MS. ARGETSINGER: Thank you so much, Sarah.
MS. ELLISON: So right off the bat, this is a competition that has faced a lot of criticism for being inherently sexist and not good for women. It's really been the butt of jokes of the past few years. I'm wondering, do you think it has a place in today's political and social culture?
MS. ARGETSINGER: You know, I love--I'm always fascinated that people ask the question this way. They want to know if Miss America is still relevant. And I think it's telling that we ask the question this way. You don't ask if The Voice is relevant. You don't ask if American Idol is relevant. You don't ask if, I don't know, name a TV show, Big Bang Theory is relevant, or The View. And that's because I think the public recognizes that Miss America has always tried to be more than a TV show. It's a subculture. It's a system. It's this network of pageants. It's this very aspirational thing that for many, many years you had thousands of young women competing in.
And so you asked the question is it relevant, you know, does it fit in. You know, I think the better question is, does it have a market share anymore? And I think after a pretty sensational century, it's hard to say that it does. It's losing viewership dramatically. It's plunged in participation by contestants. You know, I tried to figure out what happened to it, and that's what led me to this book, to look back at the past history. I think it's very hard to say, though, that it does fit in anymore.
MS. ELLISON: How many of these pageants--local, state, and national--did you attend when you were researching the book?
MS. ARGETSINGER: Well, okay, here's my secret history of Miss America. I'd actually been going to these things for years. When I was--when I was a young reporter, one of my colleagues in the newsroom in Western Illinois where we worked, she actually competed in the Miss Iowa system, and that's what made me realize, wait, these are real people. This isn't like a different species of human. And we went to see the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1996, and then we were hooked. It was just--it was a subculture. It was so unexpected. It was so different than what we had seen on TV.
So my friends and I went to it many times, probably eight or nine times before I ever thought about writing a book. But through the course of writing this book, I attended local pageants in Virginia, leading up to the Miss Virginia pageant, and then going on to Miss America in December 2019, which was the last time we had a pageant. It was--the pandemic canceled it last year. So how many have I been to? I've lost count.
MS. ELLISON: But you're the expert. So talk to us a little bit about this infamous Rule 7. Just for the audience, it's--a quick summary. It's a rule that was implemented in the '30s, if I'm right, that contestants be of "good health and of the White race." So talk to us about how the ideal Miss America has changed over time.
MS. ARGETSINGER: So this was--yeah. I mean, this was--this was an era of segregation. The organizer –the chairman of the [audio distortion] only be women of the White race. Am I freezing up on you?
MS. ELLISON: You're breaking up a little bit. You're pixelating slightly.
MS. ARGETSINGER: Okay, sorry.
MS. ELLISON: I know that your house is a wifi-averse zone.
MS. ARGETSINGER: I haven't found the sweet spot here. So Rule 7 dictated that women be of White race and of good health. This policy was on the books. I've seen it in the rules. It lasted until at least the mid-'50s. In some states it lasted longer. And even when they took it off the books, it just lasted as custom because women were coming up through a smalltown system where pageant directors could invite who they wanted to have compete. And it wasn't until the mid-70s that a woman of color actually won a state pageant and competed in Miss America. It wasn't until 1983 that Vanessa Williams (phonetic) became the first African American woman to win.
MS. ELLISON: And that's--I mean, that's the big moment that I remember, that many people remember, is Vanessa Williams was such a--I don't know--you talk about the different very famous Miss Americas, but she of course comes to mind. What indicators have you seen that the show organization is progressing on social issues? Did they do that reluctantly? Was that something that they embraced?
MS. ARGETSINGER: No, I think by the time Vanessa Williams came around, by and large, the leadership of the organization was excited about this. I think there were some people within the community on the grassroots level who still had old biases and who were not welcoming. Vanessa Williams did have to deal with a lot of blowback and weird jokes and untoward comments. But by and large, her crowning--I mean, people talked about it like she was Jackie Robinson integrating baseball. She was on the frontpages. She got to meet Ronald Reagan at the White House. It was a big deal. And I think the organization was very grateful for this. The fact that the first African American Miss America was a big deal meant that Miss America was still a big deal. It meant that she still mattered at a time when they were already questioning its relevance and its survival chances. So she was very much a breakthrough for them. And then, you know, she of course, you know, was forced to resign after a miserable scandal involving nude photos. But her subsequent success in her career very much validated the organization all over again.
MS. ELLISON: I want to fast-forward a little bit, or a lot, to the MeToo movement, which is another moment where the organization really sort of ran into cultural forces that it didn't seem quite ready for. Can you walk us through that moment and what happened to the organization through that time?
