When I was small I would watch it on Tv, and when it was over I'd get a sheet, and wrap it around my neck and fasten it with a clothespin and go through the house singing, "Here I am, Miss America." -- Susan Powell, Miss America 1981
The four runners-up had already been called, and as Ron Ely began to announce the winner, Miss Oklahoma stood shoulder to shoulder with Miss Ohio, the two of them holding hands, straining to keep their smiles steady through this emotional earthquake. Though six women remained in contention, the others were there for the show; the crowd sense it had come down to these two, Oklahoma and Ohio, and they held the stare of the 23,000 people in the great hall Saturday. Ely reached the first name -- "Susan" -- and suddenly the two of them were no longer a chain. Miss Ohio pulled back and began to clap, and Miss Oklahoma brought both her hands up to her face and said, "Oh my God."
Then, after being fitted with the crown and handed the scepter, Susan Powell began her walk down the runway -- her runway -- using her best feature, her marble-green eyes, to thank you, and you, and especially you . "I love you," she said to no one in general and everyone in particular. Crying, but not gushing, she took her victory lap, breaking away from the pack of favorites that had seemed so tightly bunched. Miss Ohio. Miss Arkansas. Miss Mississippi and the 17-year-old Miss Alabama. Breaking away.
The fluttering sequins on her pink gown glistened in harmony with her silver crown and her blood-red nail polish perfectly, matched the velvet on her sceptor, a lucky accident of course. Again and again: "I love you. I love you." And all the while the eyes, now larger and wider than the moon, read the rooms as if it were a picture book -- something rich, something beautiful, something easy to turn.
She was on her own now, having come to Atlantic City to win, "very competitive, very goal oriented." And she'd won, leaving 49 others losers, and she was alone out there now, waving, smiling, but mostly reading the room with those outsize eyes. They sparkle , they bubble, they're gonna keep her from a whole lot of trouble. And later, after the other 49 had paid their respects, hugged and kissed her after the investiture, later, after the police had sealed off the stage and the curtain had come down, later Susan Powell, Miss America 1981, would say, "I was mesmerized at first. I've wanted it for so long. I've dreamed about it. I'm from the Western plains, and all I could think about was that I was like some wild black stallion coming off those plains into the big city."
Some wild black stallion.
With marble-green eyes. Pretenders to the Throne Pretenders to the Throne
Susan Powell is 21 years old, 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds, a senior at Oklahoma City University, the youngest of two children to a father who is a landman -- a real estate broker of sorts -- and a mother who is director of volunteer services at Elk City Hospital. A child of affluent parents who chooses to describe their situation as "middle class." A classical singer of huge talent, something she proved by winning her talent competition with an astoundingly expressive rendition of "Lucy's Aria" from Menotti's "The Telephone." She wants to sing professionally with the Metropolitan Opera Company. And she wants to make a lot of money doing it. To a national television audience she introduced herself by saying, "The epitome of success is doing something you absolutely love doing and being paid to do it."
She did not start out as a favorite here.
"Until her talent competition, I didn't notice her at all," said one pageant hostess.
Even going into Saturday nght she stood in the shadows of others, notably Miss Alabama, Paige Phillips, a 17-year-old who looked and acted 27 and whose ventriloquism was nothing short of extraordinary -- a pur natural whose lips in performance didn't just move a little, they didn't move at all. Busloads of people had come from Alabama to support her bid, and they filled the hall with banners and buttons and shouts of "A-La-Bama, A-La-Bama," each time her name was called. Paige Phillips had come here to win, her 17 years notwithstanding, and when she was named first runner-up, a pageant hostess said, "I think her age worked against her. It doesn't matter that she didn't look it or act it --she is it."
Susan Powell, through she refused to say it, was nervous about Alabama. And about Miss Washington, Doris Hayes.
"She was scared of Washington, especially after they shared the talent award," said Vinita Powell, Miss America's mother, who was still shaking a full hour after her daughter had won.
"Washington and Alabama, of course," said Rhonda Shelton, a close hometown friend, the woman whom Susan Powell once beat out for Miss Elk City. "She said, 'They are my main competition.' But I think Susan felt she was a little more mature than Alabama because she was four years older."
