Beyond the tiara: How the Miss America pageant launched careers

The Miss America pageant, writes Amy Argetsinger in “There She Was,” gave women a start in the fields of broadcasting, politics, and entertainment.  

Atria/One Signal Publishers

What started in the 1920s as a Prohibition-era beauty contest on New Jersey’s Atlantic City boardwalk has evolved into the Miss America pageant, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. For decades, the contest drew fierce criticism for its emphasis on appearances and for its organizers’ slowness to respond to changes in women’s roles. 

Yet the pageant, which takes place Dec. 12-16, continues to appeal to young women. What keeps them vying for a title that many people think of as outdated? The best person to answer this question may well be Amy Argetsinger, editor of The Washington Post’s style section and an unapologetic Miss America enthusiast. In “There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America,” she considers not only the pageant’s storied past, but also its relevance in the 21st century.

The secret ingredient behind the pageant’s longevity was the access it provided many young women to careers in broadcasting. Starting in the 1970s, the networks began to see promise in former Miss America contestants, because they were “looking for telegenic women with speaking skills at the same time the pageant, with a new cohort of ambitious, outspoken young boomers, had become a reliable pipeline of them,” writes Argetsinger. For example, Phyllis George, who was the 1971 Miss America, became a television star better known for her TV work than for the crown she had worn. 

The same could be said for Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host, who won the title in 1989. Carlson became the first former Miss America to head the organization in 2018, and during her short tenure she launched the Miss America 2.0 initiative, part of an attempt to “redefine what this crazy, lofty, dusty title was supposed to mean in a changing world,” Argetsinger writes. Under Carlson’s direction, the controversial swimsuit competition was dropped. 

After a leadership struggle in 2019, Carlson stepped down and Shantel Krebs, a contestant in 1997 and former secretary of state for South Dakota, took over the operation.

The recent shake-up in top leadership is indicative of the struggles the Miss America organization has faced over the years, not least of which is the contest’s slackening grip on Americans’ attention. At its peak in 1970, the broadcast drew in roughly 80 million viewers while half a century later, in 2019, viewership hit an all-time low at 3.6 million. 

As viewership lagged, the organization faced criticism that the contest did not accurately represent America’s diverse population. A Black woman didn’t compete until 1970, and the first woman of color to be crowned was Vanessa Williams, in 1983. She was stripped of her title, however, after nude photographs of her surfaced, which caused a scandal and tarnished the pageant’s squeaky-clean reputation in the eyes of its organizers. Critics saw evidence of racism at work in the treatment Williams received.

Argetsinger makes clear that the central issue is the organization’s struggle to keep up with the ever-changing definition of a modern American woman. But the history she spotlights also demonstrates that the pageant is capable of change. Over and over, the institution has transformed itself to meet the evolving times, even if one could argue that it was woefully behind schedule. 

Now, as the organization prepares to crown a new winner on Dec. 16 after a year off because of the coronavirus pandemic, the leadership once again stands at a crossroads. Which path will best carry the contest into the 21st century and recapture the magic that once drew in tens of millions of viewers? 

Certainly, Americans’ love of drama and competition works in the pageant’s favor, but so does the organization’s tenacity, honed over the last century.  

Reading “There She Was,” a passionate and eye-opening history of an iconic and surprisingly adaptable American organization, is enough to inspire hope that a new day for Miss America might not be far off.

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