and human chatter. But the exuberance so evident in photos of an
earlier Atlantic City is largely missing in the 88- or 99-cent tchotchke
stores that fill in the space between, say, Trump Plaza and the Hard Rock

Atlantic City is often referred to as the Las Vegas of the East, but it
possesses little of the sheer chutzpah that makes Las Vegas such a marvel.
Unlike booming Vegas, Atlantic City does not appear to be a wealthy town,
and few of the hundreds of millions of dollars that circulate through the
casinos seem to trickle down to the residents. "Cash for Gold" shops are
ubiquitous just a block from the boardwalk. In part, the somewhat subdued
air of Atlantic City may be due to the fact that it has a history -- that,
unlike Las Vegas, it once was something other than a gambling town.
Nonetheless, casinos are said to have saved Atlantic City after East Coast
tourists began to take advantage of airplanes and backyard pools, electing
either to stay home or go far away, beginning in the middle of the century.
By the mid-'70s, according to the documentary film "Boardwalk Ballyhoo," a
sign on the outskirts of the town signaled the city's perilous decline:
"The last one out of Atlantic City," it requested, "please turn off the

If Atlantic City can be said to have had an "innocent" era, it would have
been sometime before the casinos. The city got its start as a resort town
in the mid-19th century, when a doctor named Jonathan Pitney began to
promote the deserted area as the perfect environment for a health cure. The
town's commercial development took off later that century as hotel
developers and boardwalk hucksters moved in and devised new ways to
entertain the masses. By the turn of the century, Atlantic City was the
summer spot to be seen and, even more importantly, to see. (It can still be
seen at the small but fascinating Atlantic City History Museum, across from
the Showboat casino.) The Atlantic City boardwalk, home of the country's
first oceanfront amusement piers, was booming with the fantastic and the
bizarre: boxing cats, diving horses, an Underwood typewriter 1,728 times
its normal size -- even an incubator baby display where the public could view
preemies for the bargain price of 25 cents. It became a city of unbridled
corporate promotion, from the Mr. Peanut mascot who wandered the boardwalk
to the Heinz 57 pier, advertising all 57 varieties of Heinz food. It became
the land of Monopoly, its streets inspiring the world's bestselling board
game. It became a city of showmen, with the famous Steel Pier hawking "$5
Worth of Refined Entertainment for 50 Cents," including "continuous
performance, photoplays, minstrels, human cannonball, diving horses, band
concerts"; performers such as Duke Ellington and Jimmy Durante made regular
appearances. It became a city of firsts: the first salt-water taffy, the
first souvenir postcard. And, of course, in 1921 it became home to the
first Miss America pageant.

"It's part of America. I don't care what anybody says. It is. We don't have
a queen. We don't have a princess. Our Miss America is that. It's
legitimate, it's serious and the more I'm around, the more I've come to
realize that."

Boomer Esiason is doing his job well. As part of this year's effort to
modernize Miss America in image and actuality, pageant organizers have
selected new hosts to replace a long line of Bert Parks successors,
including Gary Collins and Regis & Kathie Lee. The new hosts,
NFL quarterback turned Monday Night Football host Esiason and TV journalist
Meredith Vieira, are conducting a press conference on the Friday morning
before the parade, showing off their contemporary sensibility with
sarcastic banter and even occasional criticisms of Miss America, especially
in the swimwear department. When asked about the meaning of Miss America,
though, the broad-necked Esiason grows serious and pulls through handily,
much to his own evident pleasure and surprise.

The big news at the press conference, though, is that one of the
contestants may have lied about her academic record and now, just 30-some
hours before the live television broadcast is scheduled to begin, she may
be thrown out of the pageant. (As it turns out, she remains in, though she
doesn't make the top 10.) Reporters from local and national papers gossip
among themselves, denouncing their editors for suggesting the controversy
unworthy of publication, betting on this year's winners. As the conference
winds up, with a worried-looking Miss America Organization CEO and
President Leonard Horn refusing to offer details about the urgent fraud
investigation under way, reporters begin to file out of the room and prepare
for several hours of downtime until the evening's parade.

Outside the room, two young women are waiting for the press. They are not
contestants but "representatives of the aerosol industry," here to set the
record straight concerning Miss America and her various necessary and
enviro-safe cosmetic sprays. One flack explains that the Miss America
pageant is particularly perilous ground for her industry, seeing as how it
tends to spark untoward jokes about hair spray and the world's dwindling
supply of ozone. She cites Jay Leno, who, evidently, has been known to joke
that pageant contestants should be asked how much of the ozone layer they
have personally destroyed. "It's funny," she says, scrunching up her nose
to show that she doesn't really believe that, "but it's not accurate."
According to the press releases rolled inside promotional aerosol cans, the
industry got rid of ozone-depleting CFCs in 1978. Meanwhile, the
contestants themselves -- each of whom will have contact with an estimated
four sprays, including "firm grip" to ensure that swimsuit remains on
butt -- are taking a break from rehearsal. Their afternoons will be filled
with camera blocking for tomorrow night's telecast, closed to press and

Outside on the boardwalk, excitement and preparations for the evening's
parade are under way. Various gradations of chairs, from brown plastic to
cushioned red vinyl, rest empty along the boardwalk planks. Supporters from
across the country -- with emphasis on the southern half -- are milling around in
custom-designed T-shirts sporting the name, state and, often, giant
silk-screened face of chosen contestants. The truly enthused also don
oversized buttons of one or another smiling, mascaraed hopeful. Sometimes
they burst out into spontaneous cheers: "Go Miss Illinois Mandy Meadows!"

By 6 o'clock, the Miss America pilgrims have staked out
reserved seats near Convention Hall, preparing themselves for perhaps the
most raucous and certainly the most community-oriented aspect of the
two-week-long pageant. As the Atlantic City Police Department motorcycle
escort crawls forward with sirens blaring, a loud long roar erupts and the
parade begins its inexorable annual procession down the boards. The first
contestants, appearing in reverse alphabetical order, ride by perched atop
the back seats of shiny convertibles. In keeping with this year's
"self-expression" theme, they are wearing outfits of their own choosing.
Miss Wyoming has donned an Old West good-time girl ensemble, complete with
black fishnets and black heels ornamented with hot pink feathers. Behind
her, Miss Wisconsin has chosen to go playful in a dainty white wedding-type
dress accompanied by a worn-out pair of cow slippers. Miss West Virginia
goes for the sporty look, showing off sneakers adorned with a flowering of
small baseballs, tennis balls and sundry other athletic items.

The contestants appear two or three at a time, interspersed between more
than 80 bands, dance troupes and floats. While the contestants present one
view of American femininity -- good-natured, mildly creative, attractive if a
little stiff -- the young girls who make up the bulk of parade participants
add depth to that somewhat two-dimensional picture. They are trombone
players and flag girls, cloggers and cheerleaders. They are too fat or too
thin, too tall or too short -- flush-faced, self-serious and usually a little
bit awkward. They twirl and hoot in uniforms ranging from heavy maroon
polyester capes and pants to the barest of little black body suits. They
play "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and shimmy to Top 40 hits.

And, to at least one member of the audience, they are glorious. "You're
beautiful, girls," screams a local woman standing by the sidelines; she
hollers similar sentiments at each of the 80-plus groups on display. And if
nobody else is quite so verbally enthused, the clatter of applause that
bursts forth with each new appearance testifies that these girls, too -- the
girls of South Jersey and Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New York -- deserve
recognition. These are our girls, the applause seems to confirm, worthy of
support. And worthy of the school fund-raising efforts that brought them to
Atlantic City and the Miss America pageant, where the past continues to
collide with the present.

By Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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