“Do you think Miss America should be free to declare her political affiliation?”
This was the question posed to Miss Wisconsin during the final interview in the 2012 Miss America Pageant. Laura Kaeppeler responded in the negative, asserting that “Miss America represents everyone.” The judges obviously liked that answer—just minutes later Kaeppeler was crowned Miss America 2012—but more than a few of her pageant sisters would disagree, especially those tossing their tiaras into the political ring.
Although Sarah Palin may be the most famous of the beauty-queen politicians, she wasn’t the most successful in the Miss America pageant system. Palin failed to advance out of the state competition, finishing as the second runner-up at the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant. Shelli Yoder, however, finished as the second runner-up at the 1993 Miss America Pageant—and now she’s running for U.S. Congress as a Democrat out of the 9th District of Indiana. Erika Harold won the whole shebang when she was crowned Miss America 2003, and she went on to run for national office, hoping to represent the 13th District of Indiana in the U.S. House (and recently failed to secure the Republican Party’s nod). Republican and Miss Hawaii 2011 Lauren Cheape remains in the hunt to represent District 45 in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, as does Democrat Caroline Bright, Miss Vermont 2010, who is pursuing a spot in the Vermont Senate.
So why is a once proudly apolitical pageant turning out so many wannabe politicians this election cycle (more than ever before, according to records kept by the Miss America Organization)? The answer can at least partly be found in the way the Miss America pageant has reinvigorated itself after decades of declining relevancy. Navigating the reign of reality television, the female athlete-turned-superstar, televised Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, and the soaring rates of women in higher education, Miss America has increasingly become more serious, emphasizing scholarship money and advocacy (though, yes, to win, a woman still needs to wear a bathing suit on national television). In 2012 the broadcast enjoyed its best ratings in eight years. As the Miss America brand evolves, the American political system/media circus continues to devolve. One world gets more serious, one gets less, and the two collide somewhere in the middle: The time seems right for the beauty-queen politician.
Just two years out of the pageant system and already on the campaign trail, Bright thinks that Miss America contestants have great potential as political candidates and politicians because, “We’re trained for it. We spent all year getting ready to do this job [of Miss America], which has the same qualifications you need to run for public office.”
Bright’s talking about intelligence, a commitment to public service, media savvy, the ability to handle a rigorous travel schedule and attend countless civic events, and the knack for listening and speaking to a group of people at a moment’s notice. There’s also, of course, that “all-American face and form,” per the Miss America anthem. The pageant’s adherence to traditional notions of femininity has led to the assumption that Miss America contestants lean right with their traditional, conservative values (and are best suited to attract conservative votes). For the most part this is true. Sue Lowden—Miss New Jersey 1973, former Chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, and a Miss America board member who sits on the judges’ committee—confirms that, yes, “many of our gals are conservative.”
When the Miss America Pageant started in 1921, though, the seven gals who participated were far from traditional. Originally conceived of as a bathing-suit beauty contest to keep tourists on the Jersey Shore past Labor Day, the pageant only attracted women who were comfortable parading around in a bathing suit—pretty scandalous behavior in the ’20s. The next year 54 women with dreams of Hollywood and Broadway showed up on the boardwalk. Women’s organizations and church groups immediately protested, and by 1928 the pageant was discontinued due to the negative attention. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the pageant mounted a real comeback and started to strive for respectability.
To that end, Miss America organizers introduced the talent portion of the competition (particularly appealing to those women interested in entertainment careers) and started giving scholarships to the winner. Here, again, the pageant was not conservative: Supporting higher education for women in the 1940s was not exactly toeing the accepted line. What’s more, in 1959 the Roman Catholic Church, long critical of the event because it considered the swimsuit competition indecent, instituted a formal ban, declaring that contestants would be expelled from any Catholic institution and denied the sacraments for a period if they participated in the pageant.