By Elizabeth Gracen:
Miss America turns 100 next year. As a former Miss A, it is hard to believe that I am actually part of an iconic organization—a real slice of Americana that has survived the test of time. Very few "brands" have lasted that long, let alone a competition that started as a bathing beauty contest in the 1920s.
Over the years, what Miss America "is" has changed, sometimes reluctantly, along with the zeitgeist of American culture. The Miss America Foundation is now the largest scholarship foundation for young women in the country but finds itself floundering to stay afloat in the ever-changing tide of public opinion and a renewed passion for women's rights that could stop Miss America in her tracks.
When I sat down to read Margot Mifflin's new book, Looking For Miss America, I was in the middle of editing my documentary film about Miss America 1955 Lee Meriwether and just starting an edit for another archival documentary film I had agreed to produce for the Miss America Foundation. The latter film will help celebrate Miss America's 100th and assist in raising money for a Forever Miss America Scholarship fund. To be quite honest, I didn't really know the specific history of Miss America when I started, and I knew next to nothing about most of the Miss As from the early years. The moment could have not been more synchronistic and helpful to me, and because of Ms. Mifflin's book, I can pair the fascinating timeline reflecting America's ever-changing idea of what a woman should be with some of the pioneering women behind it.
I met Margot Mifflin over a year ago at the Hollywood Bowl when a handful of former Miss Americas performed three nights with the fabulous Pink Martini orchestra. At that time, Margot was about to finish her book and was in the process of interviewing former Miss As. I got a chance to tell her my thoughts about the organization and was curious to find out what she had discovered about this almost century-old institution.
EG: Margot, first of all, congratulations on Looking For Miss America! I just finished it, and I want to commend you on such a thorough, fair look at this almost 100-year-old American institution. What made you want to write about the history of Miss America? How long did it take you to research and write the book?
MM: Thank you! That means a lot, especially coming someone who knows it from the inside and has written about it so probingly herself. I became interested in it after stumbling on it on TV five or six years ago and marveling that the swimsuit portion was still happening. I wanted to know more about who competed in it and why they did it, and I was surprised to discover no feminist critic had analyzed it at length considering how long it had been around. I also wanted to explore what it meant for a woman to “represent” America and how that representation had changed over the course of its history. That’s what makes Miss America much more interesting than Miss USA—the patriotic piece of it has been baked in from the start. I started researching it almost six years ago and did the interviews and writing over the course of about a year in 2018–2019.
EG: I’ve been working on a huge Miss America Foundation project this past month that involves a chronology of the winners, so your book has really made the journey interesting. Knowing some of the backstories to the fantastic archival images that I’ve been assembling into a film has been incredibly helpful—especially your coverage of the early days when Miss America was a bathing beauty contest on the beach. Is there one Miss America who really stood out for you in terms of a sensational story?
MM: I loved researching Yolande Betbeze because her story was so incredible (she refused to wear a swimsuit after she won in 1950) and historic (her refusal caused Catalina swimwear to pull their sponsorship of Miss America and launch Miss USA). She was also glamorous and charming and politically outspoken at a time when winners were supposed to keep their politics to themselves. And she was hilariously funny and quotable. When Columbia Pictures tried to entice her into a movie contract by saying she could be the new Rita Hayworth, she said, “I think I’ll just stay the old Yolande Betbeze.” Because she was confident and comfortable with herself, she wasn’t seized by the anxiety of having to parlay her career into some kind of quick fame; she took it slow and pursued acting, activism, and sang opera, the skill that had earned her two encores on the Miss America stage the night she won.
EG: As someone who was involved in the world of Miss America for a short period of time and stepped away for almost thirty years, Looking For Miss America helped me fill in the years when I was not part of it. I’m struck by the ever-changing yet somehow always behind-the-times evolution of the organization’s journey. It’s amazing that it has endured for almost 100 years. Why do you think has kept going?
MM: I think it’s a combination of two things: people enjoying the spectacle of seeing women’s bodies, beauty, and fashion on display, and its inherent appeal as a talent-based elimination competition like The Voice and American Idol. In its heyday in the mid-20th century, it was also about its fans truly believing there was such a thing as an ideal American woman whose value could be measured and ranked, and part of its decline today has come with the recognition that this is impossible now that we have a greater appreciation of American diversity—in religion (the pageant is very heavily dominated by Christians), in body type, and in non-binary gender identity and presentation.
EG: In the timeline of Miss A, when do you think Miss America was the most relevant? Do you think it possible that it will ever be relevant again?
MM: I actually think it was most relevant (even at its least popular) in the past two years, when it dispensed with a lot of the baggage that’s been the target of feminist criticism for over half a century: the swimsuit competition (which most of the women I quote said they found troubling at best and utterly mortifying at worst) and the compulsory talent (it’s great that Camille Schrier won without having to pose as an entertainer to win and instead embraced the science that’s her true passion).
EG: How easy was it for you to get access to former Miss As, staff, and contestants? Were they eager to talk to you?
MM: It was initially very difficult to get access to Miss Americas at all, because the Miss America Organization wouldn’t put me in touch with any of them or pass on interview requests to them—something I’ve never experienced as a journalist approaching an organization for interviews. The MAO seemed either very armored (they oddly refused press passes to journalists covering the last two pageants) or possibly just very short staffed and disorganized. So I had to find contact information for them independently and approach people on my own through social media or through friends of mine who had contacts. This got easier as the people I interviewed shared contact info for other people, maybe because they saw I was genuinely trying to understand the workings of the pageant and their experience in it. But everyone I interviewed was very generous with their time (and kind about my endless follow-up clarifications and fact-checking).
EG: Having witnessed the latest growth spurt of the organization, I’m curious about what you think about the high drama that has surrounded the elimination of swimsuit, Miss America 2.0, and the still-very-contentious factions that pull at the fabric of the organization. As someone outside looking in, what do you think is really at stake?
MM: About the swimsuit itself, I feel what’s at stake is the question of whether women should be expected to show their bodies in exchange for an opportunity and/or money, a transaction that seems so many kinds of wrong in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. I know many people feel the swimsuit is about showing fitness, but we only have to look at fit athletes who don’t perform in swimsuits to see that this isn’t necessary. The swimsuit debate was later inverted by swimsuit defenders who suggested that anyone opposed to it believed that smart women couldn’t be sexy. Of course smart women can be sexy and should wear sexy swimsuits if they choose. But that’s different from requiring contestants to do this in order to compete. This debate seems to be about tradition versus change. And more broadly, it seems to be about the very essence of Miss America’s 1920's roots as a bathing beauty competition and people who are still very attached to that part of it versus people who want to see it evolve out of that.
EG: Having studied Miss America and chronicled the twists and turns it has taken over the years, would you ever support your daughter if she said she wanted to be part of the Miss America system?
MM: I do have a 24 year-old daughter! Based on my research and interviews, I would discourage my daughter from doing this, even though I do see the value it holds for many of the women I interviewed and came to understand their reasons much better through my research. As a professor, I worry about how the amount of time this “scholarship competition” requires for activities not related to academics or to the person’s chosen ambition. As a mother, I would worry about its focus on appearance and its insistence on a very narrow definition of gender. And I think she herself would be troubled by the discriminatory nature of a scholarship program that excludes young mothers (which many of my public university students are) who are, demographically, the women in our society most in need of college scholarships.
Order Margot Mifflin's book, Looking For Miss America, here.