Why Are So Many Miss America Contestants Tossing Their Tiaras Into the Political Ring?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 26 2012 6:00 AM

Here She Comes, Miss (Elected) America 

More beauty queens than ever before are running for office. Is the pageant getting smarter or our political culture getting dumber?

The top five finalists in the 2012 Miss America Pageant.
The finalists in the 2012 Miss America pageant: Laura Kaeppeler, Miss Wisconsin (the eventual winner); Betty Thompson, Miss Oklahoma; Jennifer Sedler, Miss Arizona; Kaitlin Monte, Miss New York; and Noelle Freeman, Miss California. The pageant was Jan. 14 at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

“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.

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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.

But then times changed. Just a few years after the Church’s decree, Miss America started facing criticism from the left, particularly from feminists who labeled the event prudish and out of step with the women’s lib movement. Women were now burning their bras, not modeling them.

Throughout the 1970s the Miss America pageant steadily lost its cultural relevancy, reflected in declining television ratings. It stopped being one of the most watched TV events of the year, and by the late 1980s the picture was bleak. Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman penned a book, Hype and Glory, detailing his experience as a judge at the 1989 Miss America pageant, writing:  “Lately it’s been drifting. Lots of reasons: feminism, a proliferation of clone contests, a sense that there was something nineteenth-century about the endeavor. ... It was still the dream of thousands of young women all across the country (but mainly in small towns).” And who won the title that year? Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson.

The success of Carlson’s network can in part explain why Miss America contestants are now chasing careers in politics. Carlson and her other 24-hour cable news cohorts from across the political spectrum have turned politics into entertainment and politicians into TV personalities. Candidates and pols are expected to “always be on,” sound bites win the day, and female politicians in particular must look the part—qualities Miss America contestants actually strive to develop while still in their 20s. The life of a political candidate or politician is a never-ending judged performance, and beauty queens are uniquely prepared for the scrutiny.

And the pageant keeps grooming them. In its pursuit of gravitas, Miss America added a new component to its competition in 1990: the “platform” issue. Each contestant, starting at the preliminary local pageant, has a platform that she addresses throughout her year if she wins at the state or national level. Scholarship money is awarded to the best platforms. This year three contestants won $12,000 in scholarship money at the Miss America pageant on the strength of their platforms; the swimsuit winners were awarded only a combined $3,000. The current Miss America’s platform is supporting and mentoring children with incarcerated parents, and last year’s winner, Teresa Scanlan, focused on combating eating disorders in young girls. Erika Harold, whose platform issues included bullying and abstinence, tells me that she enjoyed interacting with legislators and testifying before Congress on these issues. Her experience seeing the legislative process provided additional motivation to pursue a political career.

(Remember, not all the gals are conservative. Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett’s platform was AIDS prevention, an especially bold choice in the early 1990s, and one that appealed to an important group of pageant loyalists: gay men. The pageant world, with its warring camps of fans—small-town evangelicals and big-city gay men—is a pretty good microcosm of our current political system, in fact. That the first two states to legalize same-sex marriage—Hawaii and Vermont—boast recent state queens who are currently running for state political office is, if not representative, at least noteworthy.)

Harold remembers watching Miss America and political conventions on television as a child. The pomp and circumstance of both appealed (constituents waving signs, wearing buttons, and cheering wildly for their state rep), so Harold isn’t surprised that politics and pageantry have converged more generally in American society. “Reporters ask [celebrities] their opinions about political events a lot more. Decades ago you could be a public figure without being forced to engage on other issues. Now in order to be relevant you have to be able to give your opinions,” she said. 

Is this the future of Miss America? Will contestants soon start wearing their political affiliations like a badge, trying to win the support of a certain constituency? We wouldn’t be surprised. After all, although she is supposed to represent all, like the reigning Miss America explained, in the end the queen only represents herself. Sound familiar?

Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a sociologist currently writing a book about beauty pageants and American culture.

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