This was a jarringly early verdict for Dana, who, like so many Miss Texases before her, was getting a lot of buzz — a long-legged 22-year-old with a honey-colored cloud of hot-rollered curls, a gleam in her wide-set eyes and a legitimate set of blow-the-roof-off pipes.
But who could doubt B. Don Magness, the godfather of Texas pageantry? Everyone called him B. Don, the name spelled out in diamonds on his tie clip. His day job was in public relations for the Fort Worth convention center. But his passion was for Miss Texas. Never mind that he was a balding, roly-poly 50-something in polyester trousers: His advice on wardrobe, performance, hair color and cellulite was highly coveted, and he gladly bestowed it, not just upon the women picked to represent the Lone Star State but to every aspiring Miss Collin County or Miss Humble/Kingwood who sought his counsel. It frequently came down to more hair spray: He once groused that a contestant’s hairdo was “so flat it looks like a cat’s been sucking on it.”
In later years, some contestants would complain about B. Don’s handsiness, the social kisses that landed on the lips, the swimsuit-modeling sessions arranged in the privacy of his home. The final straw came when Life magazine quoted him calling the 1990 contestants “sluts.” That’s when he was forced out.
But Dana enjoyed B. Don and treasured his guidance, which had ventured into unorthodox strategies and highly personal realms. And Dana was clearly a favorite of his. He bragged that he had discovered her in a junior pageant where, at age 15, “she had one of the most fantastic bodies I’d ever seen.”
B. Don was always looking ahead that way. And now he had done his research to game out the 1983 season. He was part of Miss America’s permanent ruling class — the network of state directors who returned year after year to Atlantic City to wage friendly battle against each other, just with a different girl in the fight each time. (“Don’t worry,” B. Don once told a weeping Miss Texas after she came in fifth. “We’ll come back again and try next year.” Well, he would.) Dana knew these folks compared notes. They could take the temperature of the room, parse the politics, size up a girl’s prospects based on a few data points. So B. Don was just trying to break the truth to Dana gently.
“Miss New York is going to win,” he said. “She will be the first Black Miss America.”
"For better or worse, Miss America will always be a part of me," Vanessa Williams once wrote. "It doesn't define me, but it will always be a part of my story."
The feeling will always be mutual.
The Miss America pageant was marking its 62nd birthday that year. It was a milestone no one could have imagined when they launched the whole enterprise in 1921, a quirky little beachfront beauty contest hosted by the local business community to extend the tourist season past Labor Day. Even the name was ad hoc, the retroactive honorific they came up with for the first winner, little Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., when she returned to Atlantic City the following year to defend her inaugural title. “Miss America” — a name that would soon offer so much to parse, so much to live up to.
The pageant had spent decades as a runaway hit TV show but was beginning to lose its grasp on the public imagination. Vanessa’s crowning — heralded in some quarters as a breakthrough on par with Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball — breathed new life into the institution. But less than a year later, she would be forced to resign over the release of old nude photos she had never intended to see the light of day — a scandal that left a dark cloud over the pageant and the handling of which is still disputed in pageant circles.
Today, though, as the Miss America Organization limps to its 100th anniversary next month — hobbled by the pandemic, a vastly altered entertainment landscape and years of internal conflict — Vanessa’s subsequent career as an Emmy, Tony and Grammy nominated performer has become a major point of pride.
The women who crossed the pageant stage with Vanessa in September 1983 have had more than three decades to reckon with that night, that week, that year, the most momentous in Miss America history.
“It was a very proud moment also for me to be a part of that,” says Miss North Carolina 1983 Deneen Graham.
“The best thing about that year,” says Trelynda Kerr, then Miss Oklahoma, “is I can say I was in the year of Vanessa Williams.”
“There are a lot of girls who don’t ever get over not winning,” says Wanda Gayle Geddie, Miss Mississippi 1983. “But perhaps it’s hardest for those who actually won Miss America.”
Pageant Week 1983 was approaching, and Miss Oklahoma was determined to arrive early. Trelynda Kerr had been waiting for this since she got into kiddie pageants at age 5. She had finally clinched the state title on her second try with a killer performance of "Stand by Your Man." Miss America, she hoped, could be her springboard to a country music career.
The smart move was to get to Atlantic City on Friday, three days before the start of the competition, so you could soak up all the attention from the journalists who also showed up early. Anything to please the hometown folks and set yourself apart from the crowd. Knowing this was an upside of hailing from a serious pageant state like Oklahoma, winner of the 1967 and 1981 Miss America crowns. Trelynda’s state directors had lavished $25,000 on her training and wardrobe and kept after her about staying in shape. And when they noticed the padding in her swimsuit sliding around during the Miss Oklahoma finals, they did not mince words: We cannot go to Miss America like that, they said. They paid for her to get the implants. It was just a discreet B-cup, but Trelynda was thrilled: Finally, she had the boobs to match her hips.