There were about 30 people here from Elk City, a western Oklahoma town of 10,000. And about 40 more from Tulsa and Lawton and Norman and Grove and Oklahoma City. "We came up here thinking top 10," Vinita Powell said. a"At least top 10. But I wouldn't let myself think Miss America until Susan did so well in talent. Then, I believed she could do it."
Had she lost, Susan Powell said, "I would have gone home and been Miss Oklahoma. I would have accepted it gracefully. Although that's easy to say now, sitting here wearing the crown."
Had she lost, Rhonda Selton said, "Susan would have been very disappointed. Very shocked." The Quota Theory
Throughout the week it was apparent this could have been the year for the first black Miss America. That feeling was never so strong as it was Friday night when both black contestants -- Miss Arkansas, Lencola Sullivan (swimsuit) and Miss Washington, Doris Hayes (talent) -- won preliminary competitions, the first time black contestants ever won in preliminaries.
It all but guaranteed that both would make top 10, and late that night, a little past midnight, Al Marks, the pageant director, was saying that a black Miss America would be a great thing. "Would to God it happens," Marks said, his hands clasped in prayer.
Unlike many of the contestants, both black women came here to win. "I'm assuming I'll be in the top 10," Miss Arkansas said on Friday. "If I'd won my state three or four years ago I wouldn't have this attitude. I'd just won my state three or four years ago I wouldn't have this attitude. I'd just have been happy to be here." Miss Washington was no less enthusiastic about her chances, saying, "I'm not going to cop out. I came here to be Miss America. I won't fall apart if it doesn't happen; I won't blame the judges. aBut I'm capable of doing this job."
Yet few people here thought that both black contestants would make top 10. It was said that while the white contestants would compete against everyone, the black contestants had to compete against each other, a quota-system theory that neither appreciated.
"I know some people are trying to make us compete against each other," Miss Arkansas said. "If we'd been put in the same preliminary group I might have felt that way, but we weren't. Nobody compares me to South Dakota, so why compare me to Washington?"
"People think only one of us will make top 10," Miss Washington said. "It's understandable. But I refuse to see it that way."
At the beginning of the week the consensus was that if either were to break out of the pack, it would be Miss Arkanas. She seemed to have the Miss America looks and lines down. When she was asked what she would do as Miss America, she said, "I would like to bring a little more togetherness, a little more unity. I don't want to be looked at as just being black. I'm deeper than that. Let's stop looking just at face value." But on Thursday night her luster faded a bit when she tamely sang "St. Louis Blues," without trying to really sell it. Her preliminary win in swimsuit, however, put her back in the running, and she eventually finished fourth runner-up.
On the other hand, Miss Washington started out slow. Some said they didn't see a sparkle in her. That changed abruptly when she sang "Our Love Is Here to Stay" on Friday night and blew the room away.
"I picked jazz because jazz sells the most," she said after her performance.
"Most people don't sing it because most can't. That's my song. That was me, Doris, singing that song. I knew I did it out there tonight. I told myself, 'Doris, you did it.' I've had that sparkle all week -- maybe you just didn't see it. You just watch me on Saturday night. And tell your friends to watch too."
Two of the seven judges -- Azie Taylor Morton and Janet Langhart -- were black, and some pageant veterans saw that as a slight disadvantage for the black contestants; the feeling was that to get their votes the black women would have to be clearly superior to their white rivals. Neither Miss Arkansas nor Miss Washington thought the complexion of the judges would matter; certainly no one said it mattered after Miss Okalahoma won. The Computer's Choice
The Fleeting Fame Footnote to History Award for this pageant goes to Miss Kansas, Leann Folsom, a senior at Kansas University. Thanks to Dr. George Miller, a publicity-conscious statistician from Illinois, Miss Kansas was in the spotlight all week after Miller's computer analysis of vital statistics from previous Miss Americas projected Kansas as this year's Big Cheese.
People magazine ran the story, trumpeting Miller's less than flattering conclusion that Kansas would win because her statistical profile, when compared to previous Miss Americas, was "the most average" of these 50 contestants. Talk about left-handed compliments.
