On September 17, 1983, a long-legged 20-year-old sashayed across the stage at Convention Hall in Atlantic City. As the orchestra started to play, her powerful voice launched into "Happy Days are Here Again." Millions of Americans sat transfixed in front of their televisions. It was no surprise when the slender, hazel-eyed brunette was back on stage later in the evening among the pageant finalists. But what happened next made history. As the emcee announced: "And our new Miss America is... Vanessa Williams," the young woman's mother leaned forward on her couch at home and in hushed tones, whispered "finally, finally."
Williams was the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America. Black leaders claimed her victory as a milestone in American racial history. Some compared the achievement to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. A black Miss America meant so much in 1983 because over the decades of its existence the Miss America Pageant had come to mean so much.
Miss America tracks the contest from its inception in 1921 as an exuberant local seaside pageant to its heyday as one of the most popular and anticipated events in the country's cultural calendar. Among the many stories it uncovers are those of Williams and her predecessor, Bess Meyerson, who was crowned the first Jewish Miss America in 1945, the same year the Allies won World War II. It paints a vivid picture of the changing ambitions of the contestants and it describes how the pageant became the target of the first national protest by the women's rights movement.
As the film unfolds, it becomes clear Miss America isn't just the country's oldest beauty contest. It is a powerful cultural institution that over the course of the century has come to reveal much about a changing nation -- the increasing power of the image, the rise in commercialism, the complexity of sexual politics, the important role of big business and the emotional resonance of small towns. It is, we learn, about winners and losers, getting ahead, being included and being left out.
Beyond the symbolism lies a human story -- at once moving, inspiring, infuriating, funny and poignant. Using intimate interviews with former contestants, archival footage and photographs, the film reveals why some women took part in the fledgling event and why others briefly shut it down. It describes how the pageant became a battleground for the country's most conservative and progressive elements and a barometer for the changing position of women in society. It reveals how for women in the 1920s the pageant was an avenue to movie stardom and for women in the 1950s it paved the way to academic success.
Miss America intercuts period film with contemporary footage of the 1999 and 2000 pageants that captures the glamour and excitement of the event, both on stage and in the wings. The documentary reinforces the pageant's continuing hold on the imagination of the American public.