The clerk at the Holiday Inn looks me up and down and asks me if I’m here for the Miss America pageant.
He winks. “You’re competing?”
I roll my eyes. The lobby smells like bleach and floor wax.
It’s obvious I’m not competing. It’s so obvious that it’s become a running joke. I tell my friends I can’t hang out the night of the pageant which is also my 37th birthday because I’ll be at the pageant. “Why?” they ask. “I’m competing,” I say. They all laugh. Everyone laughs too hard at this joke. Even my mom responds to my joke by reminding me that my sister Cathy would have done well in a pageant. I think she means blonde, busty, and super good at makeup and hair. It still hurts a little.
Even though I’m a feminist and try to be body positive and say things like, “Everyone is beautiful,” inside I’m still the underweight girl with the crooked teeth, large blue glasses, short fluffy hair, and an insatiable desire to share the things I read in the encyclopedia. Still the girl who Tim B. called “horse mouth” in eighth grade, and who Damon T., relentlessly kicked in AP Biology my freshman year because he said I was ugly and got uglier when I opened my mouth. And now, I live a life on the internet where strangers tell me I have “Seabiscuit teeth” (Tim B., is that you?).
But a small part of me wishes I looked like a pageant queen. A lot of us wish that; we wish that we could somehow possess the beauty and talent that would let us win at the losing game of being a woman. That’s why pageants still exist. And that’s why I’m here: to witness the enduring allure of a crown and a dress and a stage. But the fantasy is coming unraveled.
Instead of Atlantic City, the pageant is in Connecticut. Miss America is near death and it’s partially Gretchen Carlson’s fault.
Before the blonde bob and the Fox News job, before that job went to hell, and before Carlson blew the whistle on the widespread sexual harassment at Fox News, she was crowned Miss America in 1989. Her win came the same year that the pageant rules changed to make talent 50 percent of the voting. Carlson, a violin prodigy and Stanford student, gave an energetic performance. Her interviews were so holy the judges called her the Sunday School teacher. When she was crowned Miss America, she cried while wearing a sparkly blue dress with silver accents.
Carlson returned to Miss America in 2018, shortly after suing Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, for which she ardently believes she invented MeToo (she didn’t), and took over the Miss America Organization (MAO) as the board chair.
The MAO needed its own makeover, not to mention a bit of Carlson’s newfound MeToo clout. It recently had its own scandal after emails from then CEO Sam Haskell and other members of the organization were leaked. They said horrible nasty things about the bodies of the former Miss Americas. In one of the emails, lead telecast writer Lewis Friedman called former Miss America Mallory Hagan a “blimp,” and Haskell called former Miss Americas “cunts.” Haskell eventually stepped down and Carlson, the self-proclaimed leader of harassment and assault survivors, took over the organization. She was supposed to modernize Miss America. She was supposed to—well, not make it feminist, no one here likes that word—but make it less regressive, if not progressive.
Carlson canceled the swimsuit portion of the competition and then she changed the evening portion to a red carpet where the contestants would answer more questions. (That changed again in 2020 when finalists were required to pitch a “social impact initiative,” as well as answer an on-stage question). To be fair, it was a good instinct. From the moment she was crowned Miss America, Carlson has spoken out against the infamous swimsuit portion of the competition. She wanted to shift the emphasis away from women’s bodies to the women themselves. But the pageant has always been about the body and the change was forced on an institution deeply rooted in traditional forms of femininity. The Miss Americas didn’t like it.
Not that it mattered—even before the leaked emails, the MAO had left the pageant in a precarious situation. Television ratings were dismal. By 2017 only 5.35 million people watched the pageant and, in 2018, that number dropped 19 percent to 4.34 million. With those dwindling viewership numbers, ABC dumped them. To add insult to injury, the pageant was basically homeless; in 2018 it moved from Atlantic City to Las Vegas, but didn’t truly have a home.
The message boards grumbled that Miss America had become the Gretchen Carlson show and former Miss Americas took public swings at Carlson. The 2004 winner Ericka Dunlap openly railed against Carlson, telling me in an interview for the Columbia Journalism Review that MeToo has nothing to do with the pageant. “Unless a contestant uses that as her issue of concern, as her platform issue. #MeToo and Miss America are completely mutually exclusive,” Dunlap said. “There’s no reason for us to overlap these two movements, organizations, ideals, they don’t coincide.”
