When Melissa King entered the Delaware foster care system at age 12, she weathered anxiety, depression, and frequent court-mandated hearings as she made the transition to a new school, a new family, and a new social life. While the state provided her with government supervision and therapy sessions, she lacked the monetary support that lined the pockets of her new peers: No money for “gowns, clothes, shoes, prom, sports, anything really,” she said in an interview about her foster care experiences. When King aged out of the system at 18, she did some porn, entered some pageants, and enrolled in college in Philadelphia.
Last November, King was crowned Miss Delaware Teen USA. Yesterday, she gave up her crown after an explicit video purporting to feature her surfaced on an amateur porn website called “Girls Do Porn.” (King has denied that it’s her in the video, but she—via her lawyer—did voluntarily cede her throne.) Now she’s being publicly shamed by former friends and international news organizations because a pretty young woman like her can publicly compete for money in a beauty pageant, or she can collect some cash in amateur porn, but she's not allowed to do both at the same time. Thirty years after Vanessa Williams was pushed from her Miss America pedestal over leaked nude photos, we’re still breathlessly reporting on the moral fiber of these fallen beauty queens without stopping to assess the hazy value judgments being passed.
Beauty pageants like Miss USA peddle a particular fantasy: That of the sexy-yet-virginal girl-next door who parades around for the public in skimpy swimwear, but saves sex for that special someone. Franchise owner Donald Trump stands in as the creepy uncle, assessing contestants’ sexual attractiveness and purity. Women who compete in his pageants are required to look good in a bikini; have never been married or pregnant; and be possessing of “good health and moral character,” a qualification that could conceivably bar women for everything from a pornographic past to a physical disability.
Amateur porn sites like Girls Do Porn are selling a slight variation on that trope: The good girl gone bad—for the very first time! Girls Do Porn advertises itself as “a reality website that features 18-21 year old females making their very first adult videos." Like Miss Teen USA, it shuns women who have had sex on camera before: “No porn stars found here.” Pageant girls, on the other hand, are prized. “You’re actually a Miss … a Miss Teen?” an off-camera interviewer excitedly asks King before she disrobes. “You do beauty pageants? … That’s crazy.”
But it's not so crazy. Pageants and porn are patrolling two sides of a very thin sexual boundary. And for a young, pretty girl who’s strapped for cash and lacking familial and institutional support, only one of those options is offering cash up-front. In the five-minute Girls Do Porn video, King tells the man behind the camera that she consented to do porn because, “I thought it’d be fun” and “I needed the money.” In exchange for a year of promotional work on behalf of the pageant, Miss Delaware Teen USA winners can expect to receive useless commemorative trinkets and copious tools for exhaustively grooming themselves into perpetuity. Listed prizes include a trophy, a crown, a banner, a car magnet, a specially-designed doll, two fancy dresses, two rings, two pendants, a hair straightener, a self-tanning kit, nail polish, lip gloss, a handbag made out of candy wrappers, a “smile enhancement,” modeling and acting lessons, a 20 percent discount on a New York Film Academy workshop, a gym training package, a “wardrobe consult,” a pair of shoes, and some cash reserved for representing their state in the national pageant. The young women billed as Delaware’s rising stars also receive a shot at a $40,000 scholarship that can be exclusively fulfilled, for some reason, at Missouri Presbyterian liberal arts college Lindenwood. So: No real money.
King, of course, won’t even collect these prizes, because she broke some unspoken pretty girl law of sexual propriety when she used her body for money in the incorrect venue.
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