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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | PATT MORRISON

Miss Physically Fit America

September 12, 1997|PATT MORRISON

The saddest boast I have ever heard--and they really were proud of it, which is what made it so tragic--was the Miss America pageant officials bragging about being the single biggest source of scholarship money for women in the United States.

Take a moment to get your mind around that.

The richest pot of dough available to America's young women to educate themselves to become doctors, CEOs, professors, public officials, lawyers, leaders of nation and family--and you have to parade around in a bathing suit on national TV to get it.

Imagine telling a young man he could win a full ride to Pomona or Cornell if he'd sashay down a runway with 49 other young men all dressed like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business." Forget penis envy--this would border on penis panic.

Miss America 1994 bit the hand that crowned her on this point: "If you're competing for a scholarship and a job to become a spokesperson for your platform, you should be judged on your heart and mind and how you handle yourself, not on how you wear swimsuits." Downey, Lynwood, Moorpark and Ojai have done away with the swimsuit part altogether, as unseemly for a scholarship contest.

And yet the Miss America people get apoplectic to hear it called a beauty pageant, not unlike the exasperated American military attache in Vietnam scolding reporters, "You keep calling it bombing, bombing, bombing. It's not bombing. It's air support."

Organizers have had to twist themselves into spandex knots over the swimsuit question. Now it's about "physical fitness." Oh? Then why not require each contestant to negotiate a flight of stairs hefting three bags of leaking groceries, change a flat tire and run through an airport terminal toting a suitcase, a briefcase and a PC?

Years ago, when a Miss California visited the Los Angeles City Council chambers, the then-viable Councilman Gil Lindsay introduced her as the winner of "the beauty contest. Or the intelligence contest, or whatever you want to call it."

Whatever you want to call it, it happens again Saturday night in Atlantic City--Miss America Inc., a Pillsbury Bake-Off with mascara, an institution as puzzlingly and wholly American as Spam kebabs.

*

It was 1921. Women had been allowed to vote for a year. And Miss America began, as so many great American institutions do, as a commercial enterprise, this one to extend the summer season in Atlantic City.

Even the honorific "Miss America" was so wholesome, so patriotic, who could find fault? It gave the leering Babbitts who organized every county fair and industrial show the go-ahead to exhibit cheesecake on the midway, so long as it wore the banner of Miss Goulash County or Miss Vo-Ag State . . . while the forthright undulations of the hootchy-kootchy girl were banished to sideshow tents that no one would admit having visited.

(For years there was a Miss Los Angeles Press Club contest, the winner chosen, as a mid-'70s judge remarked, "because she has big tits, and that's what it's all about.")

Miss America is getting more relevant the way the English crown is getting more relevant, glacially. And like the late Princess of Wales, haloed with real diamonds, our Miss America, crowned with more democratic rhinestones, is, in her person, intended to be the apotheosis of glamour and compassion.

And like the English crown, Miss A is still and always a lagging social indicator, not a leading one. Sportswriter Frank Deford's fine 1971 book on the pageant notes that winners--praised as the cream of American youth by people old enough to be their grandparents--were so studiedly noncommittal that one winner declared with a straight face that she could not decide who was better looking, John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon.

A journalist has now been signed on to grill the finalists, a woman who anchors some show called "American Journal." Hers is precisely the kind of job many Miss A contestants covet, as if the pageant were a training ground for future news readers and Kathie Lee Giffords. Whatever they say they aspire to do with their lives, they seem to end up in show biz. Keep in mind the guaranteed gig for the winner is a spot on the "Tonight Show," not on "Jeopardy!"

I don't think I'll watch. All right, maybe with the sound down, supplying my own dialogue, organizing in my head a Ms. America pageant. The judges, instead of the likes of Bruce Jenner, Donald Trump and Larry King, would be Camille Paglia, Francis Crick and Margaret Atwood. The physical fitness winner would be a VMI undergrad who fieldstrips an M-16 and scales a 6-foot wall. And the talent winner, a Caltech biochemistry major, would clone Bert Parks onstage.

Theeeere he is . . . and there and there and everywhere he is . . .

Organizers have had to twist themselves into spandex knots over the swimsuit question. Now it's about 'physical fitness.' Oh?

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