“I had always had a very flat chest, and it affected how I felt about myself,” she says. “All I wanted was to be in proportion.”
But Trelynda did not get to Atlantic City first. That honor was traditionally ceded to Miss Alaska, who always needed the full extra day to adjust to the time difference. This year’s Miss Alaska, though, missed her connecting flight. So the small mob of journalists waiting at the Atlantic City airport for her at 9 a.m. Friday was left at loose ends until another young woman, this one traveling from Syracuse, appeared at 9:25 a.m. with five garment bags and two suitcases.
It was Vanessa Williams, accidentally earning her first moment in the national spotlight just by showing up first. The Associated Press story about her arrival didn’t mention that she was the first African American woman to represent the Empire State. Perhaps they didn’t know. There was no Internet; the buzz going around B. Don-level pageant circles had not yet reached the beat reporters. And it certainly hadn’t reached Vanessa.
This was just her third pageant. Months earlier, she had been singing an old Sinatra tune in a show at Syracuse University. A board member for Miss Greater Syracuse saw her, and soon the pageant organizers were begging her to enter. When her spring musical got canceled, she figured: Why not? Three months later, she was Miss New York.
How clueless was Vanessa about pageants? At her July 16 crowning in Watertown, she still thought she would get to make her off-Broadway debut in August — a dream since childhood — in the limited-run musical she had just been cast in. They quickly set her straight. She dropped out of the show and spent the next two months doing interview prep, getting fitted for sequins and waving in farm-town parades. She didn’t mind. It was a brief, amusing detour from the mapped path she planned to pick up again in the fall: junior year abroad, graduation, Yale drama school, Broadway.
History was being made at the Miss America pageant. There were four African American contestants, the most ever in a single year: Vanessa, Suzette Charles of New Jersey, Amy Keys of Maryland and Deneen Graham of North Carolina. Pageant folks had noticed something else about them: They were good. Maybe this could be the year the pageant would move beyond its long, uncomfortable racial history — perhaps even crown a Black winner?
For decades, race was a stubborn nonissue for Miss America — there simply weren’t any Black participants, because the doors were not open to them on any level, same as in many quadrants of American society. Racism was formalized a couple of years after Lenora Slaughter, an upper-crust doyenne from heavily segregated Florida, arrived in 1935 to take over operations of the pageant. Bent on upgrading the reputation of what started as a raucous seaside swimsuit contest, she imposed age restrictions and codes of conduct — and the so-called “Rule Seven,” which mandated that contestants “be of good health and of the white race.” Even after it was lifted in the 1950s, a racial status quo lingered, thanks to a contestant pipeline that funneled through chummy small-town pageants, where organizers could set strict residency requirements or limit entry to invitation-only.
In 1959, Black women won local crowns for the first time, in Sacramento and at Indiana University. Yet as of 1968, no state had sent a Black winner to Miss America. That August, three weeks before Miss America, the first Miss Black America pageant was held in Atlantic City. It was both a protest of historic exclusion and a celebration of the Black-is-beautiful movement. The wait ended a year later, when Cheryl Browne was crowned Miss Iowa 1970. It would take another decade for a Black woman to make it to the Miss America top 5. By 1983, only about a dozen African American women had ever walked the Miss America stage. While Vanessa and Suzette had been feted in their home states as “firsts,” the milestone was even more profound for a North Carolinian like Deneen Graham, 19, a soft-spoken dancer from small-town North Wilkesboro.
“It was a big deal,” she says. “You don’t realize sometimes how significant it is until you see the press the next day.” She was deluged by interview requests and fan letters. But there were also threats, direct and indirect. A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally and threatened to host a Miss White North Carolina pageant or burn a cross in her yard (neither happened).
Yet as the most diverse pageant in Miss America history officially got underway, the biggest story in Atlantic City was about a White woman: B. Don's protege, Miss Texas Dana Rogers.
The headlines telegraphed the blossoming national scandal: Pageant hopeful admits surgery . . . Pageant entrant admits she had implants . . . Nose job for Miss Texas . . .
About 10 weeks before her first attempt at the state title in 1982, B. Don had given Dana’s figure a hard look.
“If this is how you come to Miss Texas, you’re not going to win,” he said.
She went on a crash diet and started working out every day. When she placed second runner-up, the consensus was that she’d gotten too thin; she’d lost her spark. Dana resolved to find a healthier path the next year. But she hated how skinny she looked up top; at the pageant after-party, she went to the bathroom and ripped the spongy push-up pads from her evening gown. Never again, she thought. That summer she told B. Don she wanted implants.
