20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant

Shannon Quinn - November 12, 2018

The Miss America Pageant is famous for drawing huge crowds and sparking controversy since the 1920’s. While you may be familiar with more recent news surrounding the Miss America pageant and its competitors, few people remember the extensive history of the contest that has been going on for almost one hundred years, and how it became as massive as it is today.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
The original Inter-City Beauty Competitors. Credit: MissAmerica.org

20. The Original Contest Was Called “Inter-City Beauties”

The beauty pageant that started the Miss America tradition was originally called “The Inter-City Beauties” – since a lot of the people who went on vacation in Atlantic City were from Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, DC. They started off with a “popularity contest” in each of the major newspapers along the east coast. Women sent in photographs, and a few lines of information about what they liked to do in their spare time. Readers voted on their favorite girls, and the winners got to go on an all-expenses paid trip to Atlantic City.

Instead of a panel of judges, the women were judged 50% from audience applause and 50% judges. Today, contestants in beauty pageants have a private interview with a panel of judges, and they also have questions asked of them on stage by the host, in order to test their intelligence and wit. This was very much what happened at the first contest, but it was far less organized. Members of the audience were shouting out questions to the girls, and the way in which they answered the heckling crowd was part of how they were judged.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Margaret Gorman was the first winner of Miss America. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

19. Margaret Gorman Was The Original Miss America

Margaret Gorman was a 16-year old from Washington, DC. When the local paper announced that they were looking for a girl to represent DC in the Inter City beauty contest, over 1,000 women submitted their photos, and they decided on Margaret Gorman.

Out of all of the finalists who competed in the contest, Margaret Gorman was able to keep smiling, and gave the audience witty, funny answers to their tough questions. She also showed off her athletic abilities during the talent portion. After winning the contest, Margaret Gorman received a trophy, and $100 in gold. In today’s money, that’s more like $1,300. When she got home, a telegram waited for her from one of her best friends, that said “Congratulations. Don’t get stuck up.” The funniest part? She had to pay the messenger 35 cents to be halfway insulted.

As she grew up, she didn’t really like talking much about the competition. She married a man named Victor Cahill, a rich real estate investor. She was able to live a charmed life as a Washington DC socialite, mother, and grandmother. She died at 90 years old.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
The 1922 Miss America Competition. Credit: PressOfAtlanticCity.com

18. The First Miss American Pageant Took Place On The Atlantic City Boardwalk

By the second year of the contest, the organizers decided that they wanted to rename it “Miss America”, and open up the contest to women from anywhere in the United States – not just the east coast. Margaret Gorman attended and renamed her title from winning the Inter-City Beauties as the first “Miss America”. She competed in the beauty contest, and some people expected her to win again and defend her title, but it went to someone else.

Thousands of people attended this event, but it was still small in comparison to what would come later. Newspapers printed photos of the young ladies standing on the boardwalk, and people who attended had such a good time, that it spread like wildfire. Atlantic City prepared for a much bigger turnout the next year.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
The Miss America Parade in 1933. Credit: PressOfAtlanticCity.com

17. In 1923, The Pageant Becomes A Huge Success

Miss America was only in its third year, when over 300,000 people bought tickets ahead of time to see the event. Over 70 girls entered to try to be apart of the beauty pageant, and their photos circulated in the newspapers to pick the top contestants to represent each state. The contest broadcasted on live radio, because everyone in the nation wanted to see if the girl from their state would win against the competitors. (Clearly, no one could see the girls over the radio, so they had to use their imagination based on the colorful descriptions.)

They decided to throw a Miss America parade on the boardwalk that year, and thousands of people showed up. Soon enough, Miss America became a reason for people to extend their vacations in Atlantic City into late August and early September, because they could not possibly miss all of the excitement by going home early. For the newspapers and the city council, this was all amazing, because it meant they were able to make a lot more money.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Ruth Malcolmson sitting next to The Golden Mermaid award. Credit: MissAmerica.org

16. The Bather’s Revue and The Golden Mermaid

Inter-City Beauties wasn’t the only pageant going on in Atlantic City at that time. A swimsuit competition entertained many as a separate event, called “Bather’s Revue”. The winner of Inter-City Beauty and Miss America were allowed to compete in the swimsuit contest afterwards, alongside “professional competitors”. These were actresses and models who had great bodies and weren’t afraid to show off. These girls were competing to win a trophy called The Golden Mermaid.

Remember that back in the 1920’s, women’s bathing suits covered their entire bodies. Wearing a one-piece bathing suit that we would consider to be modest by today’s standards was scandalous enough for a woman to be arrested for “indecent exposure”. Sixteen year old Margaret Gorman won The Golden Mermaid after winning the first Inter-City Beauties, even though she went up against professional models. Many other Miss America pageant winners would go on to win the bathing suit contest, because it was usually the same audience members who were helping to judge on the girl’s popularity.

As you might imagine, having two separate competitions for personality and swimsuits must have been problematic. They eventually decided to combine both contests into a single event. In modern times, the swimsuit competition became the most problematic portion of beauty contests, when the tradition continued on years after the contest was no longer held on a sandy boardwalk near the ocean.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Annette Kellerman in her bathing suit that was considered to be “indecent”. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

15. Annette Kellerman Shook Up Society’s Idea of Women’s Bathing Suits

Annette Kellerman was a competitive swimmer, and was arrested in 1907 for wearing an indecent swimsuit to the beach. Looking back, Kellerman’s swimsuit design was still very modest, but it was form-fitting so that she could actually swim. Her arrest and photos of her bathing suit sparked controversy throughout the United States, and people began to question how much women needed to cover up on the beach.