Miss America 2018 Cara Mund called Carlson a bully and asked her to step down. It was a beauty queen civil war. It wasn’t exactly the changes Carlson was making, but how she was making the changes. Her detractors claimed that she was forcing everyone into her singular vision. They didn’t like how she enacted the change and Carlson didn’t like their attitudes. Four states were banned from the pageant. Eventually, there was a lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged that Carlson was acting illegally, trying to shut down dissent. Board members were quitting left and right. Eventually, the lawsuit was dropped. The woman who initiated the lawsuit, Jennifer Vaden Barth, Miss North Carolina 1991 and a former MAO board member, told me in May that the lawsuit was too expensive to continue. Plus, Carlson could fight, she has a lot of “that Ailes settlement money.” Carlson eventually stepped down from her role with MAO in June of 2019, but her fingerprints are all over the current pageant. Randy Howes, who has been organizing pageants in the D.C. area for almost 30 years, told me that the mood at the previous Miss America pageant was tense. “Gretchen didn’t dare show her face anywhere. Neither did Regina.”
He was referring to Regina Hopper, the CEO of MAO at the time of pageant and close Carlson ally. (Hopper resigned her position in January 2020).
The pageant which emerged from the chaos is the pageant I’m at. It’s diminished. It’s in a casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. It’s the week before Christmas. Usually, the pageant is held in September, but not this year. Here we all are, right before Christmas in a disorienting casino, where MAO and the Mohegan Sun Casino all desperately hope the pageant will be bigger than the Barrett-Jackson’s Northeast Auction of collector cars.
The Miss America pageant wasn’t supposed at the Mohegan Sun Casino, but it makes sense that the pageant would end up at a place that’s both a triumph of capitalism and an absolute hellscape. The casino is divided into two main areas: earth and sky. But once inside, both real earth and real sky immediately recede. It is simultaneously soothing and disorienting. Everything anyone could possibly need is right here, especially if need consists of a Sephora and Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain.
This simulacrum of the American landscape isn’t conceptually that far from the pageant’s birthplace. Miss America began in Atlantic City in 1921 as a bathing suit competition, the brainchild of Atlantic City businessmen who wanted to extend the tourist season. Thousands lined up to watch white American women in knee-length swimsuits parade down the boardwalk. Wearing a bathing suit on the boardwalk was illegal, and the contradiction shocked people at the time. A woman wrote to the New York Times in 1924 to express her horror that the suits “now not only be permitted but invited on our boardwalk for thousands to look at.”
But if it felt progressive to allow women to don one-piece suits on the boardwalk, it was quite the opposite. The suits were allowed because the women were being judged against a standard that, even at the time, was designed to rein in women and keep a stranglehold over their self-expression. Historian Kimberly Hamlin writes, “The judges were looking for the contestant whose looks a persona radiated a particular type of womanhood—innocent, traditional, and non-threatening—and whose image would convey certain behavioral codes to the rest of America.” The judges found this ideal in 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, crowned the first winner in 1921.
By putting femininity on display and judging it, the pageant acted as a national corrective to the changing image of women in the 1920s—women’s suffrage, the mainstreaming of black art and culture during the Jazz Age, and flappers. The pageant was instructive, effectively showing women how to look while wearing a swimsuit. Take Gorman, for example: instead of the flapper bob, she had long soft curls and wore stockings with her swimsuit. She wasn’t so much a beauty queen as a representative of an aggressively wholesome standard: white, feminine, and unchallenging.
That’s far from the Miss America PR line today.
“Miss America has always been a disruptor!” said Hopper, the MAO CEO, who had been ignoring my emails and calls all year. When I finally corner her on the red carpet, she talks to me with a smile so toothy I think she wants to eat something.
“Miss America has always been a disruptor!” I hear her repeat the phrase over and over and over like a mantra, hoping someone—anyone—will believe it.
You aren’t supposed to call Miss America a pageant. Instead, it’s a competition for scholarships. Apparently even losers can win money. But who is winning? It’s mostly white women. Some black. Very few Asians, even fewer Jewish or out queer women. The MAO board is all white. Black women weren’t allowed into the Miss America competition until 1970. And everyone remembers what happened to the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, who was forced out by the MAO after Penthouse published unauthorized nude photographs of her. Fewer remember that Williams, as well as Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri (the first woman of Indian descent to be crowned), were targeted by racists angered by their wins.
That’s the neat trick. Crown a few black and brown women and claim representation, while the organization still stays white and still largely rewards white women.