Well, he said, Miss San Antonio was coming up: If she won there, maybe they would pay for her surgery? She did, and they did. And on her second try the next summer, with a bigger chest and a slightly slimmer nose, she was crowned Miss Texas.
But when a People magazine reporter came to interview Dana for a story about the 1983 contenders, B. Don warned her: People would ask if she’d had work done — and she should tell the truth.
Later, she questioned his strategy. It was demeaning to have to talk about her implants in interview after interview, with the implication that she had done something illicit. But you just didn’t disobey your pageant director, she explains.
The backlash was puzzling. Twenty years after the first silicone implants helped take breast augmentation mainstream, cosmetic surgery wasn’t particularly controversial anymore. But cultural critics weren’t ready to let pageant girls play by these new rules. Miss America had smugly held itself to a higher standard by exalting girl-next-door “natural” beauties. For a contestant to fix her appearance felt like hypocrisy, these critics seemed to think. Or worse, it was like cheating — the equivalent of a doping athlete.
Dana felt an uglier undercurrent of judgment and accusation: You’re not “real.” You’re not “wholesome.” And yet, throughout that week in Atlantic City, one contestant after another approached her privately to say, I had it done, too. (For all the press attention Trelynda got, the secret of her surgery never leaked.)
“I never thought, ‘Why aren’t you telling them?’ ” Dana says. “I thought, ‘Well, don’t tell a soul.’ ”
By Wednesday of pageant week, the action had moved behind the scenes, to the closed-door interviews with the judging panel. The women would perform their talents and parade in swimsuits and evening gowns on the Convention Hall stage for the same judges later — but everyone knew these seven-minute sessions were the true make-or-break.
Trelynda’s was a disaster. She had spent the summer brushing up on politics, but instead the judges drilled down on the depth of her religious faith. If she were hosting a party and opened the door to find Jesus standing there, they asked, what would she do? “I’d invite him in,” she lamely replied, boggled as to what they were looking for. The clever retort only ever materializes minutes or years later: Of course, she should have asked Christ, “red or white?”
Miss Nebraska Kristin Lowenberg, a short-haired girl from a state that never, ever, won, was tickled to find that Rod McKuen, the 1960s poet/songwriter, was one of her judges, she being the last teenager in America to still read his books.
“I started to have a conversation with him about poetry in the middle of my interview,” she says. “I had a really good time.”
No such luck for Dana. She knew she was doomed when the poet hit her with a question that implied her surgery confession was a publicity stunt. On that Wednesday night, she was in the first of three groups competing in swimsuit. Walking across the stage, she noticed the judges tilting their heads for a better look at her bosom. The word on the street was that she would have won the swimsuit prize if not for their issues with cosmetic surgery. But who knows? She was up against tough competition: That night, it was Vanessa who took home the prize.
It's that time again
There’s that mountain to climb again
The challenge is there
The prize is yours if you dare!
They spilled out onto the stage in their sporty knitwear and pumps, swaying to the sounds of the Glenn Osser Orchestra, the house band of nearly 30 years, and lip-syncing one of the upbeat ditties Glenn and his wife, Edna, wrote for the production numbers every year.
And you know, yes you know
You’re gonna go for it, go for it, go for it all!
This was it. Finals night. The two-hour televised culmination of a competition it had taken them months or years to reach. And it all blew by in a flash.
Just minutes into the show, host Gary Collins pulled an envelope from his burgundy dinner jacket: the names of the 10 finalists. For 40 other women, including Deneen Graham and Trelynda Kerr, the game was over. Trelynda was devastated. The end of a 15-year dream. And now what was she supposed to do? Today, she wishes that she had come up in pageants in the era of “platforms” and service requirements. Trelynda could have used a cause back then — something to take with her beyond pageants. Years later, after realizing she was gay and drifting away from pageant circles, but then returning as a Miss Oklahoma judge in 2016, she thought, maybe this was it — maybe she could be the person who helps make Miss America LGBTQ-friendly.
“It’s still,” Trelynda says today of her week at the Miss America pageant, “the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
The top 10 were seen more than heard, and hardly seen enough, what with all the variety-show filler. When they had a rare chance to speak live, during the evening gown competition, it was in corny get-to-know-me declarations.
“As a math major, I may one day design a future space shuttle!” said Miss Alabama Pam Battles, in form-fitting white lace. “And as a music major, I will also be able to supply the piped-in music!”
At least the swimsuit competition was interspersed with 10-second excerpts from their interviews, another chance to hear accents and see faces in motion. Otherwise, it was a parade of pencil bodies, the hard-fought reward for the 800-calorie-a-day diets that pageant women openly bragged about in those days. The pale-skinned girls looked downright ghostly: It was the era before aggressive bronzing went mainstream, and even a Bain de Soleil tan got neutralized by the TV lights. But if the rest of their figures had wasted away, the bustlines remained solid — how did that work? The Miss Nebraska advisers, confounded by Kristin’s lean, athletic figure, showed her all the tricks with padding and tape and thickly lined bra cups — because nothing, they said, absolutely nothing must show. So Kristin had been stunned to see Miss New York stroll into preliminaries in an unreinforced, civilian-grade bathing suit, her silhouetted nipples leading the way.