All week long people crowded her, asking her about the story, which she knew nothing of until publication. ("The photographer from People came to my school and said he wanted my picture for a round-up of all the contestants," Miss Kansas said. "Nobody said anything about a computer.") Her reaction was something between amusement and embarrassment.
"I'm not sure if it'll turn out bad or good," Miss Kansas said on Friday.
"It's kind of put pressure on me because everyone is watching everything I do. The other girls have been super about it, but I still make sure to joke about it. I laugh if off and say, 'I just wish the computer could vote.'"
Miss Kansas, who came here assuming she would make top 10 and thinking she could go home as Miss America, finished way up the track.
"I guess it's possible they could always call me "The One Who . . .'" she said, smiling, ever smiling. Profit & Positive Thinking
In the great hall they were dressed in long, formal gowns and tuxedos, a respectful bow to an America of manners. Those with someone special to root for did so with enthusiasm, but each of the 50 contestants heard steady cheers for her efforts. In a sense no one walks away a loser because there is always a state crown to go home to and wear for a year, and there is the thrill of sudden attention, a week of glitter and gloss. Even for the ones who came with no realistic chance, there is the experience. "I got to see the ocean, and I'd never seen one before," said Miss South Dakota, Carol Barnett. "You don't see a lot of water where I'm from."
But it is and remains a competition, for competitive, very competitive women.
And there is one overall winner.
"I had to work for it," Susan Powell said at her press conference late Saturday night, early Sunday morning actually. "I put in the work I had to and now I'm Miss America."
She said the main thing she could offer was "positive thinking." Someone said she'd have 365 days to offer it and she said, "Maybe I'll be a better person for it, and maybe you will, too."
She didn't lack for confidence. She met the obligatory Miss America questions head on and took the traditional safe Miss America path walking through them. On ERA? "I don't favor it in law, but I believe in equal rights for women." On abortion?"I think people have to make their own choice. I don't favor a law about it." On pre-marital sex? "It's not for me personally, but I can't tell others what to do." On religion?"It's my life, my love for God, for Christ, for what He's given me. Through my singing, that's how I'll spread the word . . . a positive attitude almost means Christianity to me."
This was her third try at Miss America. In 1977 she was Miss Elk City and finished second runner-up at state. She took the next year off and in 1979 she seemed to regress, finishing first runner-up in the Miss Oklahoma City pageant, not reaching state. This was to be her last shot. "If I didn't make it. I would've felt it wasn't to be," she said.
Someone asked her how much money she wanted to make as Miss America, and she said, "as much as possible." A figure, $100,000, was mentioned, and she said, "That sounds pretty good." She said the money would enable her to study at the top European vocal academies. Rhonda Shelton, her close friend, said she didn't think Susan Powell needed more money, that the family was well-to-do, maybe not millionaires, "but certainly very, very comfortable." w
"Upper, upper middle class," Rhonda Shelton said.
Susan Powell was still answering questions. No, she said, she didn't have a boyfriend. No, she didn't plan on marrying right away and having a family. First, she wanted a singing career.
Then a woman came over to interrupt, saying the magic words, invoking the sacred title: "Miss America really does have to attend the coronation ball." And suddenly, perhaps for the first time, Susan Powell realized that she no longer owned exclusive copyrights to her own life, that she would be getting only two hours' sleep that night before she met the press again, that this was just the beginning of nights of five hours' sleep and less, that she, in fact, belonged to a tradition that would fly her here and drive her there and sell her everywhere.
And Susan Powell, Miss America 1981, hid behind her marble-green eyes and smiled.
Nearby, in the great hall, there was silence. The spotlights that shone on the contestants were turned off now. The people who had cheered them were gone. Nothing moved except the red, white and green streamers that hung from the rafters and softly swept the stage floor as they fluttered. The runway was white and icy, a cold road that would soon be put in storage to next year's regal traveler. If you got close to it, though, if you got so close that you could touch it, you would have seen a few sequins that had fallen from Miss America's dress, catching what light remained and twinkling like stars.