by Michael Sones
One of the first beauty contests took place in the mists of mythic time when Paris of Troy had to choose which of three beauties was the most comely.
Helen was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus and Leda, who was the wife of Tyndareus. Zeus approached Leda in the form of a swan. Helen was born from this union and she was the sister of the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux, who were renowned for their bravery and skills at fighting. Helen was renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world. Theseus, who had killed the Minotaur, carried her off as a child but the Dioscuri rescued her. All of the kings of Greece wanted to marry her because of her beauty and courted her. To save conflict between them Odysseus suggested that they let Helen choose and then all agree to protect her husband. She chose Menelaus but was later kidnapped by Paris, the son of Priam and Hecuba of Troy. At Zeus’ command Paris had been the judge at a beauty contest and had to choose which of the goddesses Hera, Athene, or Aphrodite was the fairest. He chose Aphrodite who had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. He carried Helen off which did not please Menelaus and so the Greeks set sail to Troy. The Trojan war lasted ten years.
While modern beauty contests have almost always been dogged by controversy we are not aware of any which have started a war. However, in 1921 a few hoteliers hatched the idea of staging a local beauty bathing contest on the shores of Atlantic City as part of a larger plan to get vacationers to stay in town beyond Labour Day Weekend. They almost certainly had no idea of the tradition and institution they were starting.
The Great War had ended a few years before and it was the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. Women had made an enormous contribution to the war effort on the home front and this had led to a change in the way they saw themselves. Many no longer felt that they had to remain quiet and corseted at home. Ten years previously the idea of “bathing beauties” would probably have never seen the light of day but now, with strict Victorian principles being challenged everywhere, the idea had immediate appeal to enough people that eight beauty finalists were chosen from photo entries to local Eastern newspapers.
Miss Margaret Gorman, representing Miss Washington, D.C., was the first “Miss America.” Only 16, she was said to bear a strong resemblance to Mary Pickford the legendary matinee idol of the silent screen. The following year the contest was held again and that year’s winner was Mary Katherine Campbell. She won the following year as well and it was decided after that to bring in a rule that no one could win twice.
As the contest increased in popularity, more contestants entered. The following year the rules had to be amended once again when it was discovered that Miss Alaska, Heidi Leiderman, was neither a “miss”, nor from Alaska. Instead she was a married woman hailing from New York.
The arrival of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920’s saw the postponement of the Miss America contest until 1932 when it was revived in Wildwood, New Jersey. That year it was won by Dorothy Hann. 50,000 onlookers proved that while it had been gone for three years, the Miss America contest had not been forgotten. It returned to its original home in Atlantic City the following year under new management and a new banner, The Variety Showman’s Jubilee. The winner, Marian Bergeron, broke with tradition in being the first to be crowned wearing an evening gown instead of a swimsuit. Controversy ensued when it was revealed that she was underage and only 15! Should she be disqualified? The waters were further muddied when her crown was stolen from her hotel room and the contest was a financial failure. The good news for Marian was that she was allowed to keep the title and hold it for two years as there was no contest the following year.
In 1935 the pageant was resurrected again under the successful directorship of Lenora Slaughter. Hollywood by now was really coming into its own and the Miss America contest was seen by some as being a fast track to acquiring the fame and fortune of the Hollywood Stars. Movie moguls such as Howard Hughes also saw the potential of these young, beautiful women as future starlets. Dorothy Lamour was one such contestant who went on to become a glamorous movie star.
The contest however continued to be haunted by unexpected and publicity-bringing events. In 1937 the winner, Miss Bette Cooper, disappeared in the night. Speculation about her disappearance abounded; had she sacrificed her place on the beauty throne for the love of her life, as the heir to the English throne had? Pictures in the papers featured an empty throne, surrounded by runners-up. In the end, the truth was much more banal. The young woman had persuaded her chaperone to take her back home so she could go back to school.
In 1938 the competition altered. Would-be Miss America Queens now had to participate in a compulsory talent competition.
History intervened again with the advent of the Second Great World War. America joined the war effort after Pearl Harbour was bombed and the future of the Miss America contest was again uncertain. However, it survived because of the belief that it could raise morale and boost the American spirit. As the war ended the contest director, Lenora Slaughter, decided that it would be in the best interests of future contestants, and perhaps of the contest itself, if winners also received a pageant scholarship.
The year was 1945. Not long after the atrocities of the Holocaust in war-torn Europe had been relayed to peoples worldwide, the Miss American contest winner was Miss Bess Myerson, a first-time Jewish winner and scholarship recipient.
Other changes were in the offing and in 1948 Lenora Slaughter ruled that Miss Americas would now be crowned wearing gowns rather than the traditional swimsuits. Reporters were up in arms and threatened to boycott the event altogether. As a compromise to those adamant that tradition should be upheld, the winner wore a gown and the runners-up wore swimsuits.
In 1951 Yolande Betbeze, winner of the Miss America contest, took this change in the costume climate one step further when she refused to pose in a swimsuit altogether. While she managed to get the support of the contest officials one of its major sponsors, Catalina swimwear, quit in protest. In the same year the first Miss World Pageant was held. The winner, Kiki Haakonson, represented Sweden.
