In 1924, a young woman from California named Fay Lanphier won the Miss America Pageant, and she was also the winner of the “Rose Queen” beauty contest in California. When they revealed the new trophy, the little woman on the statue looked almost exactly like her. On top of that, she ended up getting acting deals with Paramount Pictures, who was sponsoring the competition that year.
It’s not surprising that some people smelled a conspiracy theory. There was a strict rule that “professionals” were not allowed to enter the competition, and only amateurs could enter Miss America. Newspapers reported that the 1924 contest was fixed, so Miss America sued them for $3 million for libel. Fay Lanphier made $50,000 going on tour, ahead she became the first winner to profit a huge amount of money from her Miss America title. This would continue to become the norm for future contest winners.
The American Venus was a silent film about The Miss America Pageant. In the movie, they talk about how the contest is basically looking for ladies who are perfect specimens that look like the statue of Venus, with her hourglass curves. The movie was meant to be a comedy, but it was also a lot of social commentary.
Many of the actresses in the movie were totally naked, as well. On the Miss American website, they state this movie as being controversial, and they saw it as a sort of hit-piece on the contest. The movie claims that Paramount Pictures fixed the competition, and it mocked the contest for defining beauty in such a shallow way, saying, “The modern Venus wears the latest fashions from Paris…” The movie was very self-aware, though- both mocking the fact that women were exploited for their sex appeal, and yet doing it themselves by using 75 different models in the film.
8. Nora Smallwood Was The First Native American Winner
After winning her crown, she made $100,000 in one year. In today’s money, this would have made her a multi-millionaire. This made a lot of people jealous, and many men took issue with a woman making so much money from just standing around looking pretty.
When the Miss America pageant asked her to come back the next year to hand over her crown, Nora Smallwood requested her normal $600 fee that she charged for public appearances. No other winner had ever asked for money to come back on stage. They were willing to pay her, but they just couldn’t come up with the money, so Norma Smallwood accepted a paid gig in North Carolina first, before returning to Atlantic City to crown the new Miss America.
This caused a lot of outrage in the public, and newspaper printed stories about her being greedy and ungrateful, saying that she would have never become so famous if it were not for the contest. Even today, winners of Miss America are strongly encouraged to put their duties as the winner of the competition first, over opportunities tat might allow them to make money.
Today, there are people who believe that Miss America should no longer exist, but this is a debate that is nothing new. Back in 1927, women’s groups in Atlantic City hated how these teenage girls were exploited for profit. It was a year after the premiere of the movie American Venus, so the crowds were bigger than ever, and it was even more controversial.
The winner that year was a 16-year old girl named Lois Delander, whose father had to rush her to the competition, and she showed up 15 minutes late to this event where men were catcalling, hooting and hollering at his baby girl. She won the contest, but all of the duties of being Miss America meant that she was missing out on school. She made $1,000 a week traveling around and meeting people.
Women’s groups complained about how the event crowded the boardwalk and interrupted normal life for the city’s citizens. It attracted a lot of low-lives in the audience who would cause a lot of trouble and dump trash on the beach. Considering that Atlantic City was filled with gambling and drinking as their main source of income, the fact that people had to complain about the beauty contest just goes to show how much it must have caused problems for the city’s residents.
Even though the competition was making a lot of money in tourist revenue, there was a vote to end Miss America in 1927. The Boardwalk Convention Hall was built in 1929, and that would become the future home of Miss America. However, the organization moved on to other beauty competitions in Maryland temporarily, because they were no longer welcome in New Jersey.
In the 1930’s, Atlantic City was suffering a lot from The Great Depression, and local politicians decided that they needed to bring the beauty pageant back. In 1933, they brought the show back to Atlantic City, but it had been 6 years since the last contest, so public interest had died down, and they hardly advertised. That year ended up being a total flop in ticket sales, and it would take years to revive people’s interest in seeing the beauty pageant before people started coming back.
As mentioned earlier, an artist named Howard Chandler Christy was a judge in the Miss America Pageant for several years, because he was an artist who used models in his paintings. He specialized in war bond advertising, and became famous for the picture of a young woman in a sailor suit. The tradition of associating Miss America with attracting people into buying war bonds with the face of the “Girl Next Door” became popular, and it continued on for decades.
Venus Ramey won Miss America in 1944, and she spent her year of touring the country to ask citizens to buy war bonds to help the soldiers overseas. She personally raised millions of dollars, which was more than any other celebrity endorsement or advertisement in the movie theater.
