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Big hair, big dreams: Behind the curtain at the Miss America pageant

Miss New York Nia Franklin, center, celebrates after being crowned Miss America on Sept. 9, 2018, in Atlantic City. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

What kind of woman wants to become Miss America? Is she groomed from childhood by a beauty-queen mama? Is she a Southern belle? A girl who simply wants to be famous? A baton twirler from a small town with dreams of big-city life? Is she a gal from the Midwest with a 3.9 GPA facing student loan purgatory, seeking the scholarship money to further her education? Is she a budding orator who wants to be the next Diane Sawyer?

She is all these and more, as you will discover reading Amy Argetsinger’s new book, “There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America.”

Argetsinger, an editor of The Washington Post’s Style section, is a true pageant enthusiast; she brings empathy and respect to the women who have followed this path. “I love the Miss America Pageant. And I’m not going to apologize for it,” she states early on. Long before she began work on this book, she would go to Atlantic City with her pals to watch the festivities in person. “It’s fun. The road trip to the Jersey Shore, the hike down the Boardwalk in cocktail garb.” The part she and her friends really loved was figuring out who would win. She got pretty good at it.

In “There She Was,” Argetsinger studies the taxonomy of the Miss America pageants from the 1970s to the present, taking in the many small, local contests that lead up to the mother of them all. A national beauty pageant in the era of women’s liberation is inherently complicated. When Terry Meeuwsen was crowned Miss America in 1973, she was a Nixonian conservative, which was fine with the Miss America honchos but out of step with the zeitgeist of the youth. Pepsi-Cola had already pulled its advertising on the show by 1969, “deciding that its primary market was cool young urbanites, and Miss America just didn’t ‘represent the changing values of our society.’ ”

Meeuwsen wasn’t having any of it. As Argetsinger observes, she “came out swinging in defense of the pageant at a time it needed it most.” Meeuwsen noted the scholarship and appearance fees she reaped as Miss America. “If this is exploitation,” she told reporters, “then they can exploit me any day.”

Argetsinger notes the sociological implications of that moment: “Here was Miss America’s retort to the women’s movement — an accomplished young professional who had happily accepted the Miss America crown. . . . She carried herself like the new breed of sporty young single women with office jobs and apartments and VW Beetles, or at least their sitcom embodiments, like Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore. Here, finally, was a new archetype for Miss America. No longer the debutante but the career girl — a bold but safe step forward.”

When I was a girl, I watched the Miss America pageants on TV with my parents. I had a lot of questions. Were these women 40 years old? Was a lady supposed to wear high heels with a bathing suit? (Follow-up question: Why did I have to wear flip-flops?) How did the contestants get their hair so stiff and hard? Why did the winner cry so much? Wasn’t she happy she’d won? Did she have to, or get to, wear that crown every day for a year?

These people were glamorous aliens to me. Not like anyone that I knew growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We looked up to the pioneers of 20th-century women’s liberation. Our older siblings had marched against the Vietnam War and the draft, and the invasion of Cambodia, and the killings at Kent State University. We watched the Watergate hearings during free periods in school and canceled the prom. Hair was mostly natural in my world — curly, straight, Afros, authentic. Not much struggling to make it what it was not. We stopped wearing makeup before we ever started, and if we owned dresses, we never wore them.

Meanwhile in the parallel universe Argetsinger examines, young women our very same ages were moving up from tiny county beauty and talent contests to citywide contests, to regional competitions and onward to Miss States. They were honing their acts — the dance routines, the songs, the monologues and yes, the baton twirling. They were dieting and exercising. They were practicing their conversational skills with adults. They were refining their manners, their gaits and their eye contact. And they were schlepping their wardrobes, their hair rollers and dryers, their pounds of makeup, their props, their sashes, and their (often custom-made) swimsuits (never bathing suits) from place to place — before the invention of roller bags — on their road to Atlantic City.

All this will be fascinating to beauty (and scholarship) pageant devotees who are curious about the before, during and immediate afterward of a winner’s life. What was her talent? Did she actually finish college or law school after her reign? What was new to me was the plight of the organization and the people who clutched power within it. I probably would have welcomed more of that, along with pictures of these lesser gods.

The best-known of the modern Miss Americas — Phyllis George, 1971, Vanessa Williams, 1984, and Gretchen Carlson, 1989 — get their dues here. But where Argetsinger spends a great deal of her time is in the 2019 pageant world, specifically the selection of Miss Virginia 2019, starting at small events and working her way to . . . the Mohegan Sun Resort in Connecticut. By 2019, the pageant had lost viewership, and Atlantic City could no longer afford to underwrite many of the ritual activities that were such a draw. As Argetsinger weaves in and out of the 2019 path to victory, I confess I became a little impatient with all the names of all the contestants: Which ones did I really need to remember? I wished for photographs of more of her subjects and found myself going to Google to gather visual data.

Today, of course, Americans have been wholly altered by the constant presence of reality TV, which has put females in bathing suits and high heels all over the dial. The values of Miss America’s world — purpose, representation, modesty and respect for one’s elders — are nothing like the values of “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Love Island,” “Naked and Afraid,” “90 Day Fiancé” and so on, where it might take cutthroat behavior, not to mention on-camera sex, to win. So Miss America moved to Uncasville, Conn., another casino-centric location. There she made the best of it. And when Miss Virginia, Camille Schrier, was crowned Miss America, Argetsinger celebrated her victory.

Finally, it must be noted that there was no 2020 pageant or contest. Miss America 2022 is scheduled for Dec. 12, 2021, pending . . . everything.

There She Was

The Secret History of
Miss America

By Amy Argetsinger

Atria/One Signal.
356 pp. $28