Archival Newsreel: You can have wars and atom bombs, but so it seems there must always be a Miss America.
Archival Newsreel: Just one talented young girl receives top honors as Miss America. So democracy works here too for the Atlantic City Miss America contest is predicated on the conviction that the typical American girl has talent and brains as well as beauty.
Kathy Peiss, Historian: I think the Miss America Pageant has been about the American dream for some women. It has been about a dream of being beautiful. It's also been about a dream of being successful. And that combination is I think the kind of complicated stew that is very much American women's experience of the last eighty years.
Pageant Broadcast: I am tingling with excitement wondering who will be the next Miss America.
Bill Goldman: When my kids were little, one of the big nights of the year was just the four of us sitting there watching the Miss America and saying oh she's got to win. And you root and you got involved in it. And we all loved it. It was a part of our lives.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: You know in this twentieth century, we have witnessed the birth of a legend, the legend of the American girl.
Margaret Cho, Comedian: I think it's a really important story to tell, because it's about how we feel about ourselves as women, and how we've changed as women and who we are as women and what it means to be judged by men.
Archival Newsreel: There are beauty contests and beauty contests, and then there's the Miss America competition and this year's crop seems to be the most beauteous bevy of breathtaking beauties in decades.
Tricia Rose, Cultural Critic: The Pageant is this example where you can be sort of nationalistic and patriotic and pro American and get to see some "T and A" all in the same event.
Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998: The thing about the pageant is that you have to have a sense of humor about it. I mean you've got girls who have invested their entire lives in wanting to become Miss America. On the one hand, it's this investment of thousands of dollars in this huge goal, and on the other hand a girl is spray gluing her swimsuit to her butt so it doesn't ride up.
Julia Alvarez, Writer: You know this is like Miss America. I mean it's not Miss Coffee Beans. It's not Miss Peach Blossoms. This is the woman that sort of represents the country like the President does. And so it's seeing what is the way to be the woman of the most powerful country on earth.
Archival Newsreel: These were the fabulous furious roaring 20s and this is why they roared.
Narrator: The Miss America Pageant started out as a promotional gimmick -- dreamed up by Atlantic City businessmen in 1921, as a way to keep tourists in town after Labor Day. Over the next eight decades, it would become a national tradition dedicated to defining the ideal American woman.
Year after year, the Miss America Pageant would struggle to pull off a delicate balancing act —objectifying women while providing them with real opportunities; promoting traditional roles while encouraging women's independence; glorifying feminine modesty while trading on female sexuality. Along the way, it would come to be a barometer of the nation's shifting ideas about American womanhood.
But in 1921, Atlantic City's businessmen were simply trying to turn a profit —by capitalizing on the country's fascination with beauty.
Kathy Peiss: Well, there are many beauty pageants in the 1920's, and they range from pageants oriented towards African-American women, Miss Bronze America. Even the Ku Klux Klan has a beauty pageant for Miss 100 Percent America. So there's something about beauty as a symbol that is extremely important and many different groups are getting together and saying, we have the most beautiful woman who represents us. And Miss America is the national symbol of what is going on all over the country.
Narrator: The first Miss America Pageant was a spectacular two-day festival, culminating with a beachfront parade called the Bather's Revue. The only rule for the competition was that all participants "must positively be attired in bathing costumes." A board of censors had been appointed to review questionable entries.
Vicki Gold Levi, Atlantic City Historian: Atlantic City was a place where everybody was kind of given to letting your hair down and having a delicious, romantic time. Bathing suits had changed a great deal and stockings were now being rolled beneath your knees, which was very daring. And women had to have their bathing suits at a certain length. And so there were beach censors who would actually come down and measure the length of your bathing suit.
Narrator: On the morning of the Revue, more than 100,000 people swarmed onto the Boardwalk, hoping to catch a glimpse of the scantily-clad young women down on the sand. The spectators' stand out favorite was a slight, freckled sixteen-year-old from the nation's capitol. Named Margaret Gorman.
Ric Ferentz, Pageant Historian: Margaret Gorman was a sensation. She was tiny, petite, five one, with blonde, long ringlets who looked very much like Mary Pickford who was the biggest star of the day. So, the combination made this young, sixteen-year-old girl a star.
Narrator: Gorman swept the competition -- and later that evening, she was crowned the very first Miss America. "Margaret Gorman represents the type of womanhood America needs," the New York Times declared, "strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests."
Narrator: The first Miss America Pageant was a staggering success. Before the receipts were even tallied, city officials announced plans to continue the contest through the decade —confident that as long as there were girls in bathing suits, the crowds would come.
Leonard Horn, Former CEO Miss America Organization: It was one of the first, if not the first instances of the marriage between advertising and the beauty of the female form which was ingenious because from then on many, many advertisers thought they could get more attention by putting a good looking woman into the picture. Some say it got started in 1921 in Atlantic City.
Ric Ferentz: The very first years, there was a literal breakdown. Five points for the construction of the head, five points for the limbs, three points for the torso, two points for the leg...I mean it...you know and it added up to a hundred percent. Whether they really went by that, it's hard to say.
Narrator: Throughout the 1920's, scores of young women flocked to Atlantic City each year, most hoping the Pageant would land them a career in show business. While the average working woman labored in a factory or a typing pool, Miss America had offers from Hollywood and vaudeville -- and the opportunity to cash in on her looks.
Archival Newsreel: "5 feet 4 inches tall, 118 pounds of beauty. Norma Smallwood is crowned Miss America of 1926."
Narrator: During the year of her reign, Miss America 1926 -- a small-town girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma -- reportedly made over $100,000, more than either Babe Ruth or the President of the United States.
Ric Ferentz: Norma Smallwood had an acute business sense. In 1927, when she was due to return to crown her successor, she demanded a fee for her appearance in Atlantic City. And although she arrived and took part in the early part of the pageant, during the middle when that money was not forthcoming, Norma picked up and left for another job in North Carolina. And the press was not very kind to that. They thought that she should have been the gracious one that didn't take the money and stayed around to crown her successor, and Norma thought, I'm sorry, this is a business.
Kathy Peiss: There was a general sense that the Old World had died and a new one was being born. And I think that was especially important for women. There'd been a women's movement that had been successful in certain ways, women had gotten the right to vote for example, and women are increasingly in the labor force in the 1920's. A number are getting college educated. And so in some ways the pageant seems to be a contradiction. Here, feminists had wanted women to move into the public sphere to sort of gain the positions that men had gained, and yet the pageant represents women very much as female and as in some ways, sexualized, as beauty objects.
Narrator: The Pageant's attention to the female form had troubled conservative Americans since the very beginning. But in the late-1920's, critics finally went on the offensive.
All over the country, women's clubs and religious organizations publicly attacked the Miss America Pageant, and accused organizers of corrupting the nation's morals. "Before the competition, the contestants were splendid examples of innocence and pure womanhood," one protestor argued. "Afterward their heads were filled with vicious ideas."
In 1928, fearing the controversy would ruin Atlantic City's reputation, the Chamber of Commerce voted twenty-seven to three to cancel the Miss America Pageant.
For now, morality had shut the Pageant down. But America's infatuation with beauty would endure.
Contemporary Footage: Brandi: "It's very me, it's very Brandi..."