A year later, Armi Kuusele, from Finland won the first Miss Universe title. To raise its profile and to gain further public approval the contest now aligned itself with many Variety Clubs and helped them to raise funds for many worthwhile charities worldwide.
Pageantry in the conservative postwar 1950’s was becoming mainstream. It was bolstered in 1953 by all the pomp and pageantry that went alongside the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in England. In 1954, as television was making its presence felt in many homes throughout the western world, the Miss America contest was broadcast from coast to coast for the very first time. Grace Kelly, a famous movie star of the day, was one of the panel of judges and Lee Merriweather the joyful winner.
1955 saw the introduction of Bert Parks, a well-known and popular television personality, as the master of ceremonies. What was to become the event’s signature theme tune “There She Is, Miss America”, written by Bernie Wayne, was also introduced and became instantly popular.
The conservatism of the 50’s was followed by the liberalism and human rights movements of the sixties. Women were becoming more educated and black and minority peoples were becoming more vocal and politically active in their search for a fairer deal. In line with this Corinne Huff, in 1960, became the first black woman ever to win a state pageant title and then go on to compete in the Miss USA title contest. Another black woman, Miss Haiti, reached the semifinals of the Miss Universe contest the following year. But if black and minority peoples were finally being included in mainstream beauty events, alongside their inclusion there was growing an increasing disillusion with the whole idea of beauty pageants. Women were becoming more vocal about their secondary role in society and the domination of men in so many areas based upon gender rather than ability. Beauty pageants were “sexist” and women criticised them because they felt they were demeaning to women and treated them as “sex objects.”
During the sixties other beauty events also became established; Miss USA, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Teenage American Pageant, and several pageants for children. New pageants were established the following decade; the Miss National Teen-ager Pageant and the Miss Teen All America Pageant were two of these. Other milestones included the first-time winning of the Miss Universe title by a black woman, Janelle Commissiong of Trinidad-Tobago. The following year would see her crown Margaret Gardiner, a white South African, as her successor.
The 1980’s saw further racial milestones established. In 1983, Vanessa Williams, an African-American won the Miss America title. Her moment of glory was short-lived. It was revealed that she had posed for Penthouse magazine in some sexually explicit photos. She was asked to resign and she did. Suzette Charles, another African-American, and her runner-up, inherited the crown.
The following year Mai Shanley, a Eurasian, won the honour and in 1985 the crown was passed on to a naturalized Mexican-American, Miss Laura Martinez Herring. The same year Deborah Carthy-Deu, Miss Puerto Rico, won the Miss Universe contest. The passion for pageantry seems to have snowballed in the 1980s and several more pageants were founded: the Mrs. World Pageant, the Mother-Daughter pageant, the Mrs. United States Pageant and the Mrs. International Pageant.
The idea was also born and became very popular that future contest winners might become role models for the community through their public service commitments. Commitment to social and topical issues also mark pageantry in the 1990’s.
Miss America 1992, Carolyn Sapp, gained a starring role in a film about her life after it was discovered that she had been subject to violent treatment by her fiancé. The media coverage of this part of her life brought the problem of domestic violence in the lives of many women to national attention.
Next year’s Miss America winner, Leanza Cornett, did the same for Aids Education and Prevention.
Charlotte Lopez, who was to become Miss Teen USA in 1993, won sympathy and possibly votes through the telling of her moving tale about being a foster child for more than a decade.
And what about the amazing achievement of Mrs. Sandra Earnest, who in 1993, managed to win the Mrs. International title, after having had ten children?
In 1994 the Miss America title went to Heather Whitestone. This was another pageantry first, for Miss Whitestone was profoundly deaf.
The following year, 1995, saw the age-old debate about swimsuits revived and resolved once again. This time it was by viewers of the Miss America competition who were invited to phone in their votes. By a significant margin of 3-1 swimsuits were given the thumbs-up!! (Never completely resolved however, a few years hence and things would be slightly amended again: in 1997, two-piece swimsuits were allowed for the first time in 50 years).
Back in 1995, however, while Americans were trying to come to terms with the devastation and trauma that followed the Oklahoma bombing, it was perhaps significant that both the Miss and Mrs. American titles were won by Oklahoman women.
As the century drew to a close, contestants worldwide continued to enter beauty pageants with hopes of winning the coveted crowns. Whatever one’s creed, colour or background, with the right combination of good looks and talent anyone might be a winner. This was further demonstrated in 1998 when Virginia Nicole, an insulin dependent diabetic who wore an insulin pump on her hip, became the first long-term physically ill person to become Miss America.
What will the 21st century bring? Now a multi-million dollar enterprise, pageantry shows no signs of decline but only time will tell what the new parameters will be.
The controversy continues. There were riots in Nigeria in 2002 because of the Miss World contest and the contestants had to flee. In October 2003 and Afghanistan woman, resident in the United States since the mid 1990s, provoked outrage and condemnation by the Afghanistan government when she wore a red bikini in a beauty contest in the Phillipines.