This blog post first appeared on Rita Bay’s website http://ritabay.com as part of her “Salute to the South,” but in case you missed it…
Those that know me are fully aware I pretty much have five passions in life – my kids, writing, dancing, working out, and pageants. Rita’s “Salute to the South” includes a shout out to pageants and she called on me, a pageant guru (yes, I’m tooting my own horn). I think my first pageant experience was when I was five, but really got the bug when I turned fifteen. I’ve competed on the local, state, national, and international levels and in every sector of pageantry you can imagine. In college, I participated in the Miss Universe and Miss America systems. A huge highlight was competing in Miss Alabama for several years. I was Miss University of Alabama, an honor I still have no qualms bragging about! Another special title for me was Miss International Motorsports Hall of Fame. The title is long, but getting to meet Jeff Gordon (sigh!) as well as other famous NASCAR drivers and ride atop the Pace Car to open a Talladega race made memories I’ll never forget. Fast forward to present day – I’ve been a pageant coach for over fifteen years with a dang impressive track record. I also work as a professional emcee and judge (Miss America certified) and big surprise, my daughter now competes. In fact, we just returned from a weekend at the Miss Alabama Outstanding Teen Pageant (the teen division of Miss Alabama/Miss America) where my daughter was presented as a “Rising Star.”
To give you a little history, a unique American tradition began in 1921, as a promotional gimmick when Atlantic City, New Jersey, hotelmen decided to stage a flashy fall festival, or “pageant” to entice summer tourists to stay in town past Labor Day. On the boardwalk, “the most beautiful bathing beauties in America,” strutted their stuff. Newspaperman Herb Test said, “Let’s call her Miss America!” Eight contestants competed with Margaret Gorman, who represented the nation’s capital as Miss Washington D.C., won. The sixteen-year-old schoolgirl was a dead ringer for reigning matinee superstar, Mary Pickford. Talent became mandatory in 1938 and scholarships were first awarded in 1945.
The next big pageant came along in the 1950’s when Miss America 1951 Yolande Betbeze refused to pose in a swimsuit, insisting that she was a classical singer, not a pin-up. (BTW, she is a native of Mobile, Alabama, where I live!) Officials supported her decision, but main sponsor Catalina Swimwear quit and started the sexier Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss World. In case you don’t know, Donald Trump now owns those systems. I also think it’s rather interesting to note that these systems were the first to work for world charities, even beginning in their earliest year of 1951, while Miss America is now better known for supporting its national platform, the Children’s Miracle Network, along with each contestant’s personal issue.
Basically in the United States, Miss America http://www.missamerica.org/ and Miss USA http://www.missuniverse.com/missusa are the premier two pageants. Many others exist including those for women of all ages, single, married, divorced, minorities only, plus size, and even senior citizens. There are pageants for teens and children young as zero. The first international pageant for children was staged in Miami, Florida, in 1960. It was Little Miss Universe.
To be blunt, pageants are a way for the owners/directors to make money. Most, particularly those involving children, most likely began when someone got mad about something and broke away, founding another system. Each new system had a new set of rules regarding dress, make-up, modeling, talent, etc. That’s why you now have everything from all natural (no make-up and minimal sparkles) to glitz (think Toddler’s and Tiara’s). It’s true, in glitz pageants, spray tans, flippers (fake teeth), hair pieces (extensions and/or wigs), Tammy Faye Baker make-up, and lots and lots of rhinestones are not only necessary, but required to win. Glitz pageants are the ones giving away cars and ginormous crowns. Talent is usually optional while “fancy” modeling rules the runway. Even boys can compete!
The more natural ones opt for scholarship money. Most of them and the middle-of-the-road (a little make-up) pageants focus more on talent and are considered to be Youth Development Programs (YDP) as opposed to a “pageant” where you win a crown and go home. YDP’s provide a “reign” and not only for the winner, but all contestants involved have the opportunity to participate in parades and entertain at various festivals, fairs, and other venues throughout the year. This provides opportunities to be on stage (or doing backhandsprings on a flat bed trailer as I often did) and try out different talents or work on public speaking skills.
A girl may sing one number and dance the next. That usually means changing with a few mamas holding up beach towels to create a dressing room. Who said pageant life was glamorous? Participants also meet political leaders and take part in charitable events. Friendships are formed and competing many times becomes secondary to having fun with friends.
