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But far before sparkly tiaras and bouquets of flowers were handed out to sobbing women in evening wear, the ancient Greeks held beauty contests of their own. Beauty and aesthetics were extremely important to Greek culture, so beauty contests were held for both men and women. Males participated in a sort of beauty pageant called euandria (literally: "good maleness"), where men were judged on their looks.
Of course, women have been judged formally for their looks throughout the ages as well. Beauty contests for women called kallisteia were held in Elis, and also on the islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. Here, much like the pageants of today, women contestants were judged on their looks as they paraded back and forth.
Nowadays, pageants include a great deal more pomp and circumstance, arguably to a level of absurdity. Given all the glitz, glamour, there could only be one man behind the modern beauty pageant. That would be the circus hotshot: Phineas T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey’s.
In 1854, P.T. Barnum promoted many different sorts of contests. Ones that judged dogs, flowers, babies, and then of course: women. The women’s pageant never really took off, however, as people thought of it as beneath high society intentions and reputations. Barnum’s beauty contest was protested widely, but Barnum wasn’t going to give up so easily. Instead of continuing to hold live pageants, Barnum advertised for women to submit daguerreotypes of themselves for judgement.
About 60 years after Barnum failed to have his live beauty contests take off, the modern American beauty pageant took off in earnest. The oh-so-eloquently named "Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest" debuted in 1921 to attract more tourists to Atlantic City over the summer, and would later morph into the Miss America Pageant.
Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest was a convening of "Inter-City" beauty contest winners from around the east coast, who were judged both by a set of judges, and also by the crowd in attendance, whose applause (yes, their actual clapping) counted for 50% of the vote. The winner of this contest won a trophy, and depending on their performance in the initial popularity contest, other beauty contestants were considered for participation in a next day event called the "Bather’s Revue."
Yes, this was a bathing suit competition that consisted of about 200 bathing beauties from multiple other pageants. The prize? A trophy called "The Golden Mermaid."
The next year, 1922, was the year the first Miss America was crowned at the Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest. The 1921 winner of the pageant was crowned Miss Washington D.C., but because a new Miss D.C. had already been appointed by the time the next Atlantic City contest rolled around, the winner was given the title of Miss America. Incidentally, the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was the first Miss Washington D.C. in the previous year.
The pressure of the Miss America title was too much for one of the earlier winners. The heavy schedule of appearances, speaking engagements and other events are nothing new to the pageant world, and the 1937 winner, Bette Cooper of New Jersey, wasn’t having it with the intense schedule, and disappeared right after winning. Her male escort for the pageant drove her off on a boat, and Cooper simply refused her duties. She also refused to talk to the press about her involvement with the pageant.
So it wasn’t all Golden Mermaids, tiaras, and Atlantic City boardwalk bliss. Miss America pageants were controversial for decades for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they did not allow contestants who were not white to compete, and had other racist overtones. African Americans were first featured in the 1923 pageant — during a dance performance where they played slaves.
In 1970, the first Black woman won a state level competition. That year, Cheryl Brown was crowned Miss Iowa, but the pageant did not crown a Black winner until 1984, when Miss New York, Vanessa Williams, won the title. However, with only a few months left before the 1971 winner was to be selected, Penthouse magazine printed unauthorized photos of Williams; none too happy about having their crowning glory in a pornographic magazine, the Miss America pageant forced Williams to give up her title.
To protest the racist exclusion of Black women from Miss America, the African American community put on a contest of their own in 1968, on the same day as the Miss America contest in Atlantic City. While they were excluded from participation in the Miss America pageant, Black communities around the U.S. had been holding their own beauty pageants for decades.
The Miss America pageant has also faced protest by feminists around the country since the 1960s. In fact, the 1968 Miss America pageant was faced not only by protest from the Black community, but from white feminists as well. The feminist protest was organized by New York Radical Women, who spoke out against the oppressive nature of a contest where women are judged based purely on their beauty.
Criticism of beauty pageantry has a long and storied history of its own, and in many ways parallels the decline of pageants themselves. Feminists have been outspoken regarding the sexist ethos of beauty pageantry since the famous 1968 protest. With mounting criticisms have also come marked declines in viewership: The Miss America pageant in 2015 amassed only 7.1 million viewers, compared to 8.6 million viewers just one year before in 2014. Miss America had previously broken viewership records during its first live broadcast in 1954, when 27 million viewers tuned in to watch.
Miss America also loves to tout the scholarships they give to participants (the first Miss America scholarship was given to Bess Myerson in 1945). The winner of the national pageant wins a $50,000 prize, and there are smaller monetary awards for other contestants. The pageant frequently refers to itself as "the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women."
But as John Oliver pointed out in 2014, Miss America doesn’t offer scholarships to women worldwide, only to women who are eligible for and successful in their pageants. The criteria for the pageants (and thus for the scholarships) are restrictive to say the least. Not only can contestants not be married (or ever have been married), they also must never have been pregnant.
In the same segment, Oliver called attention to Miss America’s company line about providing $45 million in scholarships every year. According to the investigation done by Oliver’s team, Miss America gives less than $4 million in scholarships per year.
American beauty pageants as a whole have suffered some pretty egregious PR flops of late, beyond Oliver’s brief exposé. In the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant, the contestant from South Carolina was absolutely slammed by the public and the media for her (now infamous) response to a question about why so many Americans are unable to locate the U.S. on the map. The contestant, Caitlin Upton responded:
I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, um, some people out there in our nation don't have maps and, I believe that our, I, education like such as, uh, South Africa, and uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.
Then, toward the end of 2015 during the Miss Universe pageant, the event’s emcee, comedian Steve Harvey misread the winner card, and announced the wrong winner of the pageant. Harvey stated that Miss Colombia had won the crown, which was then placed atop her fabulous updo, only to have it removed moments later when Harvey clarified that it was really Miss Philippines who had triumphed in the pageant. This led to days of ridicule against Harvey, who said he even received death threats after committing the very public error.
There’s hardly any denying that the world of beauty pageants are inherently problematic. The whole idea of pitting women against one another and judging them primarily based on their looks is unsettling in and of itself. The fact that here is overt racism ingrained in the Miss America story adds to the unsettling legacy of American pageants.
On the surface these pageants are about beauty, poise, and a good measure of world peace. There is something mesmerizing about such a multitude of rhinestones, lip gloss, and teeth so white they may glow in the dark. And women in pageants bust their butts on the circuit, working their way up the ranks, but in the end, it’s hard not to cringe when thinking about such an unapologetic parade of not-so-pretty American history.