“To Harrah’s. HARRAH’S!” slurred the woman getting on the mostly empty Greyhound bus to Atlantic City at 4 pm on Sunday. The bus smelled like Port Authority and cleaning fluid. Its limited riders were an array of earth’s varietals only visible on mass land transit: an exhausted traveler returning home to New Jersey with unwieldy luggage in tow, two wide-eyed young women dreaming of a lucky streak, an apparent expert who wearily boasted, “I’ve been dealing with Greyhound for years.”
After a two hour-plus journey, the bus deposited us at Caesar’s Palace, a brief walk from the Boardwalk, where what remains of Atlantic City still chugs along. Sunset brought a chill to the beach, hinting at the bleakness of winter to come. A slow tide of shivery women in skintight dresses and sky-high heels oozed down the rickety wood promenade, towards Boardwalk Hall, home of the Miss America Pageant, now in its 95th year.
The ones who didn’t want to teeter in their heels took pedicabs that were merely pushed by men, which meant they didn’t end up moving much faster than those walking. One pedicab group held precious cargo on their laps: clear boxes with crowns in them, the intended recipients unclear.
These women weren’t contestants, though they were mostly part of the pageant circuit, or adjacent to it. They wore sashes and crowns indicating their past honors, like Miss Connecticut Teen, who walked around in bejeweled flats until she got to the Hall, where she switched to intensely high sparkly heels. As it grew closer to show time, the number of posed group photos increased. ABC started shooting b-roll of a small group of screaming fans that would look larger on television. Men in suits were sprinkled throughout the crowd, an afterthought. It felt like televised prom.
Words unlikely to be used to describe this milieu are the ones Miss America most wants to be associated with: “Style, Service, Scholarship and Success,” the Organization’s slogan, represented by the four points on the Miss America crown. (fourpoints was also the name of the former MAO magazine.) They’re not words that the average American necessarily associates with the brand, but they’re the ones Miss America—or at least the Organization she belongs to—wants you to remember.
The first three nights of Miss America aren’t seen outside of Atlantic City; Sunday, the fourth, is the only one shown on TV. This year, ABC did their darndest to make sure people would tune in, packing the stage with a slew of random, network-affiliated celebrity judges. Host Chris Harrison of The Bachelor was back, along with Brooke Burke, and music curator Nick Jonas, who chose “Worth It” by Fifth Harmony as the song the women would perform the swimsuit part of the competition to. The cherry on top was the return of Vanessa Williams, the only winner the pageant ever forced to resign, and the first black Miss America to boot.
The swimsuit portion of the program is the part of the pageant that has long gotten the most negative attention; it was on this very boardwalk in 1968 where the term “bra-burning” inaccurately became a common way to describe feminists for years to come.
1968 became infamous, but protests actually continued for years, with the tension remaining static: Groups like the National Organization for Women argued that the pageant was oppressive for women, while the women partaking argued, as Miss Wyoming 1974 Cheryl Johnson did, that “in essence they’re telling us is that you’re wrong for standing up there on stage. They’re going to tell us how to run our own lives.”
“We’re not telling them that,” she added.
The feminists were fighting an uphill battle, but a semi-successful one in the end. By arguing that Miss America was set up according to archaic standards, they influenced the pageant’s viewership—and maybe even the pageant itself. As the MAO’s own website explains, in the 1970s, “As the momentum of the women’s movement grew, the women of Miss America were increasingly turning their attention to professional goals.”
Three decades later, the organization would attempt to drop one of their more oppressive requirements, that participants must admit that they’ve never been divorced or had an abortion before being allowed to compete. As the AP reported in 1999 of the ban on those women from competing:
The state pageants are expected to continue fighting it.
“Miss America has a long history of high moral standards and traditions, and opposed to anything that changes that,” said Libby Taylor, executive director of the Miss Kentucky Pageant and president of the National Association of Miss America State Pageants.
