For the first time in history, Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA are all Black women. But can American pageants ever escape their racist, sexist history?
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My interest—and eventual success—in American pageants was unexpected: Early pageants weren’t created for young Black women like me, and my teenage interests preferred books to beauty. Yet my participation in inner beauty pageants—I was Miss Teen of California (1995–1996) and the first African-American to be named Miss Teen of America (1996–1997)—introduced me to the world of pageantry and compelled me to prepare for the local Miss America competition, a pursuit I abandoned halfway through my senior year of college due to school commitments.
This year, for the first time in history, the three biggest pageant titles in the U.S. are held by women of color: Miss America (Nia Franklin), Miss USA (Cheslie Kryst), and Miss Teen USA (Kaliegh Garri) are all Black women. When I learned of this pageant trifecta, I was thrilled that America was acknowledging the breathtaking beauty of Black women so extensively. I was proud that these women were showing the nation that they could climb to the heights of a system that was initially built to exclude them. Even as I shared the news on Facebook, I did so with a caveat because my feelings about beauty pageants remain complicated. Although they are sexist at their core, they provide opportunities for young women to win college scholarships, advance in their careers, and advocate for social causes. Can I be proud of my participation in the pageant circuit if I consider myself a womanist? Looking back at pageantry’s history may help me find my answer.
The first Miss America pageant, originally known as the “Inter-city Beauty Contest,” took place September 8, 1921 as a “bathing costume” contest designed to increase business profits. Newspapers throughout the U.S. sponsored photography contests that judged local women; the winners competed in an in-person contest held on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Under this agreement, newspapers saw their profits increase, while local boardwalk businesses experienced a financial boom.
For the first nearly 50 years of the Miss America pageant, beauty was only white skin deep: Rule 7 of the competition stated that contestants must be “of good health and of the white race.” Subsequent years introduced the talent competition, scholarship program, along with a requirement that contestants be single women, ages 18 to 28, who had never been married. (Ages have fluctuated throughout the years.)
As the pageant grew, it morphed into an iconic, national “must-see” TV event. However, in 1968, dissenters staged the “No More Miss America” protest. Hundreds of feminists crowded the Atlantic City boardwalk (a few even crashed the indoor pageant) to contest the event’s sexism, racism, and glaring cultural tone-deafness, carrying signs that read “Can make-up hide the wounds of our oppression?” and “All Women Are Beautiful.” During a year when Americans bore witness to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and students filled the streets in protest for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, Miss America, with its theme of “Cinderella” that year, encouraged its contestants, and by extension American women, to be concerned with make-up, ball gowns, and eventually—a Prince Charming.
But across town debuted the very first Miss Black America, created to provide young Black girls with much-needed images of beauty that represented them. Saundra Williams, the first Miss Black America, said: “With my title, I can show Black women that they too are beautiful.”
That same year, feeling pressure from society’s slow shift toward integration and the NAACP’s demands for equality, Miss America president Adrian Phillips removed Rule 7. The first Black Miss America contestant, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa, competed in 1970.
When the Miss USA and the Miss Teen USA pageants debuted in 1952 and 1983 respectively, they weren’t marred in such controversy. In fact, 1983 was a historic year because Vanessa L. Williams was crowned Miss America, becoming the first African-American to do so—though she would be forced to forfeit it just seven weeks before the end of her reign after unauthorized nude pictures of her emerged in Penthouse magazine.
In 1990, Carole Anne-Marie Gist was the first Black woman crowned as Miss USA, and the following year, Janel Bishop became the first African-American Miss Teen USA. In 2016, more than three decades later, the Miss America Organization offered Williams a televised apology for demanding her resignation.
Williams rebounded by launching a successful career as a singer and actress that earned her Emmy and Grammy nominations, and a NAACP Image Award. Pageant advocates argue that Williams’s and other winners’ post-pageant success exemplifies the crown’s enduring power. Pageants, they argue, offer young women a public platform, career opportunities, