Miss America Pageant

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Miss America Pageant

Type of Holiday: Promotional
Date of Observation: September or October for one week
Where Celebrated: Atlantic City, New Jersey
Symbols and Customs: Bert Parks, Evening Wear Competition, Interview, Judging Format, Rose Walk, Scholarships, Swimsuit Competition, Talent Competition, "There She Is, Miss America"


Although the Miss America Pageant has for decades been identified with former master of ceremonies BERT PARKS , it was a group of New Jersey businessmen who first came up with the idea of staging a "bathing beauty" pageant to give the economy of their beachfront community, Atlantic City, a boost. Then two local reporters suggested at a newspaper convention that the editors assembled there might increase their circulation by holding entry-level contests where readers could send in photographs of beautiful girls in bathing suits. The winners of these photographic contests would then compete against each other live in Atlantic City, and the overall winner, to be crowned "Miss America," would be chosen by a panel of well-known artists.

The competitors in that first pageant, held in 1921, wore wool "bathing dresses" with baggy tunic tops over leggings or bloomers. They posed on wicker chairs and paraded along the beach with local officials. The winner, sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman, was chosen for her athletic good looks and potential "to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood," in the words of one judge. But no sooner had the annual contest gotten off the ground than it was discontinued in 1928 due to charges of indecency by women's clubs-not only because the bathing suits were too revealing but because it was discovered that one of the contestants was married and another had a young infant. The pageant didn't start up again until the 1930s, this time under the direction of Leonora Slaughter, who focused on getting more refined young women-ages eighteen to twenty-eight who had never been married-to compete. Slaughter established the Miss America Pageant as it is known today and remained in charge for more than thirty years.

Since then the weeklong competition has undergone numerous transformations and survived many controversies. Landmark events include the first Jewish Miss America (Bess Myerson in 1945), the first African-American Miss America (Vanessa Williams in 1984, who was also the first to have her crown taken away when it was discovered that she had once posed for sexually explicit photographs), the first contestant with a visible disability (Theresa Uchytil in 2000, who was born without a left hand but proceeded to perform an impressive baton-twirling routine), and the first disabled woman to win the Miss America crown (Heather Whitestone in 1995, who was deaf). Feminist protesters disrupted the 1968 pageant by throwing bras, girdles, and makeup into a trash can outside Convention Hall and setting them on fire, giving rise to the term "bra-burners," and in 1999 pageant directors briefly considered dropping the requirement that contestants sign a sworn statement that they had never been married or pregnant. In other words, the evolution of the pageant has paralleled changing attitudes toward women in American society.

Today the pageant is a weeklong series of events, beginning when the winners of the fifty state pageants arrive in Atlantic City on Monday and ending with Saturday night's judging of the ten semifinalists and five finalists, a live television extravaganza that involves choreographed song-and-dance numbers. Many contestants in the Miss America Pageant are veterans of smaller local and regional pageants before they make it to Atlantic City. Each contestant is the winner of her state's pageant. Before that, contestants may have participated in any number of state and other local pageants as well as pageants for younger ages. To minimize the emphasis on physical beauty, current Miss America Pageant contestants are judged in four different categories: the TALENT COMPETITION , the SWIM SUIT COMPETITION , the EVENING WEAR COMPETITION , and the INTERVIEW . In addition to being recognized for their poise and articulateness, the winners, finalists, and semifinalists receive hefty SCHOLARSHIPS they can use to pursue a college or graduate school education. Bert Parks no longer hosts the pageant, which has been televised since 1954, but the coronation song he made famous, " THERE SHE IS , MISS AMERICA ," is still what most Americans associate with the pageant. Other major pageants include Miss USA, Miss World, and Miss Universe.


Bert Parks

Bert Parks joined the Miss America Pageant as master of ceremonies in 1955, the year after it was first televised, and he quickly became an indispensable part of the show. In addition to his easygoing onstage personality, it was his rendition of the pageant's theme song, " THERE SHE IS , MISS AMERICA ," which he sang every year as the newly crowned queen made her first walk down the carpeted runway in Atlantic City's Convention Hall, that particularly endeared him to both the contestants and television audiences across America. The event's most memorable moments include the time Parks' microphone went dead in the middle of the song and the year he was given the list of the top ten finalists to read, only to discover that it contained the previous year's winners.

Parks was replaced in 1979 after twenty-five years as the pageant's emcee. Following in his footsteps were actor Ron Ely (for two years), then television personality Gary Collins, who happened to be married to Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959. Collins served as emcee until 1990, and his successors since then have included the team of Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford as well as brother-andsister act Donny and Marie Osmond.

Evening Wear Competition

The earliest Miss Americas were crowned wearing their bathing suits, but in 1948 Beatrice (BeBe) Shopp inaugurated a new tradition by being crowned in her evening gown. The evening gown competition was a relatively low-key fashion parade in the 1920s, but it has since become an important part of the pageant, giving contestants an opportunity to show how successful they are in choosing a gown that fits their personality and self-image. Over the years gown styles have changed from loose-fitting "flapper-style" dresses to elaborate full-skirted ball gowns with layers of netting and heavily beaded, form-fitting dresses that make the wearers look, in the words of one judge, like "walking chandeliers." In a bow to feminist concerns about the pageant, and in an attempt to de-emphasize the way the women look in their gowns in favor of the poise they display while wearing them, the evening gown competition was renamed "On-Stage Personality in Evening Wear."


Since 1990, Miss America contestants have been expected to participate in an interview so they can display their ability to handle the unexpected and to answer questions under the pressure of public scrutiny. At first it was an extemporaneous, onstage interview based on a single question, but the nature of the questions and the often amusing responses they provoked made pageant planners look for a better way to showcase contestants' intelligence. From 1972 until 1987, the candidates memorized short speeches which they delivered during the EVENING GOWN COMPE TITION , and this approach eventually gave way to questioning each contestant about a public issue of her choice.

Beginning in the 1990s, contestants were asked to write an essay on whatever issue they had committed themselves to support or pursue if they won the title. Contestants in past years have chosen such subjects as sexual abstinence, underage drinking, and organ donation. The interview accounts for 30 percent of a candidate's score in the preliminary competition and twenty percent of the final score.

Judging Format

Contestants in the original Miss America Pageant were judged on the basis of body measurements, but by the 1940s, the contestants' ranking in evening gown, talent, swimsuit, and "personality" categories each accounted for twenty-five percent of their total score. Talent counted for thirty percent by 1960, and the current judging system, where talent is worth forty percent, was implemented in 1986.

Contestants in the Miss America Pageant are given scores in five basic categories- the TALENT COMPETITION , the INTERVIEW , the EVENING GOWN COMPETITION , the SWIM SUIT COMPETITION , and on-stage question-by a preliminary panel of seven judges, who choose the top ten semifinalists. This group of ten is then narrowed down by the final panel of judges, usually well-known people or celebrities, to five finalists, and the winner is the one with the highest score of the five.

In the preliminary scoring, the talent competition accounts for thirty-five percent of the score, the interview twenty-five percent, "On-Stage Personality in Evening Wear" twenty percent, "Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit" fifteen percent, and OnStage Question five percent. During the final scoring, the judges compile the contestant's "Composite Score"-a category based on the individual's performance in the preliminary phases of competition in conjunction with the degree to which she exhibits the qualities and attributes listed in the Miss America job description. The composite score accounts for thirty percent of the score. The swimsuit and evening wear scores are worth twenty percent each, and talent is worth thirty percent.

In 1996, television viewers were included in the judging for the first time. Viewers were invited to call in their choice for the five finalists, in effect serving as an eighth judge.

Rose Walk

Unveiled on September 7, 1997, the Rose Walk was designed as a tribute to all Miss America winners. Designed by artist Lauren Ewing, it consists of a series of bronze plaques set into the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue and extending from the Atlantic City Convention Center, where the pageant is held, all the way to Atlantic Avenue. Beginning with the first Miss America in 1921, each plaque bears the name of the winner, the year she held the crown, and a quotation describing her response to her new role. The $250,000 monument is illuminated by rose-colored lights, and it has proved to be a popular Atlantic City tourist attraction.


The Miss America Organization, based in Atlantic City, is one of the nation's largest scholarship providers for young women. It was Leonora Slaughter who came up with the idea of offering scholarships to pageant finalists, emphasizing that she wanted the winners "to become something" rather than heading off to Hollywood at the end of their reign. Bess Myerson was the first Miss America (1945) to receive a scholarship, which she used to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University.

The winner of the pageant currently receives a $50,000 scholarship; the four runners-up receive $25,000, $20,000, $15,000, and $10,000, respectively; the next three finalists receive scholarships worth $7,000 each; and the last two finalists are awarded $6,000 each. Scholarships of up to $6,000 are also given out at the preliminary level of competition for "Talent" "Lifestyle & Fitness," "Presence and Poise," "Miss Congeniality," and "Quality of Life Winner." The winner of the Bernie Wayne Performing Arts Award (see " THERE SHE IS , MISS AMERICA ") receives a scholarship as well.

