|The Associated Press|
NEW YORK — When you see a beauty pageant, you might see eye candy in bathing suits and high heels.
When Elissa Stein looks at a beauty pageant, she sees a bit more: a snapshot of a nation’s young women, their thoughts, interests and ideals.
Stein, who has written books on prom queens and cheerleaders, looks back at the history of beauty and scholarship pageants in her new book “Beauty Queen” (Chronicle), assembling photos, brief bits of history and words of wisdom, such as how to pack for a pageant.
Her interest in beauty queens began when she was a child growing up in Long Island in the 1970s. “Miss America was like the Super Bowl on TV. ... I always rooted for Miss New York. I’d sit there and watch — the dresses were clouds of chiffon and everyone had amazing hair.”
But aside from the glamour, Stein found an inspiring message. “Being a beauty queen was attainable dream for little girls. Watching it (Miss America) said, ‘You can do it, too. She came from a small town just like you!’”
The first recorded U.S. pageant was in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in 1880. It was a one-time publicity event billed as the search for Miss United States, “the most beautiful unmarried woman in our nation.”
In the early 1920s, the Miss America pageant launched in Atlantic City, N.J., as a way to lure tourists after Labor Day. The sister pageants Miss USA and Miss Universe began in 1952, intended as rivals to Miss America.
At first, the women who competed were hardly the girls next door who later fueled stereotypes of beauty queens, Stein says. Society largely frowned on young women who’d parade around in bathing costumes — although it should be noted that the disapproval didn’t stop a steady flow of women from entering contests.
“Early pageants were radical and the contestants were seen as feminists,” Stein says. “Being a beauty queen was a way to put yourself out there in a time when women didn’t go to college and had no other way out of their small towns.”
Miss America, as well as many local contests, disappeared in the late 1920s and early ’30s — a victim of the Great Depression and conservative values. In 1935, master marketer Lenora Slaughter took over as Miss America’s director. She recognized the opportunity for the pageant to become a tool of success for increasingly independent young women. The contestants would focus on their scholarship, talents and good works, she decided, even if judges and the public might focus more on their figures.
“Beauty pageants have evolved tremendously over the years, “ says hairstylist-to-the-stars Frederic Fekkai, who helped crown Miss USA last year. “Beyond the beautiful faces, gorgeous hair and slim physiques, the women today are incredibly driven and dedicated to having a voice and effecting change in the world. For me, being a judge was an honor and great responsibility, and I saw this as much more than a beauty competition.”
Slaughter, in fact, began calling Miss America a “scholarship competition,” which is how it is still officially described today. The Miss America Organization, along with its network of local pageants, claims to be the world’s leading provider of scholarships to young women, making $45 million in aid available annually.
It was also under Slaughter’s tenure that Miss America began to take on the look of “everygirl USA.”
Sure, she might have worn a little bit more makeup or higher heels, but she largely represented the attractive young woman you might run into in the grocery store, a woman who’d never leave the house without her false eyelashes on, Stein says. Nowadays, pageant winners come from different ethnic backgrounds and have different body types — although, Stein notes, “they all look good in bathing suits.”
But as the public has come to embrace individuality, it’s become harder to pick one woman who represents the ideal look, which might explain the identity crisis that pageants themselves and, maybe more importantly, their TV ratings have suffered the past few years.
The perceived demise of pageants, however, may have been overblown by slick media types who live in New York and Los Angeles, Stein says. “In some parts of the country, pageants are still really popular. ... They give people a sense of innocence and community, maybe not in urban areas but local groups — like the Elk Clubs that sponsor local contests — have a vested community interest. Pageants are popular in the small towns where the contestants come from.”
That might explain why when Miss America moved last year from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and from ABC to Country Music Television, it brought with it the highest ratings ever for the cable channel.
Pageants are particularly popular in the South and Midwest, Stein says, where it’s usually more socially acceptable for young girls to aspire to be beauty queens. “It does seem like Miss Texas is always in the top five. I think it’s a rule!”
But Stein also bursts the myth that the average pageant winner is a blond, blue-eyed Barbie lookalike: More Miss Americas have been brunette than blond.
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