“It’s pageant day!” Brent Adams, vice president of branding & development for Miss America, tells me in the morning when he explains why no one is there to give me my press badge. I have to beg my way into breakfast without any credentials. It turns out that wearing lipstick and smiling a lot is just as good as press credentials.
The pageant has technically been going on all week and I’ve tried to livestream some of the events, but the livestream, which was a hasty afterthought, lost sound for me. I managed to see Annika Wooton, Miss Kansas, speed-paint a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Miss Missouri can twirl a baton so that it looks like an impossible bird. Miss Virginia Camille Schrier, this year’s eventual winner, exploded chemicals all over the stage in a frantic science experiment that does nothing except demonstrate science.
There is also a new section where the contestants get to pitch their platform—the social cause that they are supporting. Each speech is like a really fast Ted Talk about the importance of battling cancer, sexual assault, the arts, no wait STEM… STEM!.... and helping foster kids. They are very boring. I took a lot of notes that say things like, “But who is really pro-cancer?”
I beg my way into the breakfast and sit down at a table and eagerly await meeting the former who will be assigned to our table. “Formers” is pageant lingo for the Miss Americas and the state winners who return. It’s here I meet Randy Howes, the DC organizer, who tells me there aren’t as many formers returning this year. Howes tells me they are not returning because they don’t approve of the changes, the leadership, and the way things have been handled. Dunlap confirms this in text messages she sends to me throughout my time at the pageant. “It’s in Connecticut!” she texts. Connecticut.
Howes doesn’t hate the casino. No one I talk to hates the casino, it’s just Connecticut in the winter they object to.
Later that night, on the red carpet, I ask Hopper about the controversy about everything falling apart, and she just tells me, “Change is hard, not everyone is going to be on board.” Later, I overhear her tell another reporter that people are mean and Facebook is mean. She notices me listening and turns her back to me.
The breakfast is a little awkward. After all the formers are introduced, they randomly draw a number from a bowl that corresponds to a table number. My table gets Miss Minnesota 1983, Vicki Plaster Kueppers, whose daughter Kathryn Kueppers is Miss Minnesota 2019. The two are only one of 11 mother-daughter winning pairs. We are served a breakfast of sausage and eggs and encouraged to make small talk with the former at our table. Miss Wyoming Outstanding Teen is also at my table. Her mom picks at the breakfast and explains in detail her process of making sweet potato pancakes and where I can find a better breakfast than this, if only I’m willing to head out to a strip mall, where I can find an all-you-can-eat that has better eggs.
After breakfast, I go to meet Miss Iowa, because that’s where I live and it’s like going to meet a state representative who you didn’t vote for, but somehow is supposed to embody something about your state that you cannot really define. I don’t end up meeting her—“pageant day,” of course. But her mother is there. Miss Iowa’s mom is confused about her daughter’s success. Not that she doesn’t think her daughter shouldn’t win, just that Emily Tinsman just started pageants in college and now here they are, in a casino in Connecticut right before Christmas. What a world.
At this breakfast, there are more sparkles and gowns than I saw at my high school prom. I’m worried I’m not ready for tonight.
“Do I need to look fancy?” I ask.
“Oh everyone dresses up for tonight!” Leslie Moore, the executive director of the Miss Iowa pageant tells me. She gently adds that Batiste is the best dry shampoo.
I didn’t really plan on dressing up. At the last minute, I threw a jumpsuit in my suitcase. It’s the jumpsuit I bought off the internet so I could look like Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, but I haven’t worn it at all. I don’t usually go to fancy events. I live in Iowa. Even our fanciest restaurant wouldn’t kick you out for sweatpants. But I remember the Sephora and, after talking to more bewildered and proud parents, I run to get some fake eyelashes.
I end up spending four hours getting fancy. Between the shopping, where the cashier at Sephora tells me that the Miss Americas are buying MakeUp Forever’s setting spray and Dry Bar, and the shower, and the hair curling and the excruciating 20 minutes of application and reapplication of the eyelashes. Glue them, blow them gently with your breath, gently apply. Press. Blink. And the eventual run to Walgreens for double-sided tape to keep my boobs inside my outfit and Excedrin for migraines. I’m ready. It wasn’t cheap.
When it’s time for the contest, we go into the arena and I go to buy a beer. A man hears the cashier tell me “happy birthday” as he checks my ID and insists on leaning on the counter and buying my beer. He is Miss Vermont’s uncle. A couple of moments later, his angry wife is tapping him on the shoulder asking where he has been. She looks so tired. I wonder if they have kids. I go sit down and the show is on.
