Friday, July 13, 2018

Where’d She Go? Miss America

If I asked the next 500 (or 5,000) people I met the name of the current Miss America, I’d wager not one of them would know the answer.

That wasn’t the case in the Comfort TV era. According to Wikipedia, in the early 1960s the pageants were the highest-rated programs on American television. The day after the winner was crowned in Atlantic City, her name and photo appeared in newspapers across the country, often on the front page.

Many of them remained in the spotlight, starting with Bess Myerson, who in 1945 became the first (and still only) Jewish woman to wear the crown. She was a familiar face on TV throughout the 1950s, most notably as one of the panelists on I’ve Got a Secret

Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, has been part of the TV landscape for more than 50 years, and earned an Emmy nomination for her recurring role on Barnaby Jones. Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959, appeared in memorable episodes of Mission: Impossible and The Partridge Family, and introduced the character of April Dancer on The Man From UNCLE

Even Miss Americas that did not go on to a show business career became familiar faces, especially in the weeks and months following the pageant.

Today? No one really cares.

I guess I don’t either, but I remember when I did. As I’ve reflected on often in this blog, it was one of those once-a-year moments when we watched a program that we knew most other folks were watching too, coast to coast, at the same time. It was a nationally televised event, like the Oscars and the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, which brought us together as a nation. Today, when we need more of those moments, we don’t have them anymore. 

The next Miss America pageant will be held in September, and the ratings may tick up a bit because of some highly publicized changes to the format. This year, for the first time in forever, there will be no swimsuit competition. The evening gown competition remains, but contestants will now discuss social issues as they sashay across the stage. No, I’m not kidding.

I predict that, five years from now, Miss Georgia will earn the title because she had a better take on the virtues of supply-side economics vs. the Keynesian approach favored by Miss Delaware.

Such changes perfectly fit the times we live in now. The really stupid times we live in now.

Miss America is a beauty contest. That’s what it is and that is what it always has been, despite whatever euphemisms are now used by pageant organizers. They can call it something else, but that doesn’t change its essence. We can call the Super Bowl a soccer match but that won’t convince anyone they’re not watching football.

In its heyday, families would gather around the TV, and pick out their favorites from the opening parade of states, introduced by long-time host Bert Parks. 

Usually our choices would be eliminated when the top 15 finalists were selected, so we picked new ones. 

Then we had the swimsuit competition, and the evening gown competition, and the talent competition, where there would be a few capable singers and dancers, and a few others who relied on baton twirling and questionable ventriloquism skills. Even the bad moments were kind of sweet.

The field was then cut to the final five, who would be asked to offer an opinion on some current event or cultural phenomenon. This was always the most oft-parodied part of any pageant. One of the best takes was in the Charlie’s Angels episode “Pretty Angels All in a Row.” Kris Munroe, undercover in the “Miss Chrysanthemum” pageant, is asked her favorite color: “My favorite colors are red, white and blue, because they’re the colors of our flag of freedom.” 

In the closing moments, the runner-ups would be revealed, along with the scholarships they have earned, we’d get to the final two, and Bert Parks would solemnly intone that if, for any reason, the winner is unable to fulfill her duties as Miss America, the first runner-up would assume the title. The winner would be announced, and tears would flow, and the new Miss America would receive her crown and sash and a bouquet of roses, and walk down that Atlantic City runway as Parks did his best to sing, “There she is, Miss America…”

 Now what, I ask you, is so awful about that?

I guess there was a sense that parading across a stage in a bikini diminishes these women. But in the Comfort TV era, the title of Miss America was one that was accorded respect, and not just by lascivious males. There was a sense that she personified the best qualities of the American woman, and it was a title aspired to by many young girls. And when you realize how many physicians and lawyers and broadcast journalists and high-ranking company executives received a boost along their professional journey from the scholarships provided by the Miss America Foundation, it is clear that this was and always has been about more than pretty girls in bikinis.

When Miss America winners accompanied Bob Hope to Korea and Vietnam, and when other winners visited military bases overseas with the USO, the soldiers were happy to see a beautiful woman that reminded them of home, or perhaps of someone special in their lives. 

There is nothing wrong with this. But if enough people now think there is, just ditch the whole idea and move along.


  1. Clarification: Lee Meriwether had a REGULAR role on "Barnaby Jones."

    By the way, Mr. Hofstede, what do you have to say about the controversy surrounding Vanessa L. Williams, who was crowned Miss America 1984? Did TPTB do the right thing back in the day by asking Vanessa to resign?

  2. Mr. Hofstede, what do you have to say about the Mr. America bodybuilding competition? Aren't the contestants in THAT situation treated like pieces of meat?

  3. I can remember when the Miss America Pageant was a highly-rated & anticipated event. I remember Kellogg's initiating a big ad campaign, "It's Gonna Be a Great Day!", during the 1980 Miss America Pageant on 9/8/1979. I can't tell you now, though, who won the crown that night.

  4. Mr. Hofstede, I am usually in complete agreement with you. But not this time. I guess I tend to favor the ditch it altogether approach (though I will miss some of the over-the-top National Costumes). I don’t disparage the beauty of the women that participated. Or the fact that many of them went on to greater things because of participating. I guess I just don’t like the idea of anyone being paraded like a prize steer at a country fair (no matter how pretty that particular steer happens to be).

    Yes, the pageant and its participants were presented as wholesome and all-American. Even while they were trotting around in swimsuits and high heels. But those sentiments didn’t always ring true, and I’m not sure the message to young girls was always positive. (I have read that eating disorders amongst girls were once unheard of in places like Fiji – until the introduction of western tv programs featuring idealized female bodies.) I think there’s a lot of stupidity in modern thinking. But I can’t fault a raised consciousness that claims women are people. And like other people, they have more worth than just surface beauty.

    1. Hey, it was bound to happen sooner or later! But I respect that opinion. And I'd much prefer ditching it to trying to make it conform to some present-day standard of judgement that doesn't offend anyone - if that is even possible.

  5. Oops sorry, I realize the National costumes are from the Miss Universe pageant.

  6. Mr. Hofstede, I think your post hit the nail on the head. As a young girl, I would watch the Miss America pageant in anticipation. I'd watch it without fail every year, sometimes with members of my family, and we would pick out our "favorite states" at the beginning and hoped they wouldn't be eliminated. I do remember, like you, a time when EVERYBODY watched the Miss America pageant and we all knew the name of the winner the next day, and for quite awhile afterwards. I detest the recent changes made to the pageant, a pageant which I confess I haven't watched for years. I think that this is definitely NOT going to help ratings, which have steadily declined over the last several decades. I guess the Miss America Organization is just going to have to see that for themselves. It would be a shame to just have the telecast cancelled, which I predict is going to end up happening eventually. It is better to just stop broadcasting it and go out with a little bit of dignity, before they would REALLY have to.