I have a friend who is a connoisseur of Miss America trivia. She can tell you that Vonda Kay Van Dyke was a ventriloquist, that Anita Bryant was a runner-up, that Mary Ann Fleming modeled clothes she had made.
My friend gathered these nuggets of information over the course of her teen-age years when she followed the Miss America contest as closely as boys followed their favorite baseball teams.
To her, the Miss America contest was an event that made the most catty remark permissible. To a great many other teen-age girls, it was an event that represented hope against expectations. Here, assembled in one place, were 48, 50 or 51 women (depending on when you were a teen-age girl) who were living proof that it was, indeed, possible to eventually become Endowed.
Parading on the screen were young women, not much older than you, who proved that teen-age girls could grow up to be acne-free, that you could ultimately get long legs and be able to walk on high heels, too. You had only to wait, do upper torso exercises, avoid chocolate, and pray. It had happened to them, it could happen to you. Anything was possible. This was, after all, America.
We were not naive, however. There were those who harbored dark suspicions that various contestants had increased their Endowments by false artifice. Or hidden their acne under pancake makeup, or put Vaseline on their teeth to make them shine. Who could be that perfect?
All this teen-age ruminating occurred before the new feminism hit, so there wasn't anyone in my set, at least, who questioned the fundamental premise of having a Miss America contest, or who made wild suggestions about it being sexist and degrading to women. All that came later, and when it came, it didn't really seem very important.
Vanessa Williams, however, put the Miss America pageant back in the public consciousness. There's nothing like a good scandal to revive an institution and she obliged in no-trump, which may have been why I ended up watching parts of this year's extravaganza.
Mind you, I had never taken a position on the burning question of whether the Miss America pageant is sexist, an anachronism, and whether or not it should be abolished on grounds of terminal stupidity.
The contest does provide the winner the chance to make some fast money; losers get scholarships, and as a general principle in these matters, I tend to look favorably on pursuits that produce money.
Young women can't make big money by signing up to play professional basketball, baseball or football the minute their college careers are over. If Doug Flutie can get $8.3 million for throwing a football in New Jersey, what's wrong with some young woman getting $150,000 for wearing a bathing suit in Atlantic City?
So, with memories of Bert Parks, I watched.
I will confess that I did not watch it with undivided attention. Nor did I take notes. So the shocking discovery I am going to share here cannot be documented with names and state of origin. Trust me, though. It happened.
There were, as I recall, some attempts at entertaining the audience and giving each of the contestants a split second of television fame. Then the emcee announced the swim suit competition. That got my attention.
The swim suit competition had always been right up there with the evening gown competition as a teen-age crowd favorite since it proved that at least some of us would ultimately become Endowed.
Each finalist had to walk down the steps to the lower stage. There, smile frozen on her face, she would demonstrate, first, that she had a front, then that she had a back. The first contestant appeared and walked down the steps. I didn't believe what I was seeing. So I watched the second one more closely. The same thing happened. By the time the third and fourth contestants were stepping down the stairs in high heels, my attention was riveted to the screen. More specifically, to their upper thighs.
They were jiggling.
I watched with dismay, as nearly every one of the 10 finalists turned out to have the same defect. Here we are in the age of body tone and aerobics and Miss America finalists have upper thighs that appear to need a refresher course at Jane Fonda's Workout.
It was a moment of extraordinary personal revelation.
They were not perfectly constructed after all. Flabby thighs are hardly ideal.
But they did become the turning point for my entire thinking, such as it is, on the Miss America question, or at least the swim suit competition.
Which is, if they can't show off young women at their best, perhaps it would be better not to show them at all.