Feminism couldn’t kill it. Irony couldn’t kill it. Not even reality TV could kill it. After 94 years, the peculiar institution of Miss America is not only still alive, it has rebounded from a near-death of slumping ratings to become something of a watercooler event once again — thanks to its rediscovery by a nation of couch tweeters who just can’t resist a big, splashy live-TV event that demands their instant commentary.
But this year, don’t be content to simply snark on social media about the misplaced rhinestones, the current-events question fails or the troubled state of baton twirling. Why not root for a winner — and put some skin in the game?
Every year, my friends compete to see who can predict the most Miss America finalists — or even Miss America herself — with small cash bets or bragging rights at stake. Sound impossible? Miss America may seem like a randomly subjective beauty contest, but it operates like a cross between two of amateur gambling’s favorite competitions.
As with the Kentucky Derby, we have a field of highly-trained contenders with documented track records pointing to how they might perform. But as with the Oscars, they are selected by voters whose past picks betray obvious patterns of taste and sentiment.
Still, divining these factors can be mysterious for the average TV viewer who hasn’t done his homework, says Chris Saltalamacchio, a longtime coach for pageant contestants. “They listen to the talents or they watch the swimsuit walk and they think ‘She was good. Why didn’t she win?'”
So who is going to win Sunday night? (The pageant, broadcast live from Atlantic City, N.J., on ABC, starts at 9 p.m. eastern.) Here’s how you can tell.
You only get one shot at Miss America: No one is allowed to compete twice in Atlantic City, so you can’t place your bet on a Julianne Moore-type, virtually guaranteed her Oscar this past year after four losing nominations. But for most contestants, this ain’t their first rodeo: They’ve been slogging it out for years trying to win their state pageant, or perhaps have reached the upper ranks of Miss Teen or the tawdrier, sexier Miss USA — and now they’re trained killers with a hard, professional sheen.
Cognoscenti pay particular attention to an obscure annual pageant known as National Sweetheart. Hosted in Hoopestown, Ill., it pits all the state first runners-up from around the country against each other. As it happens, both last year’s winner, Idaho’s Kalie Wright, and first runner-up Jamie Lynn Macchia of New York, went on to clinch their state titles and are competing for Miss America this year.
Think of it like the Heisman Trophy: No guarantee of how they’ll do in the pros, but ones to watch. However. . .
WHERE IS SHE FROM?
Don’t be one of those amateurs who fills your ballot with Misses from the states where you’ve lived — especially if you hail from, say, the Dakotas and went to college in New Hampshire. Certain big states, largely in the midwest and south, can be counted on to do well at Miss America. It’s a numbers game: Pageants are more popular in culturally conservative communities, and the larger the state, the more contenders for the state title — which means that Miss Texas, who beat out 57 other women for that crown, is probably a stronger competitor than, say, Miss Vermont, who faced only eight. (New England hasn’t produced a winner since 1933.)
Meanwhile, Idaho hasn’t even had a top 10 finalist since 1971, which could bode poorly for Kalie. At the same time, New York and Oklahoma have together claimed five of the last 10 Miss Americas; and Louisiana, which has placed many finalists without scoring a win, is widely considered overdue. Ultimately, though, provenance matters less than. . .
Watching the live show might lead you to believe that the entire competition happens in two hours. In fact, the Misses have spent the week competing in untelevised events that impinge heavily on their chances. So there is now much buzz about Miss South Carolina and Miss Florida, who won preliminaries for their stupendous bikini bodies — ‘scuse me, ahem, the Lifestyle and Fitness contest— as well as Miss Louisiana and Miss Georgia, singers who won the talent competitions. . . and Miss Iowa Taylor Wiebers, who is now considered a frontrunner for the big title because she won both a swimsuit and a talent prize.
Is she a lock? While it’s rare to win two preliminary contests, the last few women to do so ended up settling for runner-up status, and the last three Miss Americas came into the final night without a single preliminary win, because so many intangible things matter more like. . .
Those of you flipping through the Miss America Web site like it’s a game of “hot or not” can just stop now. Looks matter — but the judges typically pass over anyone who is too drop-dead gorgeous. The look is more wholesome, girl-next-door; many winners, regardless of race, end up looking a lot like Phyllis George, the legendary Miss America who went on to be a CBS sportscaster and first lady of Kentucky — thick hair, dimples, sparkly eyes. Usually dark-haired, though a few blondes have sneaked in recently. An Atlantic City photographer once told me he can always pick the winner by her profile: They all have strong, pointy chins.
So don’t rule out Miss D.C. Haely Jardas, a red-haired statehood advocate who sings Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and wants to raise awareness about mental health issues, which incidentally makes for an interesting. . .
HUMAN INTEREST FACTOR
From the first black Miss America — Vanessa Williams, 1983 — to the first deaf Miss America back in 1994, to the first to wear her diabetes insulin pump onstage in 1998, judges have often been captivated by the woman with the unique personal story. Not always: Two years ago, Miss Kansas came in on a big wave of hype for being a National Guard member with visible tattoos; she didn’t make the top five.
Still, someone like Jardas, who talks openly about her own battle with anxiety, can impress judges who are essentially looking to fill the job of America’s perkiest motivational speaker. Carrie Lakey, who makes predictions for the Pageant Junkies newsletter, thinks judges are looking for “authentic and genuine” and points our attention back to Miss Iowa, who went bald as a teenager to raise money for pediatric cancer. “She believed enough to shave her head,” Lakey said. “You have to have something that resonates with people.” Which brings us to. . .
There’s a legend that judges bestow wins on states that have suffered a grave recent tragedy — Miss Oklahoma in 1995, Miss Florida in hurricane-plagued 1992. But there are too many exceptions for this to be a rule. More typically we’ve seen judges fall for someone whose convictions, displayed in the on-stage interviews, reflect some national mood — like the AIDS advocates who won the title in the ’90s, or Miss New York Mallory Hagan, who seized the prize with a passionate argument against armed guards in schools, just a month after the Sandy Hook shooting.
To that end, keep an eye on: Miss New Jersey Lindsey Giannini, who won a prize this week for her advocacy against texting while driving; and the aforementioned Miss South Carolina Daja Dial who — far from stepping lightly in political matters like most Misses — came out with a resounding cry at her state pageant to remove Confederate memorabilia from the state house. Judges love that, said Saltalamacchio: “She’s a strong personality, who is unapologetic for her views — but who can do it with discretion and be polite.” So what we’re really talking about here is . . .
THE IT FACTOR
You know: Charisma. Poise. Spunk. That hard-to-quantify quality that launches winners of “American Idol” or frontrunners in presidential primaries. “When you meet a Miss America, it’s that instantaneous moment of, ‘Oh, I know why you’re Miss America,” said Saltalamacchio. “Sometimes, everyone is talking about Miss Blank, and I’ll meet her and think, ‘She’s great, but she’s not going to be Miss America.'”
Much of this is revealed to judges in 10-minute interviews that are not shown on TV; from watching at home, your best bet, he says, is to try to gauge who is truly having fun as she plays the marimbas in a sparkly halter top or brags about her home state’s production of limestone or pecans. Who has the real smile, versus the fake one.
All right, Chris, so who are you liking in the charisma department? He named someone who hadn’t crossed our radar yet: You heard it here first — Miss Alabama, Meg McGuffin. “This is a woman who every time I meet her, I wish I had five hours to spend with her, not five minutes,” he said. “That cannot be taught.”