Longtime master of ceremonies Bert Parks, center, with Miss America 1955… (Miss America Organization )
If the term "beauty pageant" seems quaint, you're not alone in your thinking. Television ratings for the Miss America pageant have declined significantly in the last 20 years, dropping from 29 million viewers in 1989 to 4.5 million last year, according to the Nielsen Co. There's way too much instant gratification to be had online, and our culture has seen the definition of "talent" expand to include "GTLing" (gym, tan, laundry) on "Jersey Shore" and acts our mothers never dreamed of.
And yet, the Miss America festivities continue. On Jan. 15, ABC will broadcast the pageant live from the Planet Hollywood Hotel in Las Vegas. This year will acknowledge the event's 90th anniversary, celebrating nine decades of women who have dedicated themselves to beauty, smarts and dancing, flute playing and belting out pop standards. And it will mark the largest gathering of Miss Americas in history — at least 50 women who wore the crown are scheduled to take the stage.
For the reigning Miss America, getting appropriately clothed, done up and photo ready is a complex process — one she does without the help of a stylist or entourage. When the winner travels (20,000 miles a month), she blow-dries her own hair, curls her own lashes and chooses her own outfits.
She will visit a new city every other day and needs a wardrobe that is fashionable but travel-friendly. Essentials include business attire with four pairs of slacks and six to eight blouses, at least two cocktail dresses and one evening gown and about six pairs of shoes to complement her wardrobe.
But will she be stylish?
Staying up-to-date isn't getting any easier for beauty contestants as they face the question of whether sexier is better. Last year, for example, 51 Miss USA hopefuls posed for their contestant photos and promotion videos in sexy lingerie, some of them in large beds with rumpled sheets. The publicity stunt garnered plenty of, well, publicity, but some fans complained about the lack of family values.
Sam Haskell, chairman of the board of directors of the Miss America Organization, says there "is no pressure about being sexier." Rather, the pressure is "just to stay relevant. That keeps young women … participating."
It should be noted, however, that some Miss America contestants do wear two-piece bathing suits — a far cry from the first pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., when 200 local women and tourists dressed in modest swimsuits competed against 11 professional models in what was called the Bather's Revue. Instead of a crown, the winner took home the Golden Mermaid Trophy.
What follows are a few more highlights from the last 90 years of pageantry.
Margaret Gorman was only 16 when a combination of official judging and rapturous audience applause won her the titles of Inter-City Beauty, Amateur and Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America at a small beauty pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. Gorman then beat out two winners of a Bather's Revue contest to win the Golden Mermaid Trophy. The following year, she returned to defend her titles and was named the first Miss America.
Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926, was an "it" girl of sorts who had some understanding of her own worth. She caused quite a scandal when she charged fees for public appearances and endorsements, and she used her crown to earn an income of about $100,000, more than Babe Ruth or the president of the United States.
Marian Bergeron was announced as Miss America 1933. But there was so much confusion during and after the vote tabulations that no one bothered to inform her that she had won. She was unaware of her victory until the dressing assistants placed the banner on her. She was 151/2.
Perhaps the weight of the crown was too heavy for Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, to bear, so she fled Atlantic City, N.J., before her press conference. In her absence, no other contestant was crowned Miss America, though several participants from that year have made claim to the title throughout the decades.
Ever wonder when it became mandatory for Miss America to be beautiful and talented? In 1938, talent became a mandatory part of the competition. Pictured is Miss America 1938 Marilyn Meseke tap dancing her way to victory.
Miss America 1939 Patricia Donnelly was the last Miss America to be crowned on the Steel Pier of Atlantic City, N.J. When asked by judges what she would do if she became Miss America, she replied, "I'd drop dead!"