Politics made a brief appearance at the Miss America pageant in September 1969. Most of the finalists faced hard-hitting questions like, “At what age will you marry?” and “What would you do if you didn’t like your brother’s girlfriend?” But Miss Minnesota was asked whether she thought the United States would ever have a female president, and why would it take so long.
Miss Minnesota made a face and rolled her eyes before offering thoughts like, “Men really should operate our country” and “Women tend to be a little bit emotional at times, whereas men can overcome their emotions with logic.” She concluded, “So if we do have a woman president I think it will be a while yet.”
Even in 1969, this was not the right answer, and Miss Minnesota wound up as fourth runner-up. But she was correct that it would be “a while” — since her answer, we have been through 12 presidential election cycles, and still no female president.
But the days of softball questions for pageant contestants are long gone. Earlier this week, the top five finalists at the Miss America Pageant all faced politically charged questions on complex current events that forced them to take and defend a stance. Miss Missouri was asked whether President Trump’s campaign was guilty of colluding with Russia. Miss Texas had to assess whether all of the Charlottesville protesters really were “very fine people,” as Trump had said. Miss New Jersey faced a question about what to do with Confederate statues, and Miss District of Columbia tackled whether legislators should ban full-contact football for elementary-age players given the concussion risk. Miss North Dakota, who took the crown that night, was grilled about the Paris agreement. (She said the United States should not have withdrawn.)
Clearly what is expected of Miss America has changed. She has for a few decades needed a “platform,” or an issue she advocates for as she “runs” for the title of Miss America, and now she must have a defensible opinion on anything and everything. Though some aspects of the pageant are not so different — contestants still must don swimsuits and evening wear for the judges — the final interview has become increasingly political, to the point that Miss America is treated as if she were seeking public office instead of a crown. And that interview, which gets the most news coverage, is increasingly defining the competition to the public.
The final question, which the Miss America Organization calls an “opportunity to distinguish awareness of issues relevant to Miss America and young women in today’s world,” constitutes 20 percent of each contestant’s final score. Talent is valued more, at 30 percent of the final score, though rarely does a well-performed aria make headlines. The popular pageant wisdom is that you can’t necessarily win with a great final answer, but you can lose with a bad one.
The nature of political final questions at Miss America has evolved. Even as ultra-tough questions emerged, occasional softballs popped up, too. In 2014, one question was whether the United States should intervene in Syria, while others asked about Miley Cyrus and whether wives should stand by their husbands if they cheat. But this year was the first that every finalist was hit with a similarly styled political question. (Interestingly, Miss California’s answer on Syria was rather similar to one President Barack Obama had offered.)
Whatever the question, each pageant contestant has only 20 seconds to answer a complex question, not unlike a political debate. Contestants have to be quick on their feet in our sound bite society, just like political candidates hoping their 20-second response lands on cable news.
There’s no room for polite dodging anymore, either. Miss America 2012’s final question was, “Do you think Miss America should be free to declare her political affiliation?” Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler replied in the negative because, “Miss America represents everyone.” Flash forward to last year, when such a benign platitude became impossible. Miss Arkansas Savvy Shields was asked, “Hillary Rodham Clinton. What do you think?” Miss New York Camille Sims had to answer the same question about Donald Trump.
Unlike in years past, when contestants tried to give answers that wouldn’t offend anyone, this year’s winner, Cara Mund, knew she had to take a stand when answering her final question. At the post-crowning news conference, she explained: “I wasn’t necessarily afraid if my opinion wasn’t the opinion of my judges. … Miss America needs to have an opinion, and she needs to know what’s happening in the current climate.”
The Miss America Organization moved in this direction partly to distinguish itself from the competition, Miss USA. Miss USA has always been the sexier cousin to the Miss America pageant, but it became even tawdrier when Donald Trump owned it from 1996 to 2015. (Memorably, the pageant released photos of the contestants in lingerie.) Miss America partly compensated by going heavier on intellectual substance.
Miss America 1990 was the first to have a “platform;” Miss Missouri Debbye Turner won with the issue of youth motivation. The next year, Miss America focused on domestic violence. The platform turned more political in 1993, when Miss Florida Leanza Cornett focused on AIDS awareness. Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle also focused on AIDS awareness, turning heads when she taught high school students how to use a condom. While Miss America 2003 Ericka Harold won with an anti-bullying platform, within a week after her crowning she adopted a secondary platform of abstinence education. Interestingly, as the final questions at Miss America have become more overtly political, the platforms have become less so since the early 2000s. Miss America 2018’s platform is “A Make-A-Wish Passion with Fashion.” A worthy service organization, but not quite as controversial as climate change.
One thing that has not changed, even as substance has been elevated at the Miss America pageant: Looks matter. You might scratch your head over the fact that a young woman will spend the same amount of time answering questions about Russian collusion as she will walking on stage in high heels and a bikini. But even in that sense, beauty pageants aren’t so different from the political world, where looks matter too. Recall the reaction in 2010 to photos of Obama on the beach in Hawaii — he was ogled and dissected, even though how a president looks in swimming trunks presumably has no bearing on his leadership.
Politicians know they need to be fit, healthy and attractive — Jeb Bush practically starved himself to get thin for the GOP presidential primary race, and don’t forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger got his start in politics after winning the title of Mr. Universe four times, displaying far more skin than any Miss America contestant. Just because beauty matters in a beauty pageant doesn’t mean that the contestants aren’t being evaluated more and more like political candidates.
As the Miss America pageant becomes more political, more Miss Americas seem to be seeking office, though none have been elected yet. This year’s winner aspires to be the first woman governor of North Dakota. Miss America 2003 Erika Harold is running for Illinois attorney general, and she has twice (unsuccessfully) run for U.S. Congress. Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap is running for city commissioner in Orlando.
Beth Ann Rankin, Miss Arkansas 1994, ran for U.S. Congress in 2012 and thinks her schedule as Miss Arkansas trained her well for the campaign trail. She explained that as Miss Arkansas, “I would often visit six cities in a single day and have to roll out of the car after a five-hour drive and give a speech and roll back in the car and get to another,” which wasn’t dissimilar from her schedule as a congressional candidate.
The increasing overlap between pageantry and politics can be explained by the simultaneous move toward more serious Miss America contestants and the creep of entertainment into our politics. If Miss Americas have anything to say about it, the first female president isn’t as far off as she was in 1969. And of course, she’ll look good while delivering substance in just 20 seconds.