Leonard C. Horn, the longtime CEO of the pageant who stepped down last year after 30 years with the organization, said the rule change was a mistake.
“It is totally unnecessary and will ultimately lead to the destruction of the Miss America Program,” he said.
Citing Miss America as “your ideal,” Horn went on to say that, “It’s acceptable in today’s society, but no one could argue that an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion is ideal. A failed marriage is not an ideal. It’s acceptable and it happens, but it’s not an ideal.”
It took awhile for Boardwalk Hall to get close to full, and it never did actually entirely did max out its 10,000-plus seats. Women and girls in the audience arranged themselves so their sparkly signs and professionally made banners were the most visible, and acquainted themselves with those next to them. (“I’m sitting next to Miss Florida’s sorority roommate,” the middle-aged woman in front of me texted.) There was wide, whispered wondering about whether the room would properly fill up, as women wearing pins with the faces of other women on them sipped glasses of white wine and placated their daughters with fries. The closer to the stage you got, the fancier the finery became; after all, those were the people who would definitely be on television.
An hour before the live broadcast began, Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev gave out Honorary Miss America titles to several women whose husbands had died while in the military. To the mostly empty venue, Kazantsev shared their sad stories, seemingly choking up at one point herself, as a stage full of past Actual Miss Americas—including Gretchen Carlson—welcomed the women into their ranks. Then, Miss America 2002 sang the National Anthem. At one point, the Hall’s apparently famous organ played. The room felt sort of like a gymnasium, gussied up.
Kazantev’s history as a (former) mean girl who hazed her sorority sisters hasn’t appeared to have tainted her reign; the audience loudly welcomed her. She’d won on the platform “Love Shouldn’t Hurt: Protecting Women Against Domestic Violence,” a topic only slightly more controversial than most that are chosen by contestants since that premise started in 1989, things like bullying, or the new Miss America, 20-year-old Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell’s platform: “Healthy Children, Strong America.”
“Miss America is really about service,” the Miss America Organization CEO Sam Haskell said in a press conference Sunday night after they’d crowned Cantrell. “Is Miss America about red carpets and glamour? Absolutely. Is Miss America about singing the National Anthem—and absolutely with someone like Betty Cantrell, I’m sure we’ll be booking her a lot to do that—but what Miss America is really about is about service. And that’s what we’re most proud of. That’s what we try to focus on. Miss America has to have a service heart, and she has to have a heart for service.”
With this heart for service, Cantrell will spend her year traveling “approximately 20,000 miles a month, changing her location every 18 to 36 hours,” the Organization explains on their website. “She tours the nation reaching out to support her ideals, committed to helping others.”
Cantrell was dubbed a surprise win by the many non-experts who watched her for two hours Sunday night; she tripped twice on her white crop-top dress, and basically flubbed the question posed to her about “deflategate.” (She had to have it repeated to her, and still struggled to answer it.) But her vocal performance of “Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly apparently knocked the judges’s socks off, talent-wise. Her undeniable beauty probably didn’t hurt, but in the Hall, the thing that was the clearest was her smile. Every time she learned she’d progressed further in the competition, it looked like the sun was beaming out of her face.
Last year, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver put together a scathing package on supposed $45 million Miss America makes “available” annually to its contestants in scholarship funds. Oliver and his writers pointed out that the Miss America Organization was drastically overstating the amount of money it gave away through its “scholarship program,” and Miss America sort of conceded this report was true.
This year, in advance of the pageant, and in the spirit of “full transparency,” the MAO released an extensive press packet outlining how much money they actually give away. “While accurate,” they wrote of the $45 million, “this figure did not convey the actual acceptance and utilization of scholarships, especially in the form of in-kind tuition waivers.” The press release acknowledged that in 2014, MAO actually only gave out about $6 million.