Margaret Cho: I think the fascination with beauty pageants is that there can be a winner. That there are certain rules, guidelines that constitute beauty, that it is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder. That we as the collective beholder have agreed on certain qualities that create beauty and uh that there can be a contest to judge it. It's this fascinating thing.
Tricia Rose: What gets defined as beauty? I mean, it's not unlike high fashion supermodels in that the bodies that work are the bodies that are least like what women look like. So what are we saying? What are we actually saying about what women look like when we say, well you know what, to be most beautiful you have to not look like what women look like?
Isaac Mizrahi, Designer: I think that fashion and beauty is everything in the way a woman marks her identity today, unfortunately. But I can't think of a period of time when it wasn't about that, and there are all sorts of obvious manifestations of that you know, the length of your skirt, the size of your waist. But there are other even more subtle things. Like when you shave your legs, even if you're wearing pants that day you feel three times prettier, I think.
Julia Alvarez: You know, there's a yearning in the human spirit, an aspiring for beauty. And, the successful man still has a beautiful woman on his arm. That's the prize. It's been our power structure and it's...it's still operative. Beauty is still the currency out there.
Gloria Steinem, Writer: The traditional way to get ahead is to compete with other women for the favors of men, you know and this is not different from any other marginalized or less powerful group. You're supposed to compete with each other for the favors of the powerful. So what could be a greater example of that than a beauty contest?
Narrator: Not long after the Miss America Pageant was cancelled, a devastating economic depression brought Atlantic City's tourist trade to a halt. Desperate, local businessmen opted to ignore the critics and revived their lucrative beauty pageant. In 1933, thirty young women were brought to Atlantic City, aboard a chartered train called the Beauty Special, to compete for Miss America's crown.
Archival Newsreel: Yeah it's sort of relaxin' what with strikes and food shortages and international disputes and so on to have the lassies back with us once again. Oh well, one good turn deserves another.
Narrator: "So striking was the change between the ideal figure of the twenties and that of 1933," one observer said of the contestants, "that one might almost have thought that a new anatomical species had come into being."
Among the entries was Marion Bergeron, a high school sophomore and the daughter of a Connecticut policeman.
Marion Bergeron Setzer, Miss America 1933: 1933, it was a depression and at 15 years old I hadn't been out of Westhaven, Connecticut, let alone wind up in Atlantic City.
Narrator: A curvaceous blonde with a striking resemblance to screen-siren Jean Harlow, Bergeron had competed in her first local pageant just weeks before.
To her surprise, she had won the title of Miss New Haven, and then Miss Connecticut -- and before she knew it, she was being crowned Miss America.
Marion Bergeron Setzer: To the judge's eyes, I was the typical American girl. Totally unsophisticated, very naïve, had a lot of enthusiasm, had a lot of talent that they didn't ask for, but I did have that. And I was just, I was just a 1933 typical American girl. My figure then as they described it was a typical Mae West figure which was hourglass, thirty-four bust, a twenty-six waist, eighty-two buns.
Narrator: The new Miss America was just the kind of girl vaudeville producers were looking for — and they soon came waving contracts, promising to make her a star.
But all the attention was short-lived. As soon as the newspapers reported that she was only fifteen, the show business contracts were quickly withdrawn -- and Bergeron went back to high school.
Marion Bergeron Setzer: On our way home, I had to go back only to be met by the nuns that said I had had entirely too much undue publicity. And they felt that it would be better if I chose another school. Yeah, and that's practically being kicked out of school. Here I feel like I'm really somebody. You know, I'm just the most glamorous thing that ever happened at 15 years old, but the but the nuns didn't think so.
Kathy Peiss: Beauty pageants by the early thirties had a reputation for being somewhat disreputable, like ...a carnival atmosphere. And especially the association with Atlantic City and the seaside resorts made that venue somewhat of a question mark I think for women in terms of their respectability. To be a public woman had a longstanding connotation of having loose morals, of being either a prostitute or sexually loose. And that doesn't disappear, certainly through the 1930's.
Narrator: In October 1935, a Pageant scandal rocked Atlantic City. Less than a month after seventeen-year-old Henrietta Leaver was crowned Miss America, a nude statue of her was unveiled in her hometown of Pittsburgh.
Leaver — a high school dropout and dime store salesgirl —swore she had worn a bathing suit when she posed, and that her grandmother had been present at all times. But the press coverage was merciless, and the businessmen behind the Pageant finally decided to make some changes.
For help, they turned to a single, 29-year-old Southern Baptist with years of experience in public relations. As the Pageant's Executive Secretary, she would spend the next three decades inventing a new image for Miss America. Her name was Lenora Slaughter.
Ric Ferentz: She was the iron fist in a velvet glove. I think that she was a woman that was well ahead of her time. She was tough when she had to be. But knew how to get by on a Southern drawl.
Narrator: Slaughter's mission now was to eliminate scandal and to attract what she called "a better class of contestants."
She immediately established a minimum age requirement of eighteen, then added a talent competition to the traditional line-up of bathing suits and evening gowns. Once the contestants were in Atlantic City, Slaughter insisted they be chaperoned at all times, and that they observe a strict curfew of one a.m. They were barred from drinking establishments, forbidden to smoke, and there were to be no private visits with men -- not even their fathers.
A Pageant judge once asked Slaughter what to look for in a winner. "Honey," she answered, "just pick me a lady."
Vicki Gold Levi: She brought a respectability to the pageant. She presented her girls with class, with style. She transformed the pageant by setting the standards high, by making it something that women would want to participate in.
Narrator: Sometime later, Slaughter slipped one final entry requirement into the Pageant by-laws. Known as Rule Seven, the new regulation strictly limited Pageant participation to women "in good health and of the white race."
Sarah Banet Weiser, Communication Scholar: Race has always factored into anyone's notion of ideal womanhood in the United States. It's just that the way in which whiteness functions is through invisibility. It's not seen as a race. It's just the normal way to be. It's just regular. And it's really no different in the Miss America Pageant.
Tricia Rose: That's what's most interesting about it to me that we are supposed to believe that this is what American womanhood looks like. And it really is an enormously narrow conception from facial features, you know, height, weight. And then of course there are the most obvious more political categories: race, ethnicity and all of these things are very important in the historical understanding of the Pageant.
NARRATOR: By the early 1940's, Slaughter had constructed an ideal woman to represent the Miss America Pageant. Now, the mass media would make her a star.
Each September, millions of Americans watched the annual newsreel of Miss America's crowning. She was featured in newspapers and advertisements, and honored with her own day at the World's Fair. And when the United States entered World War II, and the Federal Government shut down most large public events, Slaughter convinced officials that the Pageant should be allowed to go on. "Miss America is emblematic of the nation's spirit," she told them, "and that spirit [continues] through war and peace, good times and bad." Permission was granted -- on the condition that the winner sell war bonds.
Kathy Peiss: The early period of the 1940's is one where we see women being mobilized for the war effort. They're being encouraged to take jobs, to work more than full time to support the war effort. At the same time, those women are encouraged to maintain their femininity and their beauty. And there's a huge effort to sell women lipstick, to see cosmetics as morale boosters. And they are one product that is not rationed during the war. There's an attempt to ration cosmetics but it's overturned within six months. Women are given the pitch that one of the reasons we're fighting the war is for women to be beautiful.
