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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

September 7, 2021: PageantStudying: Vanessa Williams

[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 what’s deeply frustrating about a 1980s scandal, and how its subject transcended it nonetheless.

As all of this week’s posts will no doubt reveal, I have a number of issues with both beauty pageants in general and the Miss America pageant in particular. But with that said, there’s no denying the fact that 1984 Miss America winner Vanessa Williams comprised a striking and inspiring story. The descendant of one of the first African American state legislators in post-Civil War Tennessee (William A. Feilds), and the daughter of two elementary school music teachers (Helen Tinch and Milton Augustine Williams Jr.), Williams’ March 1963 birth announcement actually read “Here she is: Miss America.” When she won the September 1983 pageant as Miss New York (making her the 1984 Miss America, as the reign lasts for a full year), fulfilling that prescient prediction and bringing all that history and heritage to the stage with her, she became the first African American Miss America, a long-overdue and important step toward diversifying what had for too long been a profoundly white event.

Which makes the following year’s scandal all the more frustrating. In September 1984 (just a few weeks before Williams’ reign would have concluded at the next pageant) Penthouse magazine acquired private nude photos that a young Williams had taken and chose to publish them in the September issue, and Williams was pressured by the pageant organization to relinquish her title to the runner-up, Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles. This “scandal” was frustrating in part because of the false dichotomy between amateur and professional contestants about which I wrote in yesterday’s post—if we acknowledged that all contestants are in one way or another already professional models, I believe the photos would have been far less controversial. But it’s especially frustrating because of the stunning hypocrisy: the entire ethos of the Miss America pageant (like all beauty pageants) is to ogle the contestants, to treat them as objects to be scrutinized in every conceivable way (including while wearing very little in the swimsuit portion); so I have to think that the real problem with Williams’ photos was that they weren’t part of the pageant, not able to be controlled within that objectifying environment.

The Miss America folks seem to have belatedly recognized that fact as well, and at the September 2015 pageant CEO Sam Haskell offered an overdue public apology to both Williams and her mother. But in truth, it was all that Williams had done and accomplished over those intervening 32 years that truly reflected how far beyond Miss America she had gone (and perhaps had always been): eight studio albums to date that have included a #1 hit (“Save the Best for Last”) and multiple Grammy nominations; performances in more than 25 films, with NAACP and Harlem Film Festival awards for two of them (1997’s Soul Food and 2007’s My Brother); three Primetime Emmy nominations and one win for her role on Ugly Betty, one of countless TV shows of which she’s been part; a Tony nomination for her performance in a 2002 revival of Into the Woods; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and all sorts of work as an entrepreneur, spokesperson, and philanthropist. If the Miss America pageant truly seeks to celebrate the most impressive and inspiring American women, there couldn’t possibly be a more deserving winner than Vanessa Williams; and if, as the scandal indicates, the pageant has a far too narrow and conservative view of that identity, then Williams makes plain how silly and superficial that perspective is.

Next PageantStudying tomorrow,


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

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