Swimsuit Competition

The swimsuit competition dates back to the very first year the pageant was held, but the Miss America Organization has retitled it "Physical Fitness in Swimsuit" to deemphasize the pageant's reputation as a "bathing beauty" contest. Swimsuit styles, just like evening gown styles, have changed over the years, and contestants no longer have to wear identical suits. Two-piece suits have been allowed since 1997, although thongs and bikinis are still forbidden. Competitors must register their swimsuits in advance so that pageant officials can make sure they aren't too risqué.

Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951, refused to participate in any activities during her reign that involved wearing a bathing suit. Catalina, the well-known bathing suit manufacturer that had provided suits for pageant contestants since the early 1940s, withdrew its sponsorship soon after. Nowadays competitors choose their own suits, and the emphasis is on physical fitness rather than body measurements. Jill Renee Cummings, Miss Vermont in the 1997 competition, raised eyebrows when she appeared in a two-piece bathing suit with a belly-button ring. But with the swimsuit competition accounting for only fifteen percent of the score in the preliminary judging and only ten percent in the finals, candidates tend to spend more time developing their talent and public speaking skills.

Talent Competition

The Talent Competition became a mandatory part of the pageant in 1938. Perhaps because so many Miss America contestants hope to pursue a career in show business, singers and dancers predominate in these widely watched displays on the stage at the Atlantic City Convention Center, although the pageant has seen its share of hula dancers, baton twirlers, and gymnasts doing handsprings across the stage. Performances that involve bringing animals on stage were banned after 1949, when the horse on which a contestant was riding just missed plunging into the orchestra, and a fire-baton that ended up in the judges' booth led to a ban on anything that might injure spectators. But many contestants have given professionalquality performances of opera, classical music, and ballet, and there's no question that a talented competitor has an edge when it comes to winning the pageant.

Judges for this part of the competition look at the amount of discipline involved in developing the talent, how difficult it is, and how accomplished the performer appears to be. They also consider such intangible factors as stage presence, facial expressions, and showmanship. The idea here is not to select someone who will then take her act "on the road" as the reigning Miss America, but someone who is comfortable being in the spotlight and has the poise and confidence to handle the many public appearances Miss America is required to make. Because only the five finalists get to perform their talent on the Saturday night live television broadcast, a separate award is given to the winner of the preliminary talent competition.

"There She Is, Miss America"

The song that BERT PARKS made famous was written by Bernie Wayne (1919-1993), who also wrote the hit song "Blue Velvet." Wayne was inspired to write a song about Miss America when he read in the newspaper in 1954 that the pageant was going to be televised for the first time, and it only took him an hour to do it. But once Bert Parks started performing the song in 1955, it became so closely identified with the pageant that almost every American who watched the show was able to sing along, at least with the opening lines:

There she is, Miss America There she is, your ideal The dream of a million girls Who are more than pretty May come true in Atlantic City

Wayne died in 1993, but every year a special award is given in his memory to a national Miss America contestant who wants to pursue a career in the performing arts.


Bivans, Ann-Marie. Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown. New York: MasterMedia, 1991. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000.


Miss America www.missamerica.org

Miss Universe www.missuniverse.com

Miss USA www.missusa.com

Miss World www.missworld.tv
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Miss America Pageant

What began in 1921 as an attempt by the Business Men's League of Atlantic City, New Jersey, to keep tourists in town after Labor Day has developed into an American institution. The week-long event that begins when the winners of the 50 state pageants arrive on Monday includes evening gown, swimsuit, and talent competitions; a parade along Atlantic City's famous boardwalk; and, on Saturday evening, final judging of the 10 semifinalists and five finalists, culminating in the crowning of the new Miss America shortly before midnight. Bert Parks, who hosted the pageant on television for 25 years, was renowned for his patented rendition of "There She Goes," the song that is traditionally sung as the new Miss America walks down the runway in Convention Hall for the first time. In addition to a year of travel and lucrative personal appearances, the winner receives a $50,000 scholarship.
The Miss America Pageant has had its ups and downs over the years—notably the 1968 protests by members of the women's liberation movement, who lit a symbolic fire in a trashcan and threw in a brassiere, some fashion magazines, and makeup—giving rise to the labeling of feminists as "bra-burners." Vanessa Williams, the first African American to win the pageant, was also the first to be dethroned when it was revealed in July of 1984 that she had once posed nude for Penthouse magazine. But many former Miss Americas have gone on to achieve successful careers as models, actresses, or television personalities, or in public service—among them Phyllis George (Miss America 1971), Mary Ann Mobley (1959), and Bess Myerson (1945).
The Miss America Organization
222 New Rd., Ste. 700
Linwood, NJ 08221
609-653-8700; fax: 609-653-8740
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 633
HolSymbols-2009, p. 589
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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