Narrator: Lenora Slaughter believed there was more to a woman than her looks -- and she wanted Miss America to prove it. So in 1944, she convinced the Pageant's new board of directors to award Miss America a scholarship to college.
Raising money proved a bigger challenge. Of the 236 companies Slaughter approached for contributions, only five signed on as sponsors. But between them, Slaughter had enough cash for a five thousand-dollar prize -- and in 1945, the Miss America Pageant became one of the first organizations in the country to offer college scholarships to women.
Vicki Gold Levi: That's immediately what redefined Miss America because no other pageant, competition, beauty contest was giving scholarship money. And by doing this it really, really set the pageant in a different category. You didn't have to go in there just to prove you had a pretty figure, you could go in there to prove you had brains.
Narrator: Among those vying for the first scholarship in 1945 was a twenty-one year-old New Yorker named Bess Myerson. The American-born daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Myerson had paid her own way through New York's Hunter College by giving piano lessons in the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up. Now she hoped to go on to graduate school, where she planned to study conducting.
Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945: Talent was very important because that was the way we were going to make our living. That's what we were going to support ourselves doing when we grew up. The most important thing was that you do well at school...oh no. The most important thing was that you listened to your parents. That you do well in school. And that you play a musical instrument. We never imagined anything else would be open to us.
Narrator: To Lenora Slaughter, Myerson seemed the ideal candidate for the new scholarship prize. She was beautiful, talented, smart. There was only one problem: she would have to change her name.
Bess Myerson: Lenora Slaughter said my name was not a good name for show business. And I said well, you know I have no intention of going into show business. I said, what do you want me to change it to? Well you know there are a lot of good stage names like Beth...Beth Merrick. I said...the problem is that I'm Jewish, yes? And with that kind of name it'll be quite obvious to everyone else that I'm Jewish. And you don't want to have to deal with a Jewish Miss America. And that really was the bottom line. I said I can't change my name. You have to understand. I cannot change my name. I live in a building with two hundred and fifty Jewish families. The Sholom Aleichem apartment houses. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I'm the daughter of Louie and Bella Myerson.
Narrator: On September 3rd, Myerson and the other contestants appeared on Atlantic City's Boardwalk for the Miss America Pageant's opening ceremony: a victory parade to celebrate the end of the war. In the crowd was Myerson's older sister Sylvia. Her mother, who spoke no English, had been left at home in the Bronx.
Bess Myerson: The first night I compete with a group of girls on talent, I won. Headline says, "Jewish Girl in Atlantic City Wins Talent in Miss America Pageant." Now we've just learned all the details of six million Jews being killed, slaughtered, burned, tortured. And naturally it attracts attention, and the juxtaposition of the two things was so improbable. There were people that would come to the hotel where I was staying with my sister, and they would introduce themselves to me and say I'm Jewish, and it's just wonderful that you're in this contest. But how about when people came up to you with numbers on their arms, which they did as well, and said, you see this? You have to win. You have to show the world that we are not ugly. That we shouldn't be disposed of and so on however they worded it. I have to tell you that I felt this tremendous responsibility. I owed it to those women to give them a present, a gift, that to them was the gift.
Narrator: On the second night of preliminaries, Myerson scored another win, in the swimsuit competition, and she now seemed a strong favorite for the finals. "The new Miss America will either be Miss New York City, Bess Myerson," one newspaper predicted, "or somebody else."
Archival Newsreel: They're about to pick Miss America of 1945. Well, they've made their choice and the crown goes to Miss New York City, a 21-year-old, 5'10" brunette, Bess Myerson, Hunter College graduate.
Narrator: By the time Myerson's name was announced, her sister Sylvia was already in tears. From the audience came shouts of "Mazel tov!" "Don't let anybody kid you," Myerson said years later. "It was one hell of a terrific moment."
Vicki Gold Levi: Bess was the answer to every Jewish woman's dream. Her win was such a multilevel symbol. It was a symbol of a certain statement against anti-Semitism. It was a symbol of a victory against Hitler. It was a symbol for women, and when she won there was great celebration in our house. It was like when Roosevelt won or something.
Narrator: Myerson expected to spend her reign making appearances and promoting the Pageant's new sponsors. But after an obligatory four-week performance tour, where drunks in the audience demanded she play the piano in her bathing suit, there were few requests for her time. None of the sponsors wanted a Jewish girl —even a Jewish Miss America —posing with their products.
Bess Myerson: Half way through that year, I said to the pageant, I'm not available to you anymore because I want to do something else. I've met people from an organization called the Anti-defamation League. And they've asked me to go out on a tour speaking at the high schools and colleges, speaking to students where there are problems having to do with anti-Semitism, with hatred, with racism. And I did a speech called "You Can't Hate and be Beautiful."
Sarah Banet Weiser: Bess Myerson took on the mantle of Miss America in a different way. It's the historical moment, it's her ethnic identity, it's her own aspirations, and all those put together you know provided a very different kind of Miss America and a very different kind of reign.
Narrator: Myerson had made Miss America a scholar and a lady. But the following year, pageant judges made it clear that looks still counted. "It was the year they brought out the rubberized bathing suit," one of them said later, "and we voted for the girl with the best of everything showing."
Gloria Steinem: The swimsuit competition is probably the most honest part of the competition because it really is about bodies. It is about looking at women as objects. That's what it's about. The fact is that the most disqualifying part of the competition is how you look.
Margaret Cho: When you see their bodies, it's so interesting because they seem so not real. You don't see anything off. They are so perfect and not sexual really but you just kind of these perfectly shaped women that their bodies are very smooth. There's no creases or lines, there's no stretch marks or nipples or hair. It's kind of jarring. You think god whose body is like that? And then you think, oh, maybe I'm not the woman. Maybe they're the women, and I'm not the woman. And then you kind of feel like an imposter too.
Isaac Mizrahi: It's always so sort of...heartbreaking to watch the swimsuit competition because these...these good girls they're sort of like ooh, I'm such a piece of meat or something you know. Of all the parts of the pageant that I feel victimize women the most, it's that part of the pageant. These poor girls in those painful looking high heels my heart goes out to them. But you know honestly if you have to wear a swimsuit and you have to parade, good, you should wear the high heels, because there's nothing better on your leg than a high heel.
Kate Shindle: I worked so hard to be ready to compete in swimsuit that I didn't dread it. You know, I actually found it kind of empowering because I figured that once I could get over enough issues to walk around on the stage in a bathing suit in front of twenty million people, I could pretty much do anything I wanted to.
Archival Newsreel: "Go ahead and drool, it's Miss America time..."
Narrator: For more than a quarter century, the bathing suit competition had been the Miss America Pageant's feature attraction. But with the scholarship program now in place, Lenora Slaughter wanted to project a more dignified image.
The challenge was to downplay the bathing suits without offending Catalina Swimwear, one the Pageant's major sponsors. In 1947, Slaughter struck the term "bathing suit" from the official Pageant vocabulary, and replaced it with the more athletic-sounding "swimsuit." Then, she banned two-piece suits from the competition, and announced that Miss America would now be crowned in an evening gown.
Still, when most Americans thought of the Pageant, a girl in bathing suit was the first thing that came to mind.
Then along came Yolande Betbeze. A twenty-one-year-old opera singer from Mobile, Alabama, Betbeze had been recently sprung from convent school when she captured her first local crown, Miss Torch 1949. Miss Alabama wasn't far behind.
Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951: I didn't plan on the Miss America Pageant. I didn't know anything about it. I was in a convent for fourteen years. The last four years in a cloistered convent, behind high walls, and no escape, and I was very naïve when I arrived in Atlantic City. I mean coming from a small town in Alabama borrowing shoes of high heels and taking the braces off my teeth. I had a ball.
Narrator: The minute Betbeze stepped off the train in Atlantic City, Slaughter knew she was looking at the next Miss America. "Yolande was the sexiest, most glamorous thing I had ever laid eyes on," she later said. Slaughter's new husband, a business manager for the Pageant, agreed. "She can't lose," he predicted, "unless the women judges run away from her."
Yolande Betbeze: I thought I was a little bit plain to be Miss America, but I knew that I would do well in talent as an operatic coloratura, and indeed I did... I did win the talent. The swimsuit was difficult. Fortunately, it was a suit in good taste, one piece, white, nothing very revealing. But even so, I mean to stand up for the first time in your life in front of fifty thousand people in a bathing suit is...is awkward. ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: The field is squared off at 16 curvaceous finalists. The winner is brown haired brown-eyed Yolande Betbeze, 21, of Mobile, Alabama.
Narrator: The morning after she was crowned, the new Miss America was summoned to a breakfast meeting, where she was to be briefed on her duties for the coming year.
Yolande Betbeze: I did not know what to expect with this. So I arrived and they...all these...these suits were sitting about. Older men, board of directors, congratulated me and said now Miss Betbeze, this is what I represent, this is what you're going to do for us. Then it came to the bathing suit, the most important sponsor. And this man said to me, November we'll be in Wyoming, and you'll wear this and that bathing suit. I said wait a minute please. No. No way. To...go into Milwaukee in the middle of the winter and walk around a department store in a bathing suit is not my idea of Miss America, scholarship foundation, the reason I'm here. And he really, really thought I had lost my mind. He couldn't believe it.
Ric Ferentz: I love the fact that she made the statement that she had to play their game to become Miss America and once she became Miss America they had to play by her game. I thought it was very bold of her to say to one of its major sponsors which was Catalina that she just wasn't going to pose in a swimsuit, that she was an opera singer, she was not a pinup.
Narrator: Catalina withdrew its sponsorship of Miss America, and soon launched not one, but two pageants of its own -- Miss USA and Miss Universe. Both judged contestants entirely on looks and absolutely required them to wear Catalina swimsuits.
Vicki Gold Levi: For the Pageant there was always this pull between the pulchritude and the pulpit. There was always this sort of dichotomy about how are you an upstanding, religious, well-educated girl and you could show your thighs and cleavage -- which is always kind of a theme of America anyhow, sexuality and godliness. The Elvis Presley phenomenon. Shake your hips while singing "Nearer My God to Thee."
Narrator: In the fall of 1952, the Pageant's directors invited an up-and-coming Hollywood actress named Marilyn Monroe to serve as the Grand Marshall of the Boardwalk Parade. "She wore the first dress anybody had ever worn," that year's Miss America said later, "that was cut down to her navel." Monroe was not asked back to Atlantic City.
Narrator: It had taken nearly three decades to transform Miss America from a local celebrity to a national phenomenon. But making her a household name would take just one night —September 11th, 1954, when Miss America would be crowned live on national television.
The Pageant's board of directors had asked former Miss America Bess Myerson to provide backstage commentary for the viewers at home, and had even invited Academy award-winning actress Grace Kelly to judge the competition.
Now, as the cameras wheeled into position on Atlantic City's Convention Hall stage, ABC sent out the broadcast signal -- and television audiences coast-to-coast joined the Miss America finals already in progress.
Archival: "Live from Atlantic City . . . "
Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955: The only time I really noticed a camera was we were waiting to have the crowning. I saw a television camera, and it was coming toward us, so I thought, ooh it's...it's time. And then I saw Lenora Slaughter, the head of the pageant bringing a banner over, and she put it on my lap. She said, Lee, you're our Miss America.
Archival: 19 year old, Lee Ann Meriwether of San Francisco, California. She triumphed over 49 other...
Lee Meriwether: My head flipped back and that is all I remember. And I was crying hysterically. Crying, crying, I couldn't stop, but I do remember my mother being pulled backstage. And my mother said, stop your sniveling. And that did it.
Narrator: More than 27 million people, nearly half of the television audience, watched the Miss America Pageant that night -- in a broadcast that broke all records for TV viewership. "To think that folks out in Idaho could see this was just amazing," one Pageant volunteer recalled. "It just knocked everything off the airwaves."
William Goldman, Screenwriter: The Miss America contest was something that seemed very glamorous to all of us in the thirties and forties and fifties. But all we ever saw of it were snippets on newsreels in movie theaters. And then suddenly when television happened, here was this fabulous event and in that period it was incredibly popular. When you look at old black and white television now it looks so prehistoric, but my god, it was free, it was in your house, you could watch it. And it changed everything.
Narrator: By the second broadcast, the Pageant had been redesigned for TV, and a celebrity singer and announcer had been hired to serve as the regular master of ceremonies. The forty-year-old star of a popular TV program called Stop the Music; he was known to audiences across the country as the guy with "the smile you can read by." His name was Bert Parks.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: Thank you very much. Thank you. Good Evening. What a wonderful audience ...
Leonard Horn: Bert Parks came along at just the right time. And his ability to be funny, to be extemporaneous, to be silly, and yet at the same time allow the women to be the stars of the show was a perfect, series of ingredients that the Miss America program needed at that time.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: "Hi. And this of course ladies and gentlemen is Miss Oklahoma. From what city please?" Miss Oklahoma: "I'm from Alva, Oklahoma." Parks: "Alva?" Miss Oklahoma: "Alva." Parks "What is the population of Alva?" Miss Oklahoma: "7000." Parks: "7000. What's Alva most famous for?" Miss Oklahoma: "Wheat and cattle and my daddy's bakery." Parks: "Golden Krust bakery, call him up tonight."
Vicki Gold Levi: I don't know if he would fly today, but he was really into the girls, the women, and that's what made Bert Parks so different. He wasn't a celebrity flown in on a Saturday night. He was there all week getting to know them. They trusted him. He loved what he was doing, and he really was one of the defining factors that made households and television households love Miss America. And when he sang "There She Is" that was it. There she was.
Narrator: Making its debut right alongside Parks was the official Miss America theme song. Composed in just under an hour by a New York songwriter named Bernie Wayne, the song was an instant hit. It would soon be as recognizable as the national anthem.
Kathy Peiss: It evokes a wedding with Bert Parks kind of giving away the... bride, or...in his youth he was more of the groom. It evokes the debutante ball. There is this real sense of suddenly being the most beautiful woman at the ball. And so there is this sense that this could happen to anyone, or at least that's the fantasy, that this could happen to any girl.
Julia Alvarez: We didn't see a whole lot of what it was like to be an American woman. This was our little window into what it was like, what this world was like. It was a way to, I don't know, climb the ladder of success. And so you know it was like watching a female version of a Horatio Alger story.
Lee Meriwether: I had no knowledge of the pageant really at all. I knew there was a Miss America Pageant, but I thought it was a quote unquote bathing beauty contest, and as such I would never have entered. And then my father passed away and just my life sort of stopped right there. And my mother said the money is no longer here, daddy's gone and if you want to continue on with school, that's the thing, go to Atlantic City.
Gloria Steinem: Beauty contests are ways that if you live in a poor neighborhood, you can imagine getting ahead because it is a way up. It is a way to scholarships, to attention, and it's one of the few things that you see out there as a popular symbol. When I was living in a kind of factory working neighborhood of Toledo, the K-Part television Miss TV contest, something like that, was advertised. And I decided I would try to enter the contest even though I was underage. I think I was 16 and the limit was, was 18. So I lied about my age. It wasn't a terrible experience. It was a surrealistic experience. You had to put on your bathing suit and walk and stand on a beer keg. I did three or four different kinds of dances. Spanish and Russian and heaven knows what. I thought I would get money for college. And it seemed glamorous. It seemed to me in high school like a way out of a not too great life in a pretty poor neighborhood.
Narrator: By 1958, Atlantic City's local tourist attraction had become one of the most popular television events in the country. With networks competing over the broadcasting contract, and companies clamoring to provide the high-profile program with sponsorship, the Miss America Pageant could now afford to award over 200,000 dollars worth of scholarships. But winning money for college was only part of the Pageant's appeal. As every contestant knew, being crowned Miss America on national television could turn a small-town girl into an instant celebrity.
Pageant Broadcast: I'm sure you all realize, ladies and gentleman, what a frightening experience it is for these young ladies, most of whom have never appeared in public before much less here in the convention hall in Atlantic City before some 25,000 people and over a full television network.
Narrator: One of the contestants that year was Mary Ann Mobley, a nineteen-year-old drama major with her eye on the Broadway stage. A native of Brandon, Mississippi -- population twenty-five hundred -- Mobley had competed in her first pageant only two weeks before, at the personal request of Brandon's mayor, and had walked off with the state title.
Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959: Everyone was in shock. I said to my Sunday school teacher, I said, Miss Long I can't believe I'm on the way to Atlantic City. I mean, I had seen the previous Miss America. She was tall, I mean her legs started at my armpits. And she had these wonderful features and long blonde hair, and I thought that's what Miss America should look like and I'm nowhere near that.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: and now ladies and gentlemen, we come to the talent competition...
Mary Ann Mobley: Now I have to tell you that I had never sung with an orchestra. And there I was in front of two football fields put together. Well, I was panicked. And my horror was I was going to get out there and no sound was going to come out. And one of the stagehands tapped me on the shoulder and he said you go get 'em Mississippi.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: Mississippi, let's bring her on...
Mary Ann Mobley: And they swagged the curtain and I thought I've got two options, I can run or I can walk out there. And I said I can't embarrass my home state and myself by running away, I have to walk out there.
Pageant Broadcast: Mary Ann Mobley: Tonight as my talent, may I sing a portion of the lovely, "Un bel di" from Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly.
Mary Ann Mobley: And I started "Un bel di," and it came out and it sounded okay. And then I said stop, but I'm tired of being proper and cultured and of appreciating Beethoven, Puccini and Bach ...
Pageant Broadcast: Mary Ann Mobley: I want to sing and dance to something that's solid and hot. So, there'll be some changes made.
Mary Ann Mobley: (SINGS) There'll be a change in the weather and...
Pageant Broadcast: (SINGING)...a change in the sea. And from now on, there'll be a change in me. My...."
Mary Ann Mobley: They started to applaud.
Pageant Broadcast: (SINGING)...nothing about me's going to be the same.
Mary Ann Mobley: And I said they like me, or else they're just applauding that I'm not going to finish the aria.
Ric Ferentz, Pageant Historian: I think Mary Ann was very popular because she was different. She was tiny and spunky and had a little bit of guts.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: Here is your question, Miss Mississippi. What is your favorite topic when with a young man for opening the conversation? Mary Ann Mobley: Well, I've read different articles that tell you how to get along with the opposite sex, and the first thing that they say is get him to talk about himself. So the first thing I ask is, Do you play football or what sport are you interested in? And then if he doesn't say anything, then you say, Well, what are your hobbies? And you go down the line from there and if you can't get him to answer you on any of those then you're just quiet for the rest of the evening.
Ric Ferentz: I think that she showed a different side to Miss America. A more girl next door type. I think that more young women could relate to Mary Ann than they perhaps could to the Miss Americas that had preceded her.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: First runner up, Joan Lucille McDonald, Miss Iowa. Miss America ... Miss Mississippi.
Mary Ann Mobley: Once I won, I came unglued. I mean, I'm not talking about glistening tears. They were running down my chin onto my chest and my dress. CBS ran that for a long time because you really saw someone terribly, terribly affected by what was happening in her life. But I remember thinking, what am I ... what am I doing here, no one's going to believe this. And I'm not pretty enough to be Miss America, but here I am with a crown on my head. It's real, and how could it happen to the little girl from Brandon, Mississippi. I think even now it evokes memories. I guess what I was really feeling was I was Cinderella.
Pageant Broadcast: "Everybody's got talent."
Pageant Broadcast: Over the years the talent competition has become the most significant and the most popular part of this decisive final night. The ability to be poised and personable in the living room is a far cry from the ability to be self possessed on the stage of this great convention hall before a live audience of 25,000 people and a television audience of many millions.
Vicki Gold Levi, Atlantic City Historian: I do remember a girl having a talent where she told us how she packed her suitcase. I definitely remember that. And illustrators were big. They had big pieces of paper clipped on and they would quickly do cartoon sketches and things.
William Goldman, Screenwriter: I have this great memory of this beautiful blonde girl from Wisconsin whose talent was telling a fishing story with an accent. And she was just beautiful. And it was...you were laughing at the screen even then, you couldn't believe that that was her talent, telling a story with a Norwegian accent.
Isaac Mizrahi, Designer: I don't really remember any of the talent except that it was always terrible you know and completely not interesting. And that you know what I used to think was a giant flop would get the biggest applause. Like I'd sit there thinking, wow that stank. And then the audience would just go mad, loving every second of it you know.
Leonard Horn, Former CEO Miss America Organization: A lot of people sat back and laughed at it. I always thought it was kind of cruel to laugh at it because here was a young woman that was competing her little heart out for a coveted prize that was important to her. That's what the program was all about. It was another reason why it became so popular because it was every woman and every woman was competing. And every woman is not an accomplished singer or an accomplished monologist.
Margaret Cho, Comedian: If I had a talent I don't know what I would do. I think that I would probably collate a script. Collate some new pages in a script. That's...I'm really good at that, that's probably my talent, or operating a three hole punch, I can do that pretty swiftly and, I'm probably the best at that.
Isaac Mizrahi, Designer: What would I do as my talent? I would probably sing a song.
Gloria Steinem, Writer: I wouldn't enter but now I would I suppose read something I'd written.
Julia Alvarez, Writer: As my talent? You know I worried about that. I mean there was a way in which I thought I could never be that, but it wasn't just because of the beauty, I just didn't have any displayable talents. I couldn't sing. I couldn't dance. I had an accent, so I couldn't do a dramatic part. And I sort of wondered what I would do.
Narrator: By 1960, the Miss America Pageant had become a national ritual. Each year, on the second Saturday in September, Americans gathered in their living rooms, switched on their sets, and settled in to see if their favorite contestant would capture the crown. Five times over the next decade, the Miss America Pageant was the highest-rated show of the year.
Pageant Broadcast: With her beauty, brains, poise and talent, the American girl has become the most envied and admired girl in the world.
Narrator: Richard Nixon claimed it was the only program his daughters were allowed to stay up late to watch.
And all across the country now, little girls dreamed of becoming Miss America.
Vicki Gold Levi: It was this time when I sort of call the debutante era of the pageant, sort of the late '50s, early '60s, when everyone looked like they were at a cotillion with the high white gloves and the crinolines and the big hoop skirts and they were for god, motherhood and apple pie. They wanted to be good mothers, good wives. They wanted to be supporters of what their husbands chose to do, they wanted world peace.
Pageant Broadcast: Parks "This is a presidential election year. If a qualified woman were running for president, how would you feel about voting for her and why?" Contestant: If the men candidates running were qualified, I feet I would vote against her. My reasons being that women are very high strung and emotional people. They aren't reliable enough when it comes to making a decision, a snap decision. I believe that a man in such a predicament would be able to make a more justifiable and better decision.
Pageant Broadcast: Parks "What in your opinion constitutes the ideal wife?" Contestant: "I imagine that the ideal wife depends entirely upon the viewpoint of the husband."
Pageant Broadcast: Parks "Some sociologists say that American women are usurping the place of the male in American life and have become too dominant. Do you agree or disagree and why?" Contestant: "I do agree w/that. I believe that there are far too many women in the working world. I can see many cases where this is a necessary arrangement, but I do feel that a woman's place is in the home with her husband and with her children."
Leonard Horn: The concept of Miss America as an ideal American woman was consistent with society's ideas of what an ideal young woman was. She was your everyday young girl who any man would be happy to call daughter, any man would be happy to call wife. Miss America was the American girl next door. She was an ideal that many women aspired to.
Narrator: Until now, the Pageant had managed to present a vision of ideal womanhood that most of the country shared. But by the mid-1960's, the all-American girl-next-door was changing fast.
At a time when bikinis and miniskirts were all the rage, Pageant contestants continued to wear the regulation one-piece suits and dresses that fell within two inches of their knees. While anti-war protestors marched through the nation's streets, Miss America was in Vietnam, touring with the USO. And in a moment of sexual revolution, the Pageant's ideal remained wholesome and pure.
Kathy Peiss, Historian: Well, the pageant bore no relationship to the reality of life in the United States at that moment. The height of the Vietnam War, a period of great civil unrest, the civil rights movement and black power movements at their height, and the beginnings of a feminist movement. The birth control pill, the counterculture, the origins of the gay and lesbian liberation movement. All of these suggested that the pageant was terribly out of date and that it really was no longer relevant to the lives of women.
Gloria Steinem: It was a very exhilarating, affirming, funny explosion of rebellion and consciousness. It was partly about taking off the symbols, the gloves, the little white gloves, the dyed to match shoes, and in the middle of all of that, the artificiality of the Miss America Contest was an obvious kind of cartoon.
Narrator: In the spring of 1968, a 27-year-old writer and editor named Robin Morgan decided to take a stand -- and with help from a group called New York Radical Women, she began laying plans for a protest at the annual Miss America Pageant.
"Where else could one find such a perfect combination of American values?" Morgan argued. "Racism, militarism, and capitalism -- all packaged in one ideal symbol: a woman."
Robin Morgan, Writer: It seemed to me you know a sort of epiphany moment because it was the nexus of so many issues, beauty standards, money, women's freedom, objectification of women, patriotism, and all of this somehow wrapped up in motherhood and apple pie or virgin hood and apple pie, in terms of Miss America. So it seemed like my god, what is not to dislike about this?
Narrator: Word of the protest soon reached Atlantic City, and pageant organizers braced themselves for the picket line.
It would be the first major demonstration of the women's liberation movement in the United States.
Robin Morgan: We had you know prepared for about maybe fifty people, and to do some guerilla theater, some songs, some chants, to picket on the boardwalk all day. What we had not counted on was that close to four hundred women showed up on the boardwalk. They came from all over. I mean they were carrying signs from Florida and from Wisconsin and some people drove from California, and that was just amazing. I mean it had clearly this protest tapped into something that was enormous and very, very moving.
Gloria Steinem: They put on the boardwalk a big trashcan and dumped in it all kinds of symbols of the stereotypical female role, a steno pad, a dust mop, an apron, a bra, all of these things. I think they never did burn those items because they couldn't get a fire permit. Just shows you we've been too law abiding.
Archival Footage: singing "Ain't she sweet. Makin' profit off her meat. Beauty sells she's told, so she's out pluggin' it. Ain't she sweet. Ain't she quaint with her face all full of paint. After all how can she face reality? Ain't she quaint."
Narrator: The demonstration soon drew a crowd of more than 600 spectators -- most of them men, and nearly all unsympathetic. One suggested that the protestors throw themselves into the Freedom Trash Can.
Robin Morgan: The threats, the epithets, the screams were mostly from guys who would, you know lean over the barricades and do the usual. I mean say sort of you know go back to Russia, you're commie pinko lesbian crazy broom riding witches. You name it. You're all too ugly to be in the Miss America Pageant.
Narrator: Inside Convention Hall, the Miss America contestants were running through one last rehearsal before show time. Outside, on the Boardwalk, the protestors were burning Bert Parks in effigy.
Parks was unfazed. When he got wind that one of the demonstrators was planning to infiltrate the Pageant finals that evening, he didn't miss a beat. "I'll grab her by the throat," he said, "and keep right on singing."
Pageant Broadcast: 1968 Bert Parks sings, and Judy Ford crowned...
Narrator: Judy Ann Ford, an eighteen-year-old gymnast from Illinois, was the first blonde in eleven years to be crowned Miss America. "I'm so glad," she gushed to the press that evening. "I feel like it's a breakthrough."
Meanwhile, just four blocks from Convention Hall, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, another ideal was about to be chosen.
Calling itself a "positive protest," the Miss Black America Pageant had been scheduled to begin at midnight, in the hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall. It was nearly three in the morning before nineteen-year-old Philadelphian Saundra Williams was crowned. "Miss America does not represent us," Williams told the audience. "With my title, I can show black women they, too, are beautiful."
Tricia Rose, Cultural Critic: Miss Black America is of course an effort to say well, look, trying to be like a white person is not what's at stake. But appreciating what is black is quite important. So Essence Magazine emerges. Black is beautiful, afros, you know, black women emphasizing that which is black as beautiful and so this was a way of saying, we exist as both a market and as a kind of esthetic really begins to take place in the late 1960s and gets even stronger in the late 70s and 80s.
Narrator: All the controversy of 1968 took its toll on Miss America. And before the year was out, Pepsi Cola, a sponsor of the Pageant for over eleven years, withdrew its support. "Miss America as run today," the company declared, "does not represent the changing values of our society."
Leonard Horn: Society was swirling around it but the Miss America pageant stayed the same, continuing to worship an outmoded ideal. In fact, the powers that be at the pageant never did learn. They never did learn. They didn't because they regard the Miss America pageant as sacrosanct. The Miss America pageant had developed a formula. The formula worked and nobody wanted to change it.
Pageant Broadcast: Bert Parks: "You know often I've heard it said, "Is Miss America relevant today? Well, is personal achievement relevant, is scholarship, is good citizenship relevant? We think it is. And we think it will be for a long time to come."
Narrator: The Miss America Pageant still drew an enormous audience -- reaching a peak, in 1970, of over 22 million households. But then the ratings started to slip -- and the Pageant was finally forced to catch up with the times.
Pageant Broadcast: Song and dance number: "Call Me Ms."
Gloria Steinem: It just seemed as if they were just trying to keep the lid on. You know they were just hoping against hope that...that somehow there wouldn't be too many demonstrations or that the contestants wouldn't stand up and raise a fist. You know somehow the people who ran the pageant were trying desperately to preserve it.
Narrator: The time had come for a new-style Miss America and in 1973, the Pageant found one in an aspiring attorney from Denver, Colorado named Rebecca Ann King.
Rebecca King Dreman, Miss America 1974: I started watching it, the Miss America Pageant as a young girl and I wasn't really sure that it was the kind of young woman that I was going to be, because I knew I was going to be president of the United States some day. The young women looked a little Barbie dollish to me. They looked a little too made up to me and a little too world peace and I just didn't think I was that kind of young woman.
Narrator: King was finishing up her senior year at Colorado Women's College, when a friend tried to talk her into entering the Miss America Pageant.
Rebecca King Dreman: I said what's in it for me? She said there's scholarship money so you can go on to law school. And so I said okay. I'll think about it, but don't tell anybody.
Pageant Broadcast: King "During the past 23 years, my grandmother often said to me, that the character of the nation is determined through its womanhood. Through the practice of law, I hope to make a productive contribution to mankind, and find the happiness of a fulfilled woman."
Rebecca King: I was really in it for the money. And I think it shocked the pageant when I said I was in it for the money. And I didn't think it was strange at all. I said what is it? It's a scholarship program, right? Isn't that what we're here for?
Pageant Broadcast: Parks "The winner of a 15,000 dollar scholarship and our new Miss America Rebecca Ann King, Miss Colorado..."
Rebecca King: Well I didn't fall apart as Miss America. Walked over, got the crown on, and I think my mother received maybe a hundred letters because I didn't cry. She didn't cry. What kind of Miss America do we have here on our hands walking down the runway not crying?
Narrator: For most Americans, the real surprise came later, when the new Miss America began speaking to the press -- and came out in favor of legalized abortion.
Rebecca King: It was right at the time of Roe v. Wade. I thought a woman ought to have the right to choose whether to continue with the pregnancy or not. And it just blew completely up and the Pageant never said not talk about it.
Kathy Peiss: Well the Miss America pageant in the 1970's is faced with the growing politicization of women on both the left and the right. And one of the key moments of course is the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. So when Miss America comes out as pro-choice, inserting a political stand in the Pageant which had always seen itself as nonpolitical or apolitical it really is an important moment.
Rebecca King: The pageant has always been a little behind the times, but it was definitely the '70s. It was time for people to move on and the pageant was trying.
Narrator: The national press applauded Miss America's new image. Even feminists, who had been protesting against the Pageant for half a decade, now called off their war and invited King to speak at the National Organization for Women's annual convention.
Still Miss America's television audience continued to shrink, edged out by competition from new cable networks and dismissed by younger viewers as old-fashioned.
Leonard Horn: I think that a large number of people began not watching the Miss American pageant probably about the mid-70s. The ideals upon which the Miss America pageant appeared to rest no longer seemed very exciting or relevant. And I think we lost a generation of people.
Narrator: By the late 1970's, Pageant organizers were desperate for viewers and casting about for ways to update the show. So they decided to fire Bert Parks, Miss America's master of ceremonies for a quarter of a century.
It was later reported that the Pageant's sponsors considered 65-year-old Parks "too old and too out of touch." The decision caused such an uproar that Tonight Show host Johnny Carson even held an on-air campaign to get Parks reinstated. The Pageant replaced him anyway.
But a new host did not bring new viewers.
Tricia Rose: I was a teenager in the late-70s, and I, my recollection of the Pageant was that it just being a New Yorker, it just didn't seem to reflect what the City looked like to me. So the pageant was a sort of helpful travelscape for me like oh this is what women look like in Texas and Florida. I was pretty much sure that the most blonde was going to be in the top two if not the number one slot. If a brunette was going to win, it was because of some other extraordinary traits that were compensating, but I very much understood it as a tall, blonde, you know, Southern woman's festival.
Margaret Cho: My father was very into it. And then, at one point when I was a little girl, I said oh I want to be one of those contestants. I want to grow up and do that, and he said no, oh no, you cannot do that, no. You know like, and I took it to mean that the beauty pageant was not open to all women. I mean my father thought that this whole pageant was fascinating and we would pick out the winners, but I was not allowed to even entertain the fantasy of becoming one of these women. And I thought well maybe I'm just not pretty enough. Maybe I'm just not white.
Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas 1980: I remember always sitting in front of the television watching the Miss America every single year when I was a little kid, and I was the only one watching. Everybody else kind of went to bed, and I would be so excited, mom, mom, I got a ... I chose the first runner up or the second runner up. But the interesting thing about that, I always kind of saw myself on stage as well, although no one looked like me. There was no one who looked like me.
Narrator: Twenty-year-old Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa 1970, had been the first African-American woman ever to compete in Atlantic City. In the decade that followed, there had been just ten other black contestants -- and of those, only one had made the top five: Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas 1980.
Lencola Sullivan: You know I made history that night by being the first black woman to ever make top five in the Miss America Pageant's history. And even though that was wonderful, of course I was sad that I didn't make it to the top and didn't walk away with the...the title of Miss America. That was actually one of the questions that was asked of me when I competed, was...is America ready for a black woman to become Miss America? And I said if Arkansas is ready, America is ready, but obviously America wasn't ready.
Narrator: But in 1983, the 61st year of the Miss America Pageant, everything suddenly changed.
Pageant Broadcast: 1983 Vanessa Williams singing and being crowned.
Narrator: A twenty-year-old musical theater major at Syracuse University, Williams had entered the Pageant in the hope of breaking into show business. Like so many Miss America before her, she wanted to be a star. But first, she would become a political symbol.
To some, the crowning of a black Miss America was a milestone in the struggle against bigotry. "Thank God I have lived long enough," said Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, "that this nation has been able to select the beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America."
Kimberly Aiken Cockerham, Miss America 1994: I remember watching the pageant, and I don't know that I had watched it before and I remember her singing. I remember her performance. I remember her being crowned, I remember thinking wow, she looks like me. This is something that I could do. I had never to that point thought that Miss America was something that was for me or something that I could do. So I think that that was a turning point for me. I think everybody was shocked, excited and just looking forward to having a year where there was a Miss America that was black and would get to do all the great things that every other Miss America had ever done. So I think it was just a time of excitement and anticipation.
Narrator: Williams' fans made her the most heavily-booked Miss America in the Pageant's history. Not quite ten months into her reign, she had already earned a record $125,000 in fees.
William Goldman: I remember talking to some pageant people and they said that the best Miss Americas they ever had was Vanessa Williams. Apparently she was just sensational. She was just the most verbal, bright, terrific seller of the Miss America contest they'd ever had.
Narrator: But there were those who considered Williams' victory an affront. For the first time, Miss America received death threats and hate mail. When she made appearances in the South, armed guards had to be posted at her hotel room door. And even in the African-American community, there were those who assailed her for not being "black" enough.
Then, in July of 1984, Williams was informed that an unauthorized pictorial, featuring explicit nude photos she had posed for two years earlier, was about to be published in Penthouse magazine. Pageant officials were quick to respond.
Archival: L. Horn press conference: "We do not believe that under the content and spirit of the rules as well as the contracts as well as the image of Miss America that she should remain Miss America and still give this particular program the vitality as well as the respect to which it is entitled. If we don't draw the line here, where do you draw the line?"
Leonard Horn: The sponsors were waiting on the sidelines. We had received a warning that if we didn't handle this right, it didn't turn out right, they were going to pull out. If they pulled out at the end of July, there would have been no money and no Miss American pageant in 1984. And there would not be a Miss America pageant today. That's how close we came.
Narrator: Williams was given 72 hours to resign. She would be allowed to keep her scholarship and the money she had earned, but her title would be given to the first runner-up, Suzette Charles.
Archival/Vanessa Williams: "It is one thing to face up to a mistake that one makes in youth. But it is almost totally devastating to have to share it with the American public and the world at large as both a human being and as Miss America. I put the session in the back of my mind and believed the photos would never be used for any purpose as the photographer had verbally assured me. I never consented to the publication or the use of these photographs in any manner.
Narrator: It was the first time in the Pageant's six-decade history that a Miss America was asked to give up her crown.
Kim Aiken: A lot of people were very disappointed. And I think any community, any minority community looks to their role models that are so accepted and are so loved by everybody as a point of inspiration, and maybe at that point it is, you are let down that okay, these are choices that she made that have caused a lot of embarrassment to her and her family but also to the black community.
Tricia Rose: I do remember feeling ... incredibly sorry for her. I just felt that she was carrying the weight of this whole history of vicious stereotypes about black women and simply by trying to win the Pageant, she was in a sense trying to counter many of those stereotypes. And then to have these pictures emerge to undermine it was probably the most vicious way to have it because I would be stunned if she was the first Pageant contestant to have tried to raise money as a model by doing these kinds of pictures. I would be stunned if she were the first. But I wouldn't be surprised if people were more interested in finding hers to undermine it because she in a sense you know, by definition threw the rest of the contestants into stark relief.
Narrator:The Vanessa Williams issue of Penthouse would ultimately bring in over 20 million dollars, the magazine's all-time, single-issue sales record.
Margaret Cho: You know what's great about it is that she's the only Miss America that anybody remembers, and she's the only one that ever really became a star and that is what's really great is that her ... she has the most kiss my ass story that you can triumph over anything so she's certainly a big hero of mine.
Narrator: For a time, the scandal revived public interest in the Miss America Pageant, and ticket sales for the 1984 finals rose by twenty percent.
That night, after only two months as Miss America, Suzette Charles walked the Convention Hall runway to a standing ovation, before crowning her successor: 20-year-old Sharlene Wells, a tall, blonde Mormon whom USA Today described as "squeaky-clean."
Narrator: Confronted now by the possibility of scandals that Lenora Slaughter never could have imagined, Pageant directors drew up a new contestant contract, gradually adding dozens of regulations to which potential Miss Americas were subject.
Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998: That you've always been female, is one. Is that hilarious? You have to sign a contract saying I've always been female. There is, there's a clause in the contract that you have never posed in the nude there's always a clause that you can't have ever, you can't be the natural or adoptive parent of a child that you have never done anything that could possibly be interpreted as illegal, immoral, unethical, whatever. And everybody signs the contract, but who didn't cheat on a second grade math test, you know what I mean?
Narrator: With the changes in the contract came a renewed campaign to portray Miss America as a "thinking woman" who could make a positive contribution to society. In 1989, Pageant officials introduced a new competition called "the platform," which required contestants to demonstrate on ongoing commitment to a social problem -- and to back it up with community service.
Pageant Footage: Miss Florida 'Hello from the Sunshine State. I'm devoted to promoting unity through the celebration of our cultural diversity' ... Miss North Dakota, 'I am devoted to encouraging youth to postpone their sexual activities ...'
Kate Shindle: It's one of those things that people love to make fun of. I'd love to, I support world peace and I want to give everyone a flower. It's, it's the kind of stereotype that we abhor that we really want to get away from, and the way of doing that at least in my mind is to show that we can walk the walk as well.
Pageant Footage: Kate Shindle being crowned? And talking about AIDS
Kate Shindle: Because I was talking about AIDS which was something people don't necessarily associate with the sort of conservative, white bread grass roots Miss America organization, it got a lot of media attention I took some flack for talking to students about sexual activity, certainly about abstinence but also about safer sex. There are people who don't want you to come to their high school and say things like that. But I will tell you that Miss America got me so much access. The fact that I was invited to speak at middle and high schools in middle America where they would never never invite an AIDS activist to come and speak to their kids. But they'll roll out the red carpet for Miss America and hope she brings her crown was an enormous part of what I felt was effective during that year.
Narrator: More than eighty years after the first contest was held in Atlantic City, the Miss America Pageant still endures. It is one of the longest-running television programs in American history, seen by more than a billion people since its first broadcast in 1954.
It is also the single largest scholarship organization for women in the world. Each year, 1200 state and local pageants are franchised by the Miss America Organization. And each year, more than 10,000 young women enter those contests, all of them hoping Miss America's crown will change their lives.
Kim Aiken: I think every contestant that comes to Miss America has a different agenda. Some contestants and I remember even my year said, I don't want to win this pageant, I really just want to be on TV. Some contestants come there because they want to be discovered by a modeling agency or they want to go into acting or broadcasting. Many contestants go because of their social activism. Many contestants go just because they have this idea of Miss America with the crown and the walking down the runway and many contestants go for that reason.
Pageant Broadcast: 50's contestant: I would love to be your next Miss America . . . it would enable me to further my studies at Sacramento State College ... It would also give the opportunity to meet many wonderful people that I wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to meet ... and it would considerably broaden my outlook on life ... I would love to be your next Miss America.
Margaret Cho: I think that women's roles have changed so much in the last twenty years that we are constantly looking for the outside world to tell us who we are and that we really search for this sure identity, for this sure being of who we are and the pageant is one way of defining ourselves.
Sarah Banet-Weiser: It's not you either love it or you hate it. It's not it's either good or bad. It just doesn't fit that neatly into one of those boxes. I think that what civic rituals do is that they are stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And I think that along with considering the Miss America Pageant as popular culture we needed to consider it as a civic ritual, as something that is about imagining citizenship and imagining, who we are, why we're here, what we're for.
William Goldman: I wonder, I don't know, do little girls now of six and seven dream of being Miss America? I don't know. Or do they dream of replacing Bill Gates, I have no idea.