Basically, Miss America was counting money that doesn’t actually make it into the hands of its participants as money that they “made available” to the women. Through a hypothetical situation, they explain how winners of “Miss State” get money from their placement in Miss America, with additional “in-kind tuition waivers” offered by a variety of schools. Previously, the Miss American Organization counted all of these scholarship offers from different schools together, despite the fact that the Miss State in question can only accept one. Now, they explain, they’ve altered their presentation of that hypothetical money, to specify that only money actually accepted counts towards their total.
Miss America still claims that despite their clarification, the Organization “remains the nation’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women” (though, again, much of that money comes from their local state pageants). The money received by participants who don’t win Miss America is broken down below, but what it doesn’t account for is how much these women must spend to even get to this stage in pageant participation. Winning $1,000 in “non-finalist talent” is a drop in the bucket for the years spent on personal grooming, music lessons, travel to pageants, etc.—which reports indicate can total over ten grand, depending on how long you’ve been doing the circuit. (The Organization claims “It does not cost a cent to compete in the Miss America program—all you need is commitment, perseverance, talent and ambition.”)
But the drive remains prevalent, at least for some. “Young women at home, can you see yourself competing to be Miss America?” Brooke Burke asked the audience at the beginning of the show. The question was phrased to seem rhetorical.
The return of Vanessa Williams to Sunday night’s special as Head Judge was heralded as quite a big deal, because of the scandal that dethroned her and her subsequent fame despite (or because of) it. After being introduced, Williams sang “Oh How the Years Go By” by Amy Grant, a song clearly chosen for its poignant lyrics :
There were times we stumbled/ They thought they had us down
But we came around/ How we rolled and rambled
We got lost and we got found/ Now we’re back on solid ground, yeah
As she performed, the backdrop behind her showed photos and snapshots of her life—including headlines like “Miss America Gives Up Crown” and the People magazine cover “I’ve Hit Rock Bottom.” (“I feel as if I were just a sacrificial lamb. The past just came up and kicked me. I felt betrayed and violated, like I had been raped,” Williams said then.)
Though the press release announcing Williams’s return made no reference to why she’d been ousted from the pageant, the event would have to—and the manner in which they’d do this was reported as contentious. Before the show aired, according to TMZ, “the Miss America people were under the impression Vanessa would apologize for her actions, and then they would give her the crown,” while Williams reportedly had expected the opposite to occur.
Whether that report was accurate or not, Williams got her way: she was welcome back to the stage with a standing ovation. Calling himself her “close friend” for over three decades, CEO Haskell apologized to Williams (“Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then...”) for her having to resign.
“I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be,” he said, as her mother beamed from the audience.
Haskell has been credited with Miss America’s current relevance in society at large, bringing the pageant back to ABC in 2010 and back to Atlantic City in 2013. (He’s also apparently thankful of for the John Oliver scholarship snafu. “Now we have become transparent,” he said in an interview. “We now know exactly what we’re giving out and awarding, and we’re changing our language. We will never again say $45 million is available. We’re just going to talk about what’s awarded. So thank you, John Oliver.”)
“Sam, so unexpected but so beautiful,” Williams said, before thanking her publicist and then Haskins for his “leadership, your integrity, and your bringing this pageant back to what it ought to be.” Later, during the post-show press conference, she’d add, somewhat confusingly, “It’s wonderful to be back to—I don’t even know how to say... the Miss America Pageant... but I wanted to say, whatever the upgrade is on the iPhone, it’s not 2.0, but it’s running at top speed and it’s off the Richter scale and I’m happy to be part of the sisterhood again.”
Haskell and Williams seemed to indicate that Miss America is changing, but other evidence suggests that, as it has been for years, it’s on its last legs. What should the pageant be? What was it before? Bringing it back to Atlantic City certainly hasn’t returned it to its imaginary halcyon days, a time when the pageant was about more than just women in bathing suits—that’s literally what Miss America started as in New Jersey. And, while bringing it to ABC might bring it more eyes, it doesn’t really bring it more class or focus on service; during the broadcast, the ABC cameramen kept flicking to Williams’s immobile face when Miss South Carolina—who is black—was shown on screen, much the way they’d cut to country music star Brett Eldredge looking serious during the swimsuit competition.
