Commentary Magazine


There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America, by Frank Deford

A Pretty Girl. . .

There She is: the Life and Times of Miss A12:41 America.
by Frank Deford.
Viking. 351 pp. Illustrated. $10.00.

Miss America is chosen every September in Atlantic City, and promptly sinks into oblivion so far as most of the nation is concerned. The televised pageant at which she is crowned, however, apparently commands the attention of an enormous number, more than any other television special ever gets except the Academy Awards, Bob Hope, and the Super Bowl. Indeed, somewhere about the middle of There She Is, Frank Deford observes that if Bob Hope were to crown Miss America during half-time at the Super Bowl, the whole nation would grind to a halt, since according to the figures every man, woman, and child would be watching television at that moment.

There is a felicitous combination of appealing elements in the Miss America Pageant that is evidently irresistible to Americans of all kinds, most of whom don’t give it a thought between one September and the next—except, of course, for those seventy-thousand girls who annually aim for the title. Before eighty-million people can see her crowned, a girl has had to devote herself for a good part of the year to the winning of beauty contests—not to being beautiful, of course, but to being chosen. She triumphantly represents the traditional American goal of “personal achievement” in its purest form: to win a competition in competition-winning.

The television popularity of the Atlantic City finals demonstrates the strength of our national delight in watching and comparing pretty girls, a pleasure which is certainly not lessened when the circumstances are free of guilt and laden with sanctions. Miss America’s appeal is obviously not “real” beauty or even physical attraction, but a kind of conventional artlessness about these qualities. Her sexuality is supposed to be the virginal, unconscious kind which allows the dirty thoughts in the mind of the beholder to be pleasurably spiced with avuncular, fraternal, or romantic admiration; and her careful poise and lovely self-confidence appeal strongly to chivalry or brutality in men and to potentially jealous women as well, because they seem to have been acquired through a tantalizing, exasperating, or perhaps comforting ignorance of the power of sex. Pictures of girls with just this quality have been successfully used for decades in the United States to sell every kind of commodity. The absolute value, in the American commercial consciousness, of that particular kind of pretty girl is what Miss America celebrates. She herself is a pure example, free for the moment of any specific, sordid connections with shampoo or beer: her undeniable power to move goods and support the economy can be abstractly recognized and adored.

The most interesting single fact, therefore, in Mr. Deford’s book is that aside from the girl herself, no one makes money out of the Miss America Pageant. The entire enterprise, all the way up from small local beauty contests, is made possible by community support which apparently continues to be steady and enthusiastic. A community organization, usually the Jaycees, donates many hours of volunteer labor to produce a local pageant which is franchised by Atlantic City. The winner may then compete for something like Blueberry Queen before trying out for the State title, and further glories at Convention Hall if she succeeds. Since the overwhelming majority of contestants come from rural areas and small towns, Miss America tends slightly to exude the fragrance of the South, where there are fewer urban centers. She is a modern belle, now complete with connotations of political conservatism accompanying the traditional sovereign desire to please men. Her style of feminine ideal is not actually so much Southern as old-fashioned, and as such evidently still dear to middle-aged Middle America. Mr. Deford points out that Miss America nowadays entirely fails to represent American youth, even more noticeably than before, since recent trends in youthful mores have all originated either on the East or West coasts, in the big cities which have produced none of the recent Miss Americas. The judges at Atlantic City, one must remember, are all at least a generation older than the girls.

The same geographic and demographic circumstances help to account for the absence of black contestants over the past years, although no discrimination has officially been applied. The local pageants which send their finalists to the state contests are usually held in areas with very small black populations. Application is by invitation, however, and if the Jaycees in such communities were to broaden their racial scope, more black contestants might eventually reach Atlantic City. Nevertheless Mr. Deford observes: “. . . it seems that Americans will cross racial lines to vote for politicians, root for athletes, laugh at comedians, even pay for prostitutes faster than they will vote for beauty queens.” A slight flavor of bad faith surrounds the fact that Washington, D.C. the only place with a black majority, is not represented at the Miss America pageant. Black beauty pageants have been created, not in new original forms, but directly on the Miss America model, which proves that however they may be criticized, beauty contests evidently cannot be improved upon.

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Apart from charges of conservatism and racism, Miss America was an obvious sitting duck for the whole arsenal of the Women’s Liberation movement, which picketed the pageant in 1968. Naturally enough, the only thing accomplished for Women’s Lib was a lot of publicity, and the crowd at Atlantic City had a more exciting show than usual. The following year a threatened demonstration was neatly prevented, and the next year there was none at all. Essentially everyone else continued to feel the absolute harmlessness of the Miss America beauty pageant, which could be characterized at its worst as no more than silly. It doesn’t even make money for the mean and wicked, or gain votes for the unworthy. It has, as Mr. Deford reminds us, “nothing to do with womanhood, with morality, with big business, with modesty, with Vietnam, or most of the other things it has been associated with. . . .” It remains “a bunch of pretty girls parading around.” The harmlessness is officially certified by the chronic impecuniousness of the pageant, which only gets enough money from its TV sponsors to cover expenses. Any immoral connection between sex and money is thus kept far from Atlantic City’s bathing beauties, who may exhibit their charms before judges and the public at large in a positively tangible cloud of wholesomeness.