MS. ARGETSINGER: In 2017, the Huffington Post published some secret emails that had been passed between the then-chairman of the organization--the then-executive director of the organization and several of his board members, and these were emails in which they were essentially trash-talking former Miss Americas, in some cases body shaming, some vulgar language about them. It was--it was very--it was tacky. And when this came out, it created a huge backlash--not just among the public but very much among the former Miss Americas.
It--you know, this was an organization that always put its winner on a pedestal, the way they would talk about their Miss America as their ideal and have these incredibly high expectations. So then to hear that the leaders of this organization were talking about them in such a crass manner, the blowback was instantaneous, and no apologies could turn this around. There's a situation where the Miss Americas led the petition drive to have that director, Sam Haskell, step down, and many of the board members. It created just a tidal wave within the organization, which led to Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor and Miss America 1989, stepping forward to become the chair of the organization.
MS. ELLISON: And that was a key moment, because you--here was a sort of pretty famous former Miss America who was coming in with the call to modernize the organization. One of the most notable things that she did was immediately get rid of the swimsuit competition, which when you think about it there--I mean, I remember my history with watching Miss America, there was the moment where they went to two pieces. I mean, there was a lot of focus on this--on this particular competition. And what Gretchen Carlson did is said this has no place anymore. These are talented women with a future. How was she received? How did the public greet that change?
MS. ARGETSINGER: The public, by and large, certainly the media, was very approving. I mean, this wasn't a new idea. This is something that the Miss America organization and community had been debating for almost 50 years. Ever since the rise of the women's movement there had been this talk of what are we doing, is this okay, launched a debate in rationale. You know, at one point in the early '70s the director of the organization said, oh, I think the swimsuit competition will be gone in three years. They recognized that times were changing. But they kept it.
When Gretchen Carlson made this decision--which, you know, I will say it was approved by her board of directors and initially approved by state directors--it was--it was applauded, and it also kind of put Miss America back on the radar. There was a frontpage story in The New York Times about this. There hadn't been frontpage coverage of Miss America in some time. It was a very aggressive rebranding of the organization.
But there was some backlash within the community of people that still cared a lot about the pageant, and you can't understate the importance of this group of people. I mean, for one, the people who had stayed with the pageant all these years during 50 years of debate, these were people who by and large were comfortable with the swimsuit competition. There's also a younger generation of women who had come up in the '90s and 2000s who were very comfortable with it. They found it empowering. This had been the thing that motivated them to get fit. They were offended by the idea, some of them, that the swimsuit competition was demeaning.
So there was--there was a backlash within the organization that perhaps 30 years ago they would have had an easier time working out but it was a much smaller community, and it was a much more fraught and fragile time. And I would say that this community, this organization really hasn't survived it, hasn't been able to navigate its way through this fight.
MS. ELLISON: It's so interesting because it brings to mind all the things you get into in the book that's so fascinating, this sort of--it's sort of like a farm team system. There's a whole world that exists to feed into Miss America. And these are local state pageants that many of us have never heard of or spent any time with, and I think that's one of the things that the book is so great about getting into. There's so much suspense in some of your descriptions of those--of those individual pageants. This year, there are--but just talking about those divisions--this year in the contestants, there are four military women who are competing, if I'm correct. And what they have said is that what their goal is in some ways to show that they're--that feminine women can also do masculine things. And I want to ask you a little bit about where you think that--I mean, you said that you didn't think it had really survived, but where do you think the organization is now?
MS. ARGETSINGER: Well, I think--my experience, having been around this community, having been around the women competing, there's a lot more to them than you would expect. You can't--you can't generalize. I think a lot of people have this stereotype about these--you know, you think they're going to all be southern sorority girls who've had plastic surgery, and they're not. It's almost like--it's almost like youth sports or something that people come up through. And so, no, it doesn't surprise me.
I think--I think, though, that says more about young women today, though, than it does about the Miss American organization. You do have young women who are not willing to put themselves in one box or another, and young women in the military who want to show that they have a glamours side, one of my characters is, you know, an electric guitar playing indie rocker, very much a hipster chick, who had nonetheless gotten into pageants and just found that this was--it was--it was some itch she needed to scratch. It was kind of a new way to compete and to prove herself. And I think--I think really when you see the young women from the military community getting into this, it just sort of speaks to the diversity of young women these days not willing to put themselves in any one box.
MS. ELLISON: Right, right. So what did the pageant do to sort of combat this massive decline in viewership? What did they try?
MS. ARGETSINGER: They tried everything. And it's funny to look back because, you know, they were fretting over the ratings. And in the 1980s, when they still had 30 million people watching--which would be amazing numbers, you know?--they were first dropped by the network in 2004 when they had 10 million viewers, which is pretty good. They tried having more moments of spontaneity, where the contestants could just talk like you would on a talk show. They tried to elevate it by having contestants take on causes and the Miss America would have a platform, an advocacy issue that she would represent throughout the year, whether it was AIDS or homelessness or cancer or diabetes.
