Beauty Queens: '50s Onwards
To celebrate the launch of our Beauty Queen Gift Tins, last week we took you through the birth of the beauty pageant, from its beginnings as a P.T. Barnum sideshow, to the ups and downs of Atlantic City’s “Miss America” and the wonderful Lenora Slaughter and her scholarship for women! Now we move from the 1950s onwards into the ever-glamorous world of the Beauty Queen.
Now we have all seen the stereotypical 80s beauty queen, with plastered on smile and big, big hair as a preened tanned host sings “There She Is, Miss America” but rarely do we see it in the 1950’s setting in which the song was born.
But it wasn’t all smiles; in 1956 the winner of Miss USA, Leona Gage, resigns after the press hear that not only is she married to an Air Force sergeant, but also has two children. Gage explains that she entered the competition to earn money to support her family, as the military salary is not enough.
Despite this, the Miss America contest still provides hope for young women. A record number of people watch the first live broadcast of the pageant on September 11th, 1954, and so the scholarship fund (which Lenora Slaughter initially had to scrounge for in 1945) reaches over $250,000.
Regardless of what the pageant does for women’s confidence and education, the 1968 Miss America contest was protested by the Women’s Liberation Front, who managed to infiltrate the conference hall and cause a commotion that is audible during the broadcast. Two years later the Miss World pageant was also hit by protests, claiming that such events were a symbol of oppression and exploitation of women.
The contests also slowly became more accepting of diversity, with the first woman of colour winning the Miss Ohio state title in the 1960 Miss USA pageant. Two years later, another woman of colour made the semi-finals at the Miss Universe pageant. Despite this, Miss America fails to include any women of colour in their contests, which leads to the creation of Miss Black America in 1968 as a protest.
In an important racial milestone, Cheryl Brown became the first African-American woman to compete in Miss America in 1970. This just paves the way for a fabulous win by Janelle Commissiong of Trinidad & Tobago, who becomes the first woman of colour to win Miss Universe. Ironically, a year later Janelle crowned her successor Margaret Gardiner; a white Miss South Africa.
It wasn’t until 1983 that Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman won the Miss America title. However, her title was short lived. The media explodes as it is revealed that Williams posed for explicit photographs, which were then published in Penthouse magazine. It was requested that she step down from her title, which she agreed to do in a televised press conference. The first runner up, Suzette Charles, became the second African-American woman to hold the title.
The 1980s and 90s proved to be the most popular time for beauty pageants, with a boom in new contests such as the Mrs. International, Mrs. United States, Miss Latina and Miss Black USA.
Despite what many feel about the contests themselves, it is no doubt that at least some of the winners used their titles for good. The 1988 Miss America winner, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko uses part of her year as title-holder to volunteer as a hospice worker, promoting the nursing profession. 1992’s Miss America, Carolyn Sapp, also uses her title for good, to create a campaign against domestic violence, having suffered from it herself. From then on Miss America winners are expected to act as role models by taking part in public service.
Another important milestone in pageant history was the crowning of Heather Whitestone as 1995’s Miss America. Whitestone was deaf, and performed ballet to music she could not hear and interviewed on live television by lip-reading. As the first woman with a physical handicap to win she becomes the inspiration to millions and begins to promote her platform, S.T.A.R.S (“Success Through Action and Realization of your dreams”).
By this time the Miss America Pageant has become the world’s largest provider of scholarships for young women in the world, and conducts its first National Day of Service in 1996, staging over 100 events throughout the country.
The pageants continue to gain momentum, with new pageants cropping up every few years and competitions becoming ever-more diverse. As with any contest, controversies are rife, from titles being stripped due to excessive drinking, more nude posing and other “unspecified” behaviour.
Personally, I’ve never seen any televised beauty contest, and I have no doubt that there is some naughty business going on, however I wasn’t aware of the good that these potentially vain contests do. The scholarship programs were launched at a time when women were only just starting to gain equality, proving that these were not just brainless beauties! Regardless, the fact that many of these women have been using their title and popularity to raise issues and give back to the public is a welcome change to reality TV stars drinking and partying their 15 minutes of fame away.
What are your thoughts?