“I thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is not going to be good!’ ” Kristin says. But apparently it was just fine.
The talent portion was comparatively deep, each woman getting a full two and a half minutes of camera time. Dana took the stage in a billowing, high-neck gown — this time the focus would be on her voice, not her body — and began to sing.
Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton.
Old times there are not forgotten . . .
Yes, Miss Texas was singing “Dixie.” Yes, in 1983, yes, at this historic moment for Miss America. It was Elvis Presley’s version — his “American Trilogy” medley — and Dana killed it with her lusty vibrato, weepy sighs and glorious high notes. But she knew even then it was not a politically well-considered choice. “Why B. Don had me do ‘American Trilogy,’ I have no idea,” she says 36 years later. “I did a really good ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade,’ but he hated that song.” And B. Don loved Elvis.
There may have been 50 young women from across the country vying to be Miss America, but they had pageant directors the age of their parents or grandparents telling them how to do it. That’s why you had a 24-year-old Miss Kentucky crooning about the midlife regret of “Yesterday When I was Young,” and Miss Missouri sawing through the bluegrass standard “Orange Blossom Special.” Alabama played a Gershwin piano medley, Florida sang “Over the Rainbow,” and Mississippi’s song was straight from Tin Pan Alley.
So to see Miss Nebraska in her leotard and legwarmers rolling on the floor, spinning on her bottom, cartwheeling, back-arching and skipping to one of the biggest pop hits of the year — it was different! Her state pageant director had politely hinted that singing might be safer: Dancers never won. But Kristin was a dancer, her favorite new movie was about dancing, and she wanted to have some fun. So, she did the dance, the one you’d seen all that summer on MTV:
What a feeling . . .
I can have it all now I’m dancing for my life . . .
If you wanted to pump up a crowd in September 1983, you could never go wrong with “Flashdance.”
For singers who wanted to edge into a contemporary aesthetic without alienating the old folks, the new lodestar was Streisand. That is, if you had the chops to tackle her songs — and Suzette Charles, who performed first, turned in by far the most virtuosic performance of the night. How was this voice coming out of a 20-year-old? The only problem was the song itself: “Kiss Me In the Rain,” a complex and less-than-indelible tune that never topped the charts.
Vanessa had run into the same issue. She won Miss Syracuse with “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” — another showcase for a sparkling vocalist. But Vanessa’s pageant mentor urged her to switch: It was important to pick a song the judges knew. She suggested “Happy Days Are Here Again” — not the bouncy FDR campaign theme, but the slowed-down reinterpretation of it that Streisand debuted during her early rise to fame.
So there she was, the last woman to perform. Onstage in a liquid silver gown, Vanessa stuck to the languorous Streisand tempo. But while the young Barbra had wrung some ambiguous melancholy out of the song — as if still scarred by the unhappy days — Vanessa’s take was bright-eyed, triumphant and more than a little sly.
This was the song of a woman enjoying her happy days, all right, and ready for more of the same. This was quite possibly as sexy as you could ever be and still win the Miss America pageant.
The 10 women returned to the stage, lined up facing the audience to hear the results.
Fourth runner-up: Miss Ohio Pamela Rigas.
Her gracious smile betrayed just a hint of sweet relief. Pam looked more than ready to get back to law school.
Third runner-up: Miss Mississippi Wanda Gayle Geddie.
Wanda mustered the obligatory smile. “You were supposed to be Miss America,” her mother said months later, after everything blew up, but Wanda knew better. “Mom,” she said, “if I was supposed to be Miss America, I would have been Miss America.”
Second runner-up: Miss Alabama Pam Battles.
At this point, Vanessa could do the math. Seven women left on the stage, and she knew the names that would definitely be called that had not yet been called. And it was an honor to come in second to Suzette Charles. . . .
First runner-up: Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles.
Now everyone knew — even Vanessa. Rod McKuen later claimed that the panel had fought all week over Vanessa vs. Wanda until he and another judge prevailed. And yet in that crowning moment, it would feel as though the outcome had always been inevitable. Dana, standing at the far end of the line and no longer listening for her own name, leaned forward with a grin to glimpse Vanessa’s reaction a split-second before it came.
When the previous year’s Miss America, Debra Maffett, put the crown on her head, Vanessa could only think: There goes my junior year abroad. It took a couple minutes for her to realize that she had become the first Black Miss America, and that this would mean something to the rest of the world.