They did a lot of tinkering, of course, with the broadcast with the swimsuit competition. You know, in the late '90s they decided that after decades of these very demure one-pieces that they should dress like normal women and allow them to wear bikinis. That sort of led to an arms race, though. It's like once you start allowing bikinis, everyone has to wear bikinis, and everyone's really got to work on their abs, and you just really saw an explosion of hardcore fitness take over the pageant culture. There--even little things like banning high heels in the swimsuit competition, and then they went back to that because everyone was walking on their toes anyway. They tried to ban backstage makeup artists because they didn't want everyone to have this very stiff, outdated made-up look. They wanted them to look young. They tried call-in things where voters--viewers would get to vote on who made it into the finals. I mean, they tried everything.
MS. ELLISON: I mean, there was a bit of a conversation about when you talk about what people were doing in order to fit into that sort of--that look and that body that they needed to have to compete, there was plastic surgery that women were getting in order to get that look and sometimes was funded by the organization itself, am I right?
MS. ARGETSINGER: That was the shocking thing to me. In the '80s, when cosmetic surgery began to be mainstream and considered fairly safe, you would have the local pageants actually pay for the young women to get breast enhancements, or even a nose job. Some of the women I spoke to from the 1983 pageant--and you know, they were happy with it. Miss Oklahoma in 1983, she told me that, you know, she was in the state competition and the padding in her swimsuit was sliding around while she was walking across the stage, and the pageant organizers looked at her and said, "Mm-mm, that's not going to work; we're going to need to something about that." And they paid for her to get implants.
The Miss San Antonio package paid for Miss Texas to get her nose redone. But even while this stuff was happening increasingly, there's a lot of shame attached to it. When it came out that someone had had any plastic surgery--which had been the case with Miss America 1982, 1983, they're huge stories. The public treated this, the media treated this like it was some kind of betrayal, that they were--as if they were athletes who were doping or something. So I mean, you feel for these young women. They were kind of, you know, damned if they did, damned if they didn't.
MS. ELLISON: Right, sort of forced to try to become this idealized version of what Miss America was supposed to be. And then when they did, ran into the buzzsaw of the current moment of not wanting people to be, you know, funding that. I mean, it's--when you just come to it, it's sort of shocking that the organization would pay for implants, but I see your point.
MS. ARGETSINGER: Yeah, it is shocking. It is shocking, I mean, that this is something that was considered that you had to conform to a certain beauty standard like this, and that that might actually help you win.
MS. ELLISON: Right, right.
MS. ARGETSINGER: And you know, in one case it did. But, you know, it's--yeah.
MS. ELLISON: Yeah. I mean, the other thing that--so I think to combat that, the organization has always tried to focus on scholarship. And I want to pivot to that for a moment. Talk about why that's something that the Miss America Pageant really likes to talk about and also some of the criticism behind--and the criticism of their claims about scholarship.
MS. ARGETSINGER: Yeah, now this is an organization that has always--from the very beginning has always been grasping for respectability. You know, in the 1920s the religious community tried to shut this down. The Atlantic City business owners after a couple years began to think this was tacky, that these were these publicity-seeking women and it just seemed unseemly. So when they--when they were relaunching it in the 1930s, they were trying very hard to establish a respectable image, and that meant reaching out to, you know, the Atlantic City matrons and to church communities and to setting codes of behavior and having a talent competition so it wasn't just a swimsuit competition, and then eventually in the 1940s, adding scholarships. That was to establish that this was a contest for a certain class of young women. And honestly, that elevated its image above and beyond, you know, Miss USA, which was the rival pageant for so many decades.
You know, now, though, it's also what put Miss America into this trap, where, okay, you're a scholarship competition but there's swimsuits involved. And what does that mean, really? And in recent years people have even wondered, well, yeah, you hand out scholarships, but it's just a couple thousand dollars here or a couple thousand dollars there. Unless you are the winner of the entire thing, how much is that even--how far is that even going to get you in higher education these days? So it's been--it's been something that the organization has had a more tenuous claim to in recent years.
MS. ELLISON: Well, and they make quite a big claim, which they say that the Miss America organization is the largest scholarship provider for women. Is that true?