The awarding of college scholarships, the requirement to appear in an evening gown and to perform in a recognized talent medium represent recent efforts to make Miss America a more solemn affair than a simple display of cheesecake. But it was always officially wholesome, and all manner of respectable citizens of Atlantic City supported it from the beginning, when it was confined to the beach. The bathing beauty portion of the contest is now actually threatened with extinction, so eager is the pageant to refrain from unduly emphasizing sex. Moreover, the current fashions in nudity and semi-nudity, which the young like to think they adopt not for sexual display but to serve the spirit of nature and freedom, have indeed rendered the carefully schooled, coiffed, and high-heeled bathing beauty more obscene than she ever dreamed possible. When straight, loose hair and unconfined or visible breasts can be the customary mode of many ordinary, wholesome, serious girls, something slightly perverted and suspect seems to emanate from the celebration of boned, padded torsos and lacquered curls. Such a noticeable gap between actual fashionable ideals and the Miss America image was a feature chiefly of the late 60’s, when the pageant officials refused to acknowledge the entrenched authority of miniskirts and bikinis, or the disappearance of spike heels. Miss America means to catch up in the 70’s.

An artificial virtue, as well as plastic wholesomeness, is required of Miss America contestants, exaggerated by the restrictions governing their behavior in Atlantic City. They are constantly watched, prevented from speaking alone to any man whatsoever, even a relative, and each must sleep in the same room with a chaperone. This sounds like the traditional milieu for secret vice; but in fact the girls really are nice and good, none has ever been discovered to be otherwise, and all the excessive precautions are unnecessary. They do serve, like the rest of the pageant, to emphasize sex indirectly—an old American habit, still possessed of great currency and power despite the modishness of healthy license.

There She Is is an extremely satisfying book, partly because its tone is exactly suited to the quality of one’s curiosity about the subject. Mr. Deford does not attack, defend, or apologize, nor does he condescend or giggle. He has treated both Miss America (the girl) and Miss America (the pageant, always thus scrupulously distinguished) in serious and even rather affectionate depth, leaving no aspect of the entire phenomenon unexamined. He describes a small community beauty contest, the kind from which every Miss America originally emerges, and then the subsequent training and grooming of contestants for the state finals, and who accomplishes it. Sociological observations and commentary accompany all this, delivered with considerable wit and care. There is a chapter about Atlantic City itself and what role the pageant plays there, and another chapter about the influence of television on the public style of Miss America. The history of the pageant since 1921 and of the winners of the past is given a good deal of space. Mr. Deford is adept at quick character sketches, and we are left feeling we know them all—the past Miss Americas whom he has tracked down to discover what life really did have in store for them afterward, what they look like now, and what they think of the whole business.

The very best part of the book, however, is the group of appendices at the back. Here we have the essence of what we want to know, broken down into tables and lists for comparative analysis. The largest is Your Miss America Score-card, beginning with the year, name, residence, measurements, age, and coloring of all the Miss Americas and a complete list of finalists, and then proceeding through an exhaustive set of tables of averages for every pertinent fact about them. One may be delighted, though not surprised, to learn from these that breasts have become bigger and waists smaller since 1921; and, further, that in 1951 the bust hit thirty-five inches for the first time, and in 1953 the waist went under twenty-four inches for good, whereas in 1965 busts were larger than hips for the first time. Similar though less absorbing details are available about the girls’ education, talent, and hobbies. Sewing, for instance, has become a hobby of tremendous popularity among contestants, although it was never mentioned until after World War II. This fact is a reflection, or rather an echo, of earlier days when sewing was a menial household task and not a creative outlet.

The last tables are devoted to first names, those fascinating emblems of taste, geography, and ethnic origins. There is a complete list of the names which have been used by contestants, and several interesting statistics: 475 different names have appeared, of which 280 have only appeared once; Blanche, Rachel, and Veronica, among others, have not shown up at all for thirty years, whereas Karen, Linda, and Diane have only arrived in the last decade. The very last list is simply a group of names called Our Own Hall of Fame, in which are inscribed the unforgettable names of such long-forgotten hopefuls as Emmajar Newby, Wayring Smathers, and Meta Justice.

Mr. Deford, who is a senior editor of Sports Illustrated, has a kind of effortless journalistic style which can steer a clever, smooth course between cliché and gag. The second most interesting fact in the book, incidentally, is that in the whole history of the pageant since 1921, including several dramatic scandals, there has never been the slightest breath of a fix. This somehow seems to establish it for all time as a totally innocuous, wholly sterile, and supremely boring national institution.

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