Miss America pageant evolves to include all kinds of diversity

September 16, 2013

Was Miss Kansas robbed?

Theresa Vail, a 22-year-old senior majoring in Chinese and chemistry at Kansas State University, was certainly the favorite for many, judging from her win as “America’s Choice” on Facebook and the reaction on Twitter. She garnered more pre-pageant publicity than any other contestant I remember, including an appearance on “Good Morning America” Friday.

To be honest, she was the reason I tuned in to watch the Miss America pageant for the first time in years. Who could resist seeing a tattooed, gun-toting National Guard sergeant who hunts deer and is working on her pilot’s license compete as a beauty queen?

But it was her platform that impressed me the most: helping women overcome barriers and break stereotypes. “I just want people to see that you can step outside of the box, you can be yourself,” she said on a “20/20″ special episode, “Pageant Confidential” Sunday. “And I can only hope that it can inspire them to do the same.”

Sunday night’s “Miss America Pageant” was not the pageant I remember watching on a September Saturday during my childhood, when we always rooted for Miss Missouri, who never seemed to win.

Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas, reveals one of her tattoos in the swimsuit competition Sept. 10 in the Miss America pageant. (Edward Lea/Associated Press)
Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas, reveals one of her tattoos in the swimsuit competition Sept. 10 in the Miss America pageant. (Edward Lea/Associated Press)

This year, though, we had Miss Kansas. And Miss Iowa, born without a left forearm, who said on the “Today” show, “I’m proud to represent those who look differently, but it’s about what you can do and how you celebrate it.”

I’d hardly call red hair a disability, but Miss Connecticut, a ginger, told the audience during the pageant — and you just knew she was speaking to the young girls out there — “If you have red hair and freckles, you are beautiful. Don’t ever wear makeup to cover up those freckles.”

Sure, “butt glue” and hairspray were described as necessities during “Pageant Confidential.” And duct tape strategically placed can keep that little toe from flopping out of strappy sandals and looking “gross.”

Don’t kid yourself — it’s still a beauty pageant. But the ranks are opening up to include women who fall outside of the stereotypical idea of the beauty queen.

Miss Kansas survived the first cut from 53 contestants (the District of Columbia along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands participate as well as all 50 states) to 15 semi-finalists who paraded on the runway for the swimsuit competition. We saw her in a red bikini show off the tattooed Serenity Prayer on the right side of her torso.

She revealed another tattoo, this one the insignia of the U.S. Army Dental Corps on her left shoulder during the evening gown competition. Vail wore a dark blue strapless gown that she described as “Jackie Kennedy meeting Angelina Jolie.”

Vail isn’t the first contestant with a tattoo, but in the past, the young women have used camouflage makeup. “I think the world is ready for a Miss America with ink,” she said.

I don’t think it was the tattoos that cost Miss Kansas the competition, though. She blew it in the talent portion, which accounts for 30 percent of the score. Vail had wanted to show off her archery skills, but a rule against “projectiles” forced her to find Plan B.

That’s where she failed. She decided to teach herself an operatic aria in a matter of days by watching YouTube videos and sang Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” which is usually sung by a man. And should be sung by someone with more training.

Vail didn’t make it to the last round of five finalists. I was disappointed; if nothing else, I would have liked to have seen the sergeant answer a question from one of the celebrity judges. (The questions were deemed equally difficult, although a query on Miley Cyrus and twerking hardly seems in the same category as what’s the appropriate action for the U.S. to take against Syria.)

Once Miss Kansas was eliminated, I thought Miss Florida might win with the sympathy vote. She had torn ligaments during a practice of her baton-twirling routine earlier in the week, but she continued in the competition, sporting a jeweled knee brace. I also liked her answer to a question about the inequality of African-Americans 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

Her father is unemployed and her family represents the blue-collar middle class. “It took a lot for me to be able to stand on this stage,” Myrrhanda Jones, Miss Florida said. “We need to have more jobs in America.” She was cut off before she could finish.

It was Miss New York whose answer was eerily prescient. When asked her opinion about Julie Chen, host of “The Talk,” having surgery to make her eyes look less Asian, Nina Davuluri said she was against plastic surgery. But she pointed out, “I’ve always thought Miss America was the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving.”

And so she is. Davuluri was crowned Miss America for 2014, the first of Indian descent.

Twitter immediately exploded with ignorant and racist comments, calling her a foreigner, an Arab and even a terrorist. “I have to rise above that,” the new Miss America said. “I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

I hope in this next year during her reign as Miss America, she can embrace the rest of her answer to the question about plastic surgery: “Be confident in who you are.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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