MS. ARGETSINGER: Well, yeah. But they've also been guilty of fudging the numbers over the years. And again, there's a caveat there. You know, how many other scholarship organizations are just for women? And it's not one big pool of money. We're talking about all the scholarships that, you know, the various local pageants will throw in. And in some cases, there are colleges that will offer in-kind scholarships to women who have won or who have competed. So it's not like the Miss America organization is sitting on this vast pile of millions and millions of dollars. It just--it just isn't that way. It's cobbled together somewhat. The numbers have been inflated here and there. They try to be more honest about it these days. But you know, when you consider the number of people competing, the cost of higher education these days--and you know, I talk to women who, you know, they already had a scholarship. There's one young woman I met who was a student at the Naval Academy. She did not need a scholarship. She wasn't there for the scholarship. She was there because she enjoyed competing in this particular forum. It's never really been about the scholarships.
MS. ELLISON: Right. So what has been the experience--it seems like being Miss America is a bit of a double-edged sword. It gives these women sometimes a big career boost and puts them on the map, but then they also have to sort of carry it for the rest of their lives. From your interviews with past title holders, what has been the biggest challenges that women have faced while serving as Miss America?
MS. ARGETSINGER: You know, for a lot of women, the big challenge was in their romantic lives. It could be a destabilizing thing, especially in the '60s and '70s when Miss America was so put on a pedestal. When they went back to their regular lives, it could create a power imbalance in their relationships and in their marriages. For careers, obviously it could be very complicating.
On the one hand, it gave them this incredible exposure. I mean, I talked to young women who didn't even win Miss America but they competed, and when they were there, they met an agent, they met a producer who helped them get the connections and, you know, have a real career. Delta Burke, the sitcom actress that you know from "Designing Women," she was the 18-year-old Miss Florida. And when she was there, she met an agent, and he actually helped her out. He actually got her started in Hollywood. But for a lot of women, yeah, then it becomes this thing that they have to move past to show that they're more than that. A lot of people in the culture can't tell the difference between Miss America and Miss USA. They have certain assumptions that someone is going to be frivolous or an airhead. Gretchen Carlson has written about how she had to get past a lot of--when she was first trying to get into TV news, you know, it was no longer necessarily a plus. She had to demonstrate to people that she was more than just a beauty queen.
I would say, though, in recent years a lot of the women who came up through the '90s who had gotten very involved in Miss America's advocacy phase, it actually led to careers. You know, Miss America, Heather French, from the year 2000, she ended up being--well, she was also first lady of Kentucky, but she also served as the secretary of state for Veterans Affairs in Kentucky. Kate Shindle, another one, is--she's now the head of Actors' Equity and an accomplished Broadway performer. You have, you know, some women who've really not just used the Miss America brand but the issues that they talked about as Miss America to lead to future careers.
MS. ELLISON: It's such a subculture, though. And you talk about this and you write about this so well in the book, that you may have, you know, very little in common with someone. But if you have been in a Miss America Pageant or one of the feeder pageants, there is this real sisterhood that develops. What is unique about that bond? I mean, it does seem so--on its face so unlikely, but what is unique about it?
MS. ARGETSINGER: I mean, it's something that I will never truly get, not having been a pageant woman myself. But it is--it's a bonding thing like any other. It's a very unique experience. They went through this. They did pageants. No one else gets it, and it's something they have in common. And I think especially in recent years, it's become more of a niche subculture. On the local level, these are women who compete against each other many times over several years. They compete against each other at the local pageants and then at the state pageants. It's like people competing in the same half-marathon circuit. I mean, you're not just rivals. You end up being friends as well. And especially for the women who are Miss America, I mean, it's--that was the surprising thing for me to realize, that they have reunions, they have retreats, they have email groups. They're very tightknit. They're very involved in each other's lives.
MS. ELLISON: We don't have much time, so I'm going to just--one quick last question. What is the future of this organization? What is the future of Miss America?
MS. ARGETSINGER: That's a good question. It's very much a live question right now. Last I checked a couple hours ago, they had not yet announced a date for this year's pageant. And there are lots of rumors and reports that there had not yet been any broadcast network committing to air this. I think that's going to be the big question: What happens to it? You know, after this year of hiatus and a pandemic, are they able to get back on TV? Are they--the finances are struggling. I've looked at the tax forms. The sponsors are not there. I mean, every year you used to have Campbell Soup and Pepsi-Cola and Oldsmobile, Gillette writing big checks. That's all gone.
MS. ELLISON: Right, right.
MS. ARGETSINGER: If they have sponsors, these days, it's very small-time. TV networks are not as interested as they used to be. The question is whether, I think, it can--if it can continue as a subculture without TV [audio distortion].
MS. ELLISON: Amy, I lost you a little bit there. And I'm sorry, we're going to have to leave you. The book is so much fun, though. Everyone should read it. I loved it. Thank you so much for joining us and thank you to the audience for bringing themselves here for this interesting discussion.
We are Washington Post Live. I would urge everyone to go on to washingtonpostlive.com to check out future programming. I’m Sarah Ellison. Thank you so much for joining us.
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