I watch 50 of some of the most impressive women in America sing, twirl batons, and perform science experiments on stage. They talk about how they have saved actual babies and answer questions more eloquently than most elected representatives. They are so beautiful it takes my breath away. Their skin so moisturized they glow, their eyeliner so perfect, the way they turn and smile so that the corners of their mouth make this perfect little C and not the aggressive V of plebeian mouths. Legs and hips pop out at disarticulated angles. They have all learned these moves; they are acting out a myth.
But whatever else they are, they are still defined by their bodies. Each contestant has to sign a contract saying they’ve never been pregnant and never had children. They can’t be older than 25 years old. They also have to be single. Translation: No abortions. Bodies: Pure. Even if they aren’t donning swimsuits and strutting on stage, their viability in the pageant is about the sanctity of their bodies. Just like Margaret Gorman, the childlike, innocent first winner, they must remain pure objects of desire—tight, poised, flesh vessels for our values.
No matter how you change the rules, it will always be about that. And I know that and they know that. These women know what a pageant is, it’s just that they know they can win. And if the entire enterprise of femininity is fucked, then why not find ways to win where you can? Why not capitalize on it and earn a little money?
The issue comes up in the final question, when the celebrity judge, Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown, asks the final two contestants whether partnered women and mothers should be allowed to be Miss America?
“Well, quite honestly, when I go to schools I teach kids all the time about the difference between Miss and Mrs. and that’s a fun opportunity for me to explain why I am an unmarried woman, and I think really that pays homage to the tradition of being a Miss America and I think it’s something that should be kept,” Miss Virginia Camielle Schrier responded.
When Miss Georgia Victoria Hill was given the chance to respond, she said: “I think it’s also really important that Miss America be a single woman, not dating anybody or in a relationship so that she can be fully dedicated to her job.”
The contestants are standing on stage in ball gowns, posed like the rich characters in a prestige drama, all long lines, impossible angles, and bold fabrics.
The auditorium is nearly empty. This year, the TV ratings were down 16 percent from last year, beaten by the Democratic debate and CBS reruns. The women are quickly culled from the stage in large numbers until the final five remain. I wanted Miss Texas to pull through. But the journalist from Refinery 29 who was sitting next to me was a contestant in the Miss USA system and guesses that Miss Texas won’t make it. “This is always the way,” she said, gesturing to the mostly white stage after Miss Texas is eliminated.
It’s down to the final two.
Schrier, the scientist from Virginia and Hill, the opera singer from Georgia. Miss Illinois’s cousin told me that Hill was “edgy” but I think that just means she has short hair.
After Schrier is crowned, I go to the press conference. By that point, the internet buzz is about Katelynne Cox, Miss DC, who claims in a video that the MAO asked her not to talk about her personal platform advocating for rape victims. Mund, Miss America 2018, shares the video.
I ask Schrier about it at the press conference, which happens a full hour after it’s scheduled. She sidesteps and says that she never felt pressured by the MAO. I also ask her about not being able to be partnered or a mother.
I tell her I am a mother. A single mother. I think I want her to see me just a little. To look me in the eye and tell me I can’t do it. But it’s not about women, it’s about a specific type of woman. These women.
She sticks to her answer. She has cats. She can barely handle them. How could she handle kids? I think the line is supposed to be funny, but no one laughs.
“I also have cats,” I mumble in response and sit down.
After that, another reporter and I bluff our way into the after-party in the casino’s fake glacier, where no one is dancing on the dance floor lit up by blue and pink snowflake lights.
A woman who works with pageants in a Western state comes to find me. She’s drunk, so I won’t write her name, but she tells me she only has boys. She wishes she had a girl, just one girl, so she could be part of all of this. The drunk woman waves to the empty dance floor. Part of this.
Moore, the executive director of the Iowa pageant finds me, she tells me her dream is to see Miss America returned to its former glory. She wants the pageantry. The swimsuits. The gowns. She wants the hyper-feminine creation of feathers and glitter, crowns and manicures, heels and lined lips. She doesn’t think it can survive without that. I don’t know if Miss America can survive. Next year is the 100 year anniversary of Miss America. Will last until then? Beyond? I try to envision Moore’s version: a stage of women tight-waisted, draped in gowns, performing a specific kind of womanhood. In front of me, the dance floor is empty, while Whitney Houston belts out that she wants to dance with somebody.
That night, I saw a woman placed on a throne without a kingdom while no one watched.
Lyz Lenz is the author of God Land and Belabored. She is a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications.