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Monday, September 6, 2021

September 6, 2021: PageantStudying: Miss America’s Origins

[September 7-8 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy histories and stories of pageants!]

On two interesting and important contexts for that 1921 origin point.

The first Miss America pageant (not yet known by that name, which was first used the following year) was really a combination of a few distinct events. More than 1500 women submitted photographic entries for a new contest, the Inter-City Beauty Contest, which promised to reward one finalist with the new “Golden Mermaid” award. But that was in fact a later stage in the process—the winner among the six Inter-City contest finalists, 16 year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington, DC, then competed against two winners from a simultaneous and longstanding Atlantic City contest, the Bather’s Revue: the “amateur winner,” Kathyrn Gearon of Camden; and the “professional beauty,” silent film actress Virginia Lee. Gorman was once again selected as the winner and awarded the Golden Mermaid, and would come back for the 1922 and 1923 pageants, identified in 1922 as “Miss America” which was the first time the phrase was used for the pageant and its winner (although it was still also known as the Inter-City Beauty Contest for many years thereafter).

The presence of “professional” as well as “amateur” contestants and categories in this first pageant importantly complicates longstanding (and I would argue still ongoing) narratives of beauty pageants as entirely amateur in nature. As with the Olympics, there’s a mythos around the image of all competitors as amateurs, one that masks the fundamentally profit-based nature of the event (on which more in the next paragraph). And as with the Olympic Games, the truth is that there has always been a spectrum of experiences and identities present at these events, from genuinely youthful and amateur participants like Gorman (who herself became at least semi-professional through her returns to the subsequent two pageants) through many variations of models, actresses, and other professional categories. Some of the scandals around particular pageant participants (such as Vanessa Williams, about whom I’ll have a lot more to say tomorrow) would dissipate if we did away with the mythic vision of all-amateur pageants, a vision which in any case also and troublingly seeks to distinguish between types of contestants and their motivations.

Moreover, whatever the motivations of individual contestants, the motivations behind this new 1921 pageant were clear and overt. Mass leisure and entertainment spots like Atlantic City were still relatively new in the early 20th century, and were finding themselves challenged to draw audiences at particular times, including for example the period after Labor Day. So the Inter-City Beauty Contest was created by the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City and scheduled for this precise moment—and the longstanding Bather’s Revue pushed back from its regular summer spot—in order to keep tourists in and drew new ones to Atlantic City during that crucial post-Labor Day period. Even more strikingly, the contest and its winner were connected to broader narratives of American work and ideals, as illustrated by labor leader Samuel Gompers’ quote in the New York Times about Gorman: “She represents the type of womanhood America needs—strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests.” Not sure I need to say much more about the multiple layers of AmericanStudies contexts present in that quote, and thus represented in this first Miss America pageant.

Next PageantStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Pageant histories, stories, or contexts you’d share?

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