Miss America! That gloriously weird, funhouse-mirror reflection of patriotic feminity appears for its 96th year on Sunday, and this time it arrives with news: Miss Missouri, Erin O’Flaherty, will participate as the first openly gay contestant in this, the last bastion of heterosexual beauty ideals. (Reminder: It is a scholarship program.)
“I hope that by the end of the year, nobody will be focused on my sexuality,” said O’Flaherty, phoning from the Atlantic City green room where she has been submitting, exceedingly politely, to interview after interview about her sexuality. “I hope they remember me for how I did the job, and not for one quality about me.” She reports, by the way, that the green room is filled with rows of little cots, so that the tired contestants can nap between rehearsals.
“But the support I’ve had, with my family and friends, has been so great,” continues O’Flaherty, 23. “I can’t tell you how many positive messages I get on a daily basis from people, and not only in the LGBT community.” She came out as a lesbian in college, which is also when she began participating in pageants: She saw a woman in a sash at a gathering, and thought the competitions would be a fun way to build a social circle.
Her talent is singing; she will be performing a song from the musical “Wonderland.”
Her hidden talent is livestock judging: While growing up in South Carolina, O’Flaherty was involved with 4-H and in the summers went to livestock judging camp, where, she says, children learned to evaluate the build, condition and appearance of various farm animals.
The cause she plans to champion is teen suicide prevention. If she wins, she will put the $50,000 prize toward an MBA.
There’s something intriguing about all of this, or maybe not intriguing about all of this. Is O’Flaherty’s contendership is renegade (for middle America)? Or is it retrograde (for lesbians)?
Or maybe this is just the time to acknowledge that the primary pageant audience has been, for some time now, a coalition of tart-tongued gay men and “traditional values” Bible belters — and here, at last, in Erin O’Flaherty, is the sign that we are not two Americas after all. We are one America, and the one thing we can all agree on is that Erin “looked fantastic in her swimsuit and gown,” says pageant consultant Chris Saltalamacchio, when asked to assess O’Flaherty’s chances. “In the preliminaries, she just looked fantastic.”
Vanessa Williams became the first African American Miss America in 1984 (famously de-throned, less famously apologized to last year). Heather Whitestone became the first deaf Miss America in 1994. Angela Perez Baraquio became the first Asian American Miss America in 2001.
The pageant was a major pop-culture event for decades, and then the pageant was suddenly a dusty, embarassing relic — dowdier than Miss USA, dimmer than “American Idol” — until regaining, in recent years, the interest and viewership of the live-tweeting crowd. All throughout, the organization has proudly touted its famous firsts in pre-pageant buzz: first candidate with autism, with alopecia, with tattoos, even if those firsts are often a cautious step behind the times.
“Miss America tends to be more reflective of society than influencing,” says Hilary Levey Friedman, who teaches a course at Brown University on the cultural history of pageants. “If [O’Flaherty] wins, it’s not a game changer for gay and lesbian issues,” which, she notes, have already won widespread validation with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Friedman also notes that sometimes historic firsts lead to backlash, when on-stage beauty collides with real-world ugly: After Nina Davuluri won in 2014, online commenters were furious that the crown had gone to an “Arab” and “foreigner.” Davuluri, who is Indian American, was born in Syracuse.
Miss America still requires participants to be unmarried. It still requires contestants to have never been pregnant. Miss America is still desperately waiting to see which salad fork the rest of the country picks up first, so it doesn’t accidentally do something shocking.
And for however much the pageant is presented as an empowering, feminist experience — and its devotees do see it as an empowering, feminist experience — it is rooted in the lusty gaze of 1920s Atlantic City businessmen who, looking to extend the city’s tourist season, decided to do so by crowning the prettiest bathing beauty on the beach. The first winner was Margaret Gorman, who was applauded by the judges for representing “the type of womanhood America needs. Able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood.” She was 15.
What is the type of womanhood America needs? Should Miss America be demure or sexy? An emissary of the times, or an icon snow-globed away from all those messy current events? Should we even expect to sort it all out on a stage where women wander around in tottering Lucite high heels?
In some ways, O’Flaherty’s participation in the pageant is even more groundbreaking than the victories of Vanessa Williams or Angela Perez Baraquio. Those women may have had skin of different colors, or features outside of the Anglo-Saxon norm, but they still upheld the pageant’s core male fantasy: Under the right dating circumstances, they might kiss you.
In other ways, it’s less so. O’Flaherty will never kiss you, men. But lined up next to the other 51 contestants, she will be indistinguishable in appearance from the rest of the long-limbed, long-haired creatures on stage. (It’s wonderful for the pageant to reveal that a beautiful woman might also be a lesbian; it would be more so if it one day revealed that a non-beautiful woman might also be deserving of a crown.)
“When I first came out, I heard a lot of, ‘Oh, but you’re feminine, it doesn’t make any sense,’ ” O’Flaherty says. She wants to dispel any remaining myths that all lesbians look or act a certain way, she says.
All week long, the contestants have been competing in preliminary competitions such as evening gown and talent and in “Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit” — a category title that sounds like a still life created at a YMCA painting class — and in personal interviews with the judges. O’Flaherty didn’t win the swimsuit or talent contests — the two highly influential preliminaries that announce its victors before the big show — and will not learn until Sunday whether she advances to the final 15.
But deciding to begin competing in pageants “is the best decision I’ve ever made,” O’Flaherty says. “Really, I’m having a blast. We’re all having so much fun.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the first Miss America. She was Margaret Gorman.