When I told an acquaintance I was headed to Las Vegas this weekend for the Miss America pageant, she seemed momentarily confused. "Really?" she asked. "I didn't know they still…did that, to be honest." Oh, but they do.
Tomorrow night, for the 91st time, 53 young women will vie for the Miss America crown. The Miss America Organization has been nothing short of relentless in its attempts to try to make the pageant, in all its uber-earnest, middle-American quaintness, seem relevant in a post-Kardashian world. One of this year's judges is none other than the Kardashian-in-Chief herself, Kris Jenner, a move that seems the logical successor to the pageant's own failed 2008 foray into the reality show arena. (What? I was the only one who watched Miss America: Reality Check on TLC? Oh, wait. Maybe I was.)
Pageant organizers like to remind us that the pageant is so much more than a beauty contest: the Miss America Organization is the world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for women! Personally, I find it more than a little unsettling that the world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for women hosts an event in which those women compete for scholarships while wearing bikinis, stripper heels and door-knocker earrings, but hey! Nobody asked me.
Besides, when you see young women in outfits like these, you immediately think about scholarship, right?
Since roughly 1975, I have taken it upon myself to conduct a careful pre-pageant analysis of the field, looking for the comers and the non-starters. I have waded through a sea of headshots of contestants wearing virtually identical oversized hoop earrings and ruffled jewel-toned satin tops. I've read of their aspirations to work in event planning, host the Today Show and to end the scourges of bullying and distracted driving. I can assure you there is, as always, a healthy crop of ballerinas and pianists and Irish step dancers. What there is not, sadly, is a remotely reasonable number of minority women. (Four? Five? I'd need DNA tests to be certain.)
And so, my annotated guide to the field.
Miss Kentucky, in a landslide. (The PIN, for God's sake. THE PIN!) Did we have any doubt she plans to be a lawyer? No, we did not. And don't think we didn't notice she's from Kentucky, whose former first lady is one Phyllis George, Miss America 1971. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Miss Maine was the University of New England's Applied Exercise Science Student of The Year in 2009. OF THE YEAR, FRIENDS! OF. THE. YEAR! Honorary mention: Miss Iowa, who made the deans list both semesters of her freshman year. And Miss New York's bio says simply that she was "Best Actress 2008." At the Golden Globes? The middle school drama competition? We're so confused.
Miss Tennessee. Conveniently, one of this year's judges is Bachelor kingpin Mike Fleiss. Because when you need someone to judge a scholarship competition, you immediately think "The guy who created the Bachelor would be perfect!", no?
Miss Hawaii. So we can see her jump rope routine set to the music from Hawaii Five-O, which actually won her a preliminary talent award last night. I mean, clearly, she's no yodeling ventriloquist, but still. Robin Leach reports that her routine includes the "butt bounce, where she's able to hip-hop dance on the floor and swing that rope underneath her as she does lifts." Um, yes. Please.
This picture – which appears to be the butt bounce! — was posted on the Miss America Facebook page.
A tie between Miss Massachusetts ("Smart Smiles: Promoting the Importance of Oral Health") and Miss Alaska ("Speak Out: Promoting Public Speaking and Debate Programs for Youth.") Honorable mention: Miss Iowa, who'll be out there gunning for…blood donation. Zzzzz.
Miss New Jersey's "Reading For the Right Reasons." Are there wrong reasons to read? Discuss.
Miss Puerto Rico, who covered all her schmaltzy bases with "Transforming Lives: Promoting Values and Developing Dreams." Honorable mention to Miss Montana, who went with "Inspiring America: Dare to Dream."
It's not just that Miss Arkansas went to Ouachita Baptist University, a favorite for the pageant set. It's that they actually sponsor a beauty pageant there. Like, AT THE UNIVERSITY. See? It really is about scholarship. Also news to us: the existence of Evangel University, alma mater to Miss Missouri. Who, according to one account, "nailed her performance of the Aerosmith classic "Dream On" to win the state title. Well, of course she did.
Miss Alabama. (Hey Courtney! Call me! I have an awesome Wham! mixtape for you. And then we can go shopping at Benetton.) Honorable mention: Miss Hawaii, whose photo is eerily reminiscent of the girl in my high school yearbook who quoted Meatloaf. While we're on the 80s, Miss Georgia's headshot appears to have come straight out of an Enjoli perfume campaign. She also lists among her Scholastic Honors that she won "First Place in Science Fair," a fact so depressing it's almost endearing.
Miss South Carolina, whose 100+ pound weight loss was just featured on…the cover of People magazine. Oh, wait. Never mind. Also be on the lookout for Miss Ohio, whose sister was struck by lightning, Miss Wisconsin, whose father spent a year in jail, and Miss Washington, who was reduced to busking on the streets of Seattle to pay for college. And of course there's Miss Colorado, caretaker to her cancer-stricken mother, who just so happens to have been Miss America 1974.
While the bar for quirky names is set perpetually high over at MAO — Kaye Lani Rae Rafko and Vonda Kay Van Dyke, anyone? — this year's nods for that perfect mix of slightly odd, smoothly alliterative and still subtly inviting go to Miss South Carolina (Bree Boyce), Miss Maryland (Carlie Colella), Miss Nebraska (Kayla Batt) and Miss West Virginia (Spenser Wempe.) Honorary mention, three names division: Miss New Hampshire, Regan Elizabeth Hartley.
"I Wonder What Would Happen if you Crossed Parker Posey with Hilary Swank and Jessica Simpson?" The Answer: Miss Kansas.
The "Better Luck Next Year" award, for the contestant I am betting the lives of my children will not win goes to…
Miss Vermont, who is, of course, from New England. Because they never win, those New Englanders. (The Misses Maine and Rhode Island were almosts and nearlies here.) An honorary tip of the hat in this category to Miss South Dakota, because the poor Plains States girls are perpetual losers as well. As an aside, while perusing one of the pageant message boards at voy.com, a place I recommend you avoid if you want to maintain the illusion that nobody can evaluate the Miss America field with the seriousness of a Talmudic scholar, I saw some unfortunate pageant gowns referred to as "Bless Her Hearts." Like, that's a…thing.
And finally? I'll just leave you with…this photo from Wednesday's preliminary competition in which Miss South Carolina appears to be wearing what my friend Brian aptly dubbed "the eveningwear equivalent of a spork." You go get ‘em, Bree Boyce. Because it's all in the name of scholarship.
Image via Kirsten Haglund/Associated Press
Jennifer Mendelsohn is a Baltimore-based journalist and tiara aficionado. You can follow her on Twitter.