Miss America turns 100, is she still relevant? - GulfToday

Miss America turns 100, is she still relevant?


Virginia's Camille Schrier (L) walks the stage after winning the Miss America competition at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville on Dec.19, 2019. AP

As Miss America turns 100, a major question remains unanswered: Is she still relevant? The glitzy competition was born from a 1921 Atlantic City beauty contest, just a year after women were given the right to vote, and maintains a complicated presence in an American culture that has since undergone multiple waves of feminism.

Participation and viewership has dropped since its 1960s heyday — when the next Miss American is crowned on Thursday, her coronation will only be available to stream via NBC’s Peacock service, shunted from her primetime broadcast throne.

Faithful Miss America organisers and enthusiasts contend the annual ritual is here to stay and will keep changing with the times. And even though they may not have indeed devised a plan for world peace, many participants say the organisation — billed as one of the largest providers of scholarship assistance to young women — has been life-altering, opening doors for them professionally and personally. And they believe others should have the same opportunities.

MissAmerica-1952 Contenders for the title of Miss America line up on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City on Sept.2,1952. AP

“I think that people have the wrong idea about what Miss America is all about because it’s not just about getting dressed up and being prim and proper and being perfect on stage,” said Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap, who graduated from college debt-free, founded a public relations firm and become a TV personality. Fans of Miss America often cheer on their state’s contender like they would for a local sports team. Yet some have voiced disappointment about some of the competition’s attempts to adapt to contemporary mores and evolve from its regressive beginnings.

“It’s in kind of a bind because as it tries to progress, it not only loses its original identity, but becomes less entertaining to the people who like to watch it,” said Margot Mifflin, author of “Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood.” Fans, she said, are split over the trajectory of the competition — no longer “pageant.” Some want it to be about “beauty and fitness” while others embrace the move toward focusing on leadership, talent and communication skills, she said.

MissAmerica100 Miss America 1989 Gretchen Carlson (L) and first runner up, Maryland's Virginia Cha, (C) watch as Missouri's Debbye Turner throws her arms up in jubilation after winning Miss America 1990 in Atlantic City. AP

Meanwhile, the competition is still engulfed by calls for greater diversity. In the late 1930s, 40s and 50s, minority women were excluded by “rule number seven,” which stated contestants had to be “of good health and of the white race.”

1968 saw a Miss Black America Contest, held to revolt against the lack of diversity, as well as a protest by several hundred women organised by the feminist group New York Radical Women, which called Miss America “an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.”

It wasn’t until 1984 that the first Black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned — and she relinquished her title over a nude photo scandal, receiving an apology from the organization only in 2015. At least 11 minority women have won the title in all.

MissAmerica-1940 Contestants in the first Miss America pageant line up for the judges in Atlantic City in September 1921. AP

Miss America President and CEO Shantel Krebs, a former South Dakota secretary of state who does not take a salary, contends the Miss America organization is “committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.” She said the event has also been at “the center of social issues” over the past 100 years, noting winners have taken on serious modern-day issues during their reigns, from HIV/Aids awareness to the scourge of opioid abuse. But Mifflin notes the modernisation of the competition has happened “well behind the broader culture in terms of women’s progress.”

It wasn’t until 2018 that the judging on physical appearance was eliminated, with the help of former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, who ended up having to step down as board chair. Carlson was part of an all-female leadership team that took over following an email scandal in which male leaders insulted former Miss Americas, denigrating their appearance and intelligence. While some welcomed the changes as a way to make the event more relevant, many state organisations rebelled against the new leadership team.

Associated Press

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