The relationship between packaging and substance seems permanently and irreparably different than what the pageant thinks it is. The Miss American Organization says substance and projects sequins. As with any of its winners, the outside glitz overpowers the volunteer work.
Anyway, the underlying purpose of the pageant for the participants seems very clear. They’re here to get famous, or if they don’t get that, successful. Williams wasn’t just brought back because of her dramatic exit, or her historical legacy; she was brought back because she is arguably the most famous Miss America ever. Whether she would have achieved her success in entertainment without the platform is unclear; it’s safe to say most contestants don’t, despite many of them declaring they’d like to go into entertainment. (Runner-up chosen careers this year at least include leading non-profits or going to medical school.)
Once Williams was shepherded to the judging table Sunday night, the focus on the past was put where it belonged. The show’s hype woman, Dena Blizzard, former Miss Jersey 1975, consistently reminded the audience to hold up their signs and to applaud and cheer loudly during breaks (“These signs are so important when we’re on TV”)—though cautioned them to “know who is sitting next to you,” so as not to insult a girl from another state with friends and family nearby. Her job took on a more meaningful role when she started interviewing the 37 women who were not in the final 15, who would spend the rest of the competition on stage watching their peers get closer to winning the crown.
Most thanked their friends and family, because that’s what the audience appeared to be made of: at points, it felt like potentially the only people in America who cared about Miss America were the several thousand people sitting in Boardwalk Hall. Blizzard also pointed out the former “state contestants who come back every year” in the audience, asking the fair smattering of them to stand up and receive a round of applause.
This small-town quality of the pageant became more apparent when you watched the screens that were broadcasting what people at home could see. The space seemed more packed and grand, the dresses sparklier, the famous people more famous. But even on those big screens, the talent portion of the program seemed more talent-show than television-worthy, and the 20-second answers to the most important questions of our sociopolitical time (on Donald Trump, Planned Parenthood, Kim Davis, Tom Brady, Black Lives Matter and more) were entirely beside the point. The actual judging is arcane and uninteresting; the top 15 women were chosen by preliminary judges that no one knows, and the criteria by which the celebrity judges rank those 15 women is even more mysterious.
After surging in the ratings with its return to ABC, Miss America’s popularity has cooled. The ratings for Sunday night’s broadcast remained the same as last year, after dropping considerably from the year before when it re-debuted, at roughly 7 million.
That’s a far cry from the once 75 million viewers who watched the first full Miss America Pageant when it was broadcast in 1959. Much of this, it has been argued, has to do with the easy way fame is achieved now. Women don’t need Miss America to become famous, but Miss America needs them. The pageant has become a spectacle for spectacle’s sake, a token of the past, whereas it was once a sign of its time. It makes news for a brief news cycle, then lies dormant for a year, while Miss America travels the country, popping up in the local news wherever she lands.
What is Miss America’s purpose? What is its future? “Style, Service, Scholarship and Success.” Three out of those four s’s have to do with helping just one individual girl, not America at large—a focus that perhaps reflects a truer aspect of our national dream.
That night I left the Hall before Betty Cantrell was crowned; I had a bus to catch if I didn’t want to be stuck in Atlantic City overnight. The Boardwalk was almost empty, with only a few mothers with their young daughters leaving to beat the rush. “It’s freezing out,” a security guard griped, a sentiment all the women inside likely would echo once they exited. The Atlantic City Bus Terminal was less than nothing to remark on, the Greyhound back full of old men who smelled like cigarettes. The bus driver reminded everyone that drinking alcohol was not permitted. The wifi didn’t work. As we hit the highway, and my fellow travelers started to fall asleep, Betty Cantrell was probably grinning ear-to-ear, her reign as Miss America just beginning.
Style. Service. Scholarship. Success. Say it one more time.
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Images via AP, Author, Getty. Lede image AP/Bobby Finger.