Miss America: Are headlines on race and tattoos keeping the pageant relevant?

Miss America may be in the middle of a marketing coup. As headlines abound about Nina Davuluri, the newly crowned beauty who is of Indian descent, and Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, who showed her prominent tattoos, the organization is getting an indirect facelift. Pageant insiders say the focus feels forced and that contestants have long been diverse and have better platforms to promote than ink and the color of their skin.

“I think they are trying to expand the brand,” says Michelle Holmes. “[The organization] is trying to get the common person on the street to say, ‘Hey, I always thought that was something I couldn’t do because those girls are special.’ More girls feel like they can do it.”

But that focus on tattoos and ethnicity (“downgrading,” as Holmes refers to it) can have a negative impact despite the obvious benefits of inclusiveness.

“[The contestants] are in college, they are doing this for scholarship money, they train and train for their talents, they go on to be doctors and lawyers and run for Congress. They do all kinds of things and they were focused on the tattoos and jiggly butts,” Holmes says.

“I think it is all marketing.”

Even as Vail donned full fatigues in the Show Us Your Shoes parade, a bold declaration for an event dominated by stilettos and token state pride, Holmes felt the attention remained on a few tattoos rather than her service or platform.

“It’s an attempt to stay relevant,” she says. You have to have entries, sponsors and viewers, like any other business she says, even if it is a scholarship pageant.

“Today, if everyone is talking about Miss America, they have accomplished what they wanted to do. I just feel bad for the girls that that is how they had to do it.”

For Valerie Hayes, a leading interview adviser known as the Pageant Coach, the attention on tattoos and race is outdated.

“I think what is happening is that the country at large is seeing what we have been seeing and what has been happening for five or six years now,” Hayes says.

An experienced coach who has worked with contestants on nearly every level and in every major pageant system, Hayes says diversity of is quite common.

“It is surprising to those of us in pageantry that a big deal is being made of this,” she says. “It was clear [Miss Kansas] was a huge audience favorite, they just screamed for that girl. I think they were cheering not only her as a person but as a concept. Yes, people watching this broadcast, we embrace a variety of contestants — not just one stereotypical contestant you see in movies and TV.”

When asked why she thinks there is such a large disconnect between public perception and the reality of pageants, Hayes said she could sum it up in three words.

“Toddlers and Tiaras.”

“It’s time that people woke up and understood just like there are stereotypes of NASCAR fans, and little league dads, there are serious stereotypes of pageants that are simply not true. And television shows like ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ and other shows that perpetuate that stereotype for corporate profit are playing on the viewing audiences’ stereotypical view of what is real.”

RELATED:
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Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri and other talking points about last night’s pageant
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Emily Yahr · September 16, 2013