Erika Harold, Heather French Henry: Miss America alums aim for political office

June 4, 2013

There she is — throwing her tiara in the ring.

Erika Harold announces her plans to challenge Rep. Rodney Davis in the 2014 Republican primary Tuesday in Urbana, Ill. (John Dixon / The News-Gazette via AP)
Erika Harold announces her plans to challenge Rep. Rodney Davis in the 2014 Republican primary Tuesday in Urbana, Ill. (John Dixon / The News-Gazette via AP)

Erika Harold, a 33-year-old Illinois lawyer who’s best known for winning Miss America in 2002, announced Tuesday in her hometown of Urbana that she is making her second attempt to run for Congress. “I’ve learned that our lives are defined not by the titles we earn but rather by the service we render,” the GOP hopeful said in a campaign Web video, promising to fight for “fiscal responsibility” and “our constitutional liberties.”

Meanwhile, in bordering Kentucky, Heather French Henry, aka Miss America 2000, is publicly mulling a bid for U.S. Senate — as a Democratic challenger to Republican Mitch McConnell.

They’re not alone: A growing army of former beauty queens is launching political careers, seeking to trade sashes for congressional pins.

Heather French Henry in 2005. (Patti Longmire / AP)
Heather French Henry in 2005. (Patti Longmire / AP)

Shelli Yoder, Miss Indiana 1992, was a Democratic nominee for Congress last fall from her home state. She lost, as did Caroline Bright, Miss Vermont 2011, in her own state Senate race. But former Miss Hawaii Lauren Cheape won a seat in the Hawaii House of Representatives in November, just months after she electrified Miss America judges with a jump-rope routine in which she memorably bounced across the floor on her derriere.

Sociologist and pageant scholar Hilary Levey Friedman calls it “a positive sign that women are now looking to be governor of Kentucky instead of first lady” – the role that Phyllis George, Miss America 1971, held during her marriage to Gov. John Y. Brown three decades ago.

Thus far, no national or state titleholders have won national or statewide office. Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945, came the closest with her losing 1980 Senate race in New York. But then there was that Miss Alaska second runner-up who ended up on a national ticket: Sarah Palin.

How did the kitschy annual beauty competition become a political launching pad? Friedman — daughter of Miss America 1970 Pamela Eldred — notes that the pageant’s new attempts to reward sparkling interviews and earnest advocacy work as well as a devastating swimsuit strut. Plus, she said, former queens have noted that their duties — visiting small towns, giving speeches, living out of a suitcase, smiling at ribbon cuttings, getting to know all the Chamber of Commerce guys — are great training for the stump.

Erika Harold at her crowning as Miss America in September 2002. (Susan L. Gregg / Reuters)
Erika Harold at her crowning as Miss America in September 2002. (Susan L. Gregg / Reuters)

(And, uh, no: Graduates of Donald Trump’s rival Miss USA pageant, which still emphasizes jiggle, don’t seem to be moving into politics yet.)

The downside for former beauty queens? Well, the stereotype. All the pageant vets interviewed by Friedman told her that the just-a-pretty-face sentiment had been a hurdle. Harold faces another: She’s challenging her own party’s incumbent, Rep. Rodney Davis, in the primary.

But those Miss Americas, they know how to compete. “She’s enormously bright and articulate,” Friedman said of Harold. “I could imagine I would not agree with her on every issue. But she’s a very intelligent person who would weigh the facts and be a good decision-maker.”

Read also at Slate: Why are so many beauty queens running for office?, 6/26/12

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