In the 1920’s, Annette Kellerman already made a name for herself, and she entered the Bather’s Review swimsuit contest with her tight-fitting suit. This was seen as being a triumphant win for women’s right to wear bathing suits where they could enjoy themselves on the beach.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Miss America judges (Including Normal Rockwell) in 1922. Credit: eBay

14. Norman Rockwell Debuted as One Of the First Judges

Norman Rockwell was the illustrator best known for his work in The Saturday Evening Post. When people see a Rockwell piece, his characters are almost always living the quintessential idea of American life. Rockwell always used human models as the subjects of his paintings. Most of the time, he would take a photograph of people and then draw and paint them later. It would only make sense that he would be scoping potential talent for models at the Miss America Pageant that he wanted to draw in the future. However, Rockwell only judged the competition for one year.

Another artist named Howard Chandler Christy came back four years in a row to judge the contest. He may not be well-remembered today, but he was famous for painting most of the art on war bond posters during World War I.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Mary Katherine Campbell won Miss America twice. Credit: PressOfAtlanticCity

13. Mary Campbell Won The Contest Twice

Mary Campbell may have been the last Miss America competitor who was truly judged mostly for her personality and personal achievements. In close-up photographs of her face, she is a cute girl, but she is so far off from the perfect Barbie Doll look that competitors are expected to go for today. Born in Columbus, Ohio, Campbell grew up thinking that she wasn’t even “pretty”. Apparently, the judges were looking for a girl who they felt was the embodiment of an “American Girl”.

In both 1922 and 1923, Mary Campbell won Miss America, because people truly did love her that much. One of the judges, Joseph Cummings Chase, said, “Miss Campbell is possessed of great vivacity and an inherent shyness that constitute a wonderful combination. She is typically American and altogether an ideal type. Her forebearers for ten generations have been American born.”

She did, however, have a perfect hourglass figure, which was the main physical feature the crowd could see when sitting far away. As a naive 17 year old girl, she didn’t even know what that meant. When she asked her mother what the people were talking about in the newspapers when they wrote about her “figure”, her mother quickly replied that it was “none of her business”.

The pageant realized that it was not fair to allow contestants to win more than once. They made a new rule that the previous year’s winner would crown the new winner. The rest of Mary Campbell’s life was rather uneventful, and she spent the rest of her life living up to that idea of a perfect American woman by catering to others. She had to take care of her sick mother, and after she got married, she was taking care of a sick husband.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Group of Miss America contestants. Credit: Pinterest

12. No Room For A “Mrs.” In “Miss America”

In 1924, one of the women representing Boston was actually married, so she was removed from the competition. She sued the contest, saying that this was not fair. So they had to include a rule that married women could not become Miss America. There was also an issue of underage girls being exposed to so much attention at the age of 16, so they decided to change the rules. Contestants could only be between the ages of 18 and 28. They could not be married, and they can never have children.

Even today, this rule is still very active in the competition. During an internal investigation, journalist and actress Michelle Khare decided to join a beauty pageant and report what the experience was really like. She asked several pageant organizers why that rule still exists, even in 2018, and they say that it is because the winner has to travel so much, and they do not believe that it would be a good fit for mothers.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Ruth Malcomson. Credit: PressOfAtlanticCity.com

11. Ruth Malcomson’s Victory Sparked a Debate

By the time an 18-year old woman named Ruth Malcomson won the title of Miss America in 1924, the contest began to get some grief from women’s groups in Atlantic City. When asked about how she responded to the criticism, Ruth said that the only women who didn’t like Miss America were the boring grandmothers who played mahjong and sipped coffee and tea together while they gossiped about how the next generation is ruining the world. Local women’s groups hated this, of course, and they would later get revenge for the teen girl’s sassy comments.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Screenshot of Fay Lanphier in the movie American Venus. Credit: YouTube

10. Fay Lanphier and the Fixed Contest Rumor

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
The American Venus movie poster. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

9. The American Venus

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Nora Smallwood was the first Native American winner. Credit: MissAmerica.org

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.


20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
This is just a fraction of the very long photo of competitors during the 1927 Miss America competition. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

7. Atlantic City Banned The Competition In 1927

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
WWII War Bond featuring “Miss Liberty”. Credit: AllThatIsInteresting.com

6. Miss America During WWII

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Miss America winner Venus Ramey’s likeness was painted on the side of a bomber. Credit: Pinterest

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
In 1954-1955, Miss America Lee Meriwether was on TV for the first time. Credit: IMDB

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Feminists protesting Miss America in 1968. Credit: Smithsonian

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Contestants in the Miss Black America pageant. Credit: USA Today

3. Miss Black America 1967-1977

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Vanessa Williams after winning Miss America. Credit: Essence

2. Scandals, And The Pageant Downfalls

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.

20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About the History Of The Miss America Pageant
Pageant contestants spend thousands of dollars on dresses, makeup, and hair products. Credit: The New York Post

1. Today, Aspiring Beauty Queens Are Going Broke

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.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Miss America: A History. MissAmerica.org

How Vanessa Williams Endured Her Miss America Scandal. The OWN Network. YouTube.

Fifty Years Ago, Protestors Took To The Miss America Pageant And Electrified the Feminist Movement. Roxane Gay. Smithsonian. 2018.

I Trained Like Miss USA For 60 Days. Michelle Khare. YouTube.

1944 Miss America Who Inspired WWII Effort Dies At 91. Business Insider.

Beauties Are Going Broke Trying To Win Pageant Crowns. Christian Gollayan. New York Post.