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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.


Vanessa Williams


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”).


Heather Whitestone


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?


Beauty Queens: Birth of the pageant



As much as we love giving AND receiving gifts, sometimes getting something right for someone can be a real pain. Enter our cute new gifting tins! Inside each tin is a pair of panties, in sizes small, medium and large (which makes sizing SO much easier). Each tin is Beauty Queen themed, with a gorgeous illustration by Katie Woodger.


But for many of us, especially us Brits, beauty pageants are a strange, unknown world. Are they really as shallow as they seem to first glance? We looked into the history of the most famous beauty pageants and how they came to be!


The four largest and most famous international beauty contests are Miss World (founded in 1951), Miss Universe (founded in 1952), Miss International (founded in 1960) and Miss Earth (founded in 2001 with environmental awareness as its concern), however it is Miss America that has been going (in one form or another) the longest.


Beauty pageants are generally multi-tiered with local competitions feeding into larger competitions. The worldwide pageants often require hundreds, sometimes thousands, of local competitions to slim down the hopeful entrants!



Although contests to determine who/what are the most beautiful have been around since Ancient Greek myths, there is no evidence of beauty contests for women having existed at this time. Instead there were “contests of physique” known as euandria, which were exclusively for men.


Beauty pageants may in fact be traced back to European festivals, in particular, the English May Day celebrations that involved the crowning of a Queen.


The first of the modern form of pageant was staged in America by P.T. Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame), who had been holding dog, bird and even baby beauty contests in his dime museum in New York City. While his baby contest proved to be a hit, a similar event for women in 1854 was a flop. The prize of a dowry or a diamond tiara if the winner was married was not enough encouragement for Victorian women to display themselves.


Instead Barnum came up with the great idea of using daguerreotypes of the entrants instead. Unfortunately he sold off his museum before organising these alternative pageants, but the idea of using modern technology was a pioneering new form of entertainment and his idea was taken up by newspapers across the nation.



Gradually the discomfort of displaying women in public began to fade, and in 1880 the first “Bathing Beauty Pageant” took place as part of a summer festival to promote business in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. However it was not until the 20th century when beauty pageants began to become a regular occurrence.


In 1921, the businessmen of Atlantic City faced a predicament; how to keep tourists past Labor Day? They decided to hold a fall festival, which included a “National Beauty Tournament”, soon dubbed “Miss America” by the press. The pageant was a great success, running each year until 1929 when the effects of the Great Depression and bad press put a hold on the event.


Miss America was revived in 1933, under a new name and management as The Variety Showman’s Jubilee. The pageant was a shambles, with one judge oversleeping, Miss New York State collapsing on stage from an abscessed tooth, Miss Oklahoma rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy, Miss New York City dropping out, Miss Arkansas revealed to be married and three contestants disqualified for living in other states!


Marian Bergeron, a dead-ringer for Jean Harlow, eventually wins, however is nearly disqualified when judges discover she is only 15. Despite being underage, she is allowed to keep her crown and earns the nickname “baby vamp”. Unfortunately the crown was stolen from her hotel suite hours later...


Despite the setbacks of that year, Miss America continued to hold their contest each year. During World War II, thought is given to discontinuing, however the decision is made that it helped strengthen the American spirit.



In 1945 Lenora Slaughter became the first female director of the pageant, making changes that would put the contest on the map for decades to come. She created a scholarship program to help young women attend college; however as the public focused on soldiers returning from the war, she faced a challenge to raise funds. Unsurprisingly, considering the time, the businessmen she approached were uninterested in the idea of scholarships for women. Despite this, Lenora eventually raised enough money to set up the scholarship, which is still in place today!


Lenora also caused controversy in 1948 when she announced that the winner would be crowned in a gown rather than the traditional swimsuit. Reporters are furious and attempt a boycott, before their editors called them off. Three years later in 1951 Miss America winner, Yolande Betbeze, refused to pose in a swimsuit, insisting she was a classical singer, not a pin-up. Her decision was supported by judges, much to the distaste of sponsor, Catalina swimwear, who promptly pulled their sponsorship and began to plan its own pageants, Miss USA and Miss Universe.



Make sure you tune in next week for part two of beauty pageant history!