During the war, a lot of airplane pilots would paint pin up girls on the sides of their airplanes. At least one of them featured a woman who looked like the spitting image Venus Ramey riding a bomb. Even after the war was over, and Venus returned to live at her family farm in Kentucky, she ended up in the newspapers again, after using a shotgun to blow out the tires of men who were trying to rob her.
It was no secret that people loved Miss America, and she became a symbol of patriotism. Pictures like the one seen above became the new idea of what an American girl should be, and it was just a beginning of style changes and so much more to come in the future.
5. Miss America Was On TV For The First Time In 1954
After decades of being broadcast on the radio and in newspapers, the Miss America Pageant finally came on TV for the first time in 1954. The contest had already been popular with radio and newspaper alone, but airing the competition on TV changed everything. The contest was earning ad revenue from commercials, and more people wanted to buy tickets to see it in person. The contest was no longer just seen by adults who lived close enough to travel to Atlantic City.
Little girls all over the country were watching pageants for the first time on television, and this became a snowball effect. Along with Barbie Dolls, girls were reevaluating the definition of beauty, based on Miss America.
4. In 1968, Feminists Protested Against The Pageant
In 1968, a radical feminist named Carol Hanisch was outraged at how Miss America was perpetuating an unrealistic image of the “ideal woman”. Even for women who were not competing in the beauty pageant, these expectations of beauty were beginning to change the standards for women in every day life. Miss America is not the only thing to blame, of course, but Carol Hanisch was angry enough to claim that they were part of the patriarchy that needed to go away.
Since the original pageant was created as a marketing scheme to sell more newspapers, and event organizers continue to profit off of the contest to this day, feminists see Miss America as a tool for men to use women’s bodies for their own benefit.
There had been black beauty pageants before, and Miss America had begun to allow black girls to audition since the 1950’s, but the inequality in who was chosen as the winner was clear to everyone, and there was an overwhelming bias to accepting white girl candidates and winners. The founder, J. Morris Anderson, felt his heart breaking when he saw his young daughters saying that they wanted to become Miss America some day, but he knew they would never be able to.
Anderson started the Miss Black America pageant and held it directly across the street from the original Miss America. This way, people could see the signs and went to visit both events. It also was a very public statement that the separate competition was necessary, since girls never stood a chance in the original Miss America.In 1971, Oprah Winfrey competed in the competition as “Miss Tennessee”, and she is one of the most famous contestants in history. As time went on, the original Miss American contest became more inclusive with racial diversity, and the Miss Black America contest stopped in 1977.
Vanessa Lynn Williams was the first black woman to win the Miss America pageant in 1984. As a teenager, she was an aspiring model, and she was manipulated by a photographer to agree to do a racy photo shoot. After she became famous, the photographer tried to sell her nudes to Playboy, who refused to do so without her permission. He tried again with Penthouse Magazine, who seemed to have no issue secretly posting those old photos behind her back. Vanessa Williams was humiliated, and had to apologize to her entire family for her past mistakes and relinquish her title as Miss America. She attempted to sue Penthouse magazine, but her lawyer told her that if it went to trial, the defense would uncover every single detail about her life to try to damage her reputation. She opted to let it go, and try to move on with her life.
Thankfully, Vanessa was able to come back from the scandal. She had a very successful music career. Her song “Save the Best for Last” is still played on the radio today, and “Color of the Wind” was used in the Disney movie Pocahontas.
After this scandal, people began to realize just how much young women in the modeling industry were being exploited. Today, most of the scandals have everything to do with money, like the 2016 scandal where Miss Florida was kicked out of the competition for using her own hair and makeup team, and she turned around and sued Miss America for $15 million. It’s no secret that pageants are big business, and they can make or break a woman’s career.
Today, beauty pageants cause very polarizing opinions; You either love them, or you hate them. TV shows like Toddlers in Tiaras gave a behind-the-scenes look of the cringe-worthy world we now live in, where literal babies are paraded around by their parents in hope that some day, they might grow up to become the next Miss America.
In the original Miss America, competitors showed up wearing their Sunday Best. Today, they are expected to buy multiple outfits that are incredibly expensive to make. On average, one dress costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Their goal is to win a scholarship, but only one girl out of hundreds of competitors will actually go away winning the crown.
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