Opponents to pageants say they degrade women and children, turning them into puppets and sex objects. Contestants often develop eating disorders and spend way more money than they ever receive, even in the popular scholarship based Miss America and Distinguished Young Woman (formerly Jr. Miss – which does not consider itself a pageant, but for argument’s sake, I’m including it as a scholarship source for young women). They say that pageants encourage women/girls to not be their true selves, but a made-up version, which encourages excess plastic surgery. The Jon Bennett Ramsey incident still haunts us, but her parents maintained, as the vast majority of pageant parents do, that this is hobby. Boys play baseball. Girls put on pretty dresses and smile.
Proponents argue that pageants develop poise, self-confidence, and talent. Lynn Maggio, 2011 Mrs. Alabama International believes, “pageantry has given me the confidence to explore other opportunities. It has contributed to the way look and feel, put me in the public eye, and helped me use the abilities and talents I have that otherwise I would not have been exposed.” Laura Newton says, “I have two daughters that have competed in pageants for the last ten years. I can see a difference in their self-confidence, ability to speak in front of others, and their ability to interview well. I feel they have grown from this experience socially and mentally.” I can attest that pageant experience gives you the skills to think on your feet and speak in front of a crowd with zero prompting and preparation. Just the fall, Miss Alabama 2010 Ashley Davis http://www.missalabama.com/ and I emceed together. We had about an hour’s worth of technical difficulties, but the show never slowed or stopped because we were able to adlib, interview each other and audience members, speak on our personal platforms, tell jokes, and entertain. (Thank you Ashley!)
Those skills translate into other areas of life. For example, having been interviewed in front of judges at a pageant makes a job interview a cakewalk because pageant judges are famous for asking (1.) General pageant questions (What is your ambition and why? What three words best describe you? (2.) Current events (How do you feel about the US government’s involvement in Egypt? Name your Senator, Congressman, and the president’s daughters.), and (3.) Stupid pageant questions (What kitchen utensil best describes you? If you could be a car, animal, color, flower, etc. what would it be and why?). Don’t forget you have about two seconds to come up with an intelligent reply. Interview questions make you think on your feet and develop the skills to articulate opinions. Research has shown that pageant participates do well academically in school because of the discipline pageants develop. Girls must practice their talent, modeling (yep, I’ve walked around my house with a book on my head in pajamas and high heels), and study up on interview (read the newspaper and watch CNN). Other advantages are increased interest in community service and volunteerism, bonding time between parent and child (unless you have one of those moms), and increased in physical health (no jiggly thighs in swimsuit). It’s important to mention that Miss America’s stance on the swimsuit competition is they keep the tradition, not because that’s how the pageant got its start, but because the American public expects its winner to be beautiful and physically fit.
So why are pageants so popular in the South? The entire top five in Miss America 2009 were all southerners (including Miss Alabama!) and as much as we like to think Southern Belles are just plain prettier, that’s not the case. Pageant judge Cheryl Bonner coins Southerners’ appreciation of beauty as The Scarlett O’Hara Effect. Foo foo hairdos and fancy dresses come from that old Southern Belle look which we southerners have been exposed to all our lives as a form of beauty. In essence, we love our traditions. Since pageants have been around for nearly 100 years, it makes sense that we would love parading that beauty around and watching it.
What’s your take on pageants? My seven year-old pageant veteran advises, “Be sure to wear a slip because those dresses itch so bad you’ll feel like a cheetah is attacking you!” Why do you think we are obsessed with pageants in the South? Do you have a pageant experience you want to share? I’ll go first and admit my most embarrassing story. Before evening gown competition in a Miss Alabama preliminary, I went to the restroom then went on stage with my dress tucked in my panty hose! Thankfully, the dress was full and created a bustle of sorts. Here’s another memory. Luckily, they have all these fancy pasty gadgets nowadays, but back in the day, one had to tape their breasts for extra perkiness. I used cloth first aid tape, but once I was out used Duck Tape. Can you say pain? There was not enough baby oil in the world to make getting that stuff off hurt any less. I’ve had “wardrobe malfunctions” too, but simply tugged on that top back in place and kept on dancing. I’ve even made the mistake of going to the restroom after swimsuit competition and let me say that spray glue on one’s behind mixed with a toilet seat HURTS! After that experience, I added baby wipes to my list of “must haves” along with Q-tips, lipstick, mascara, and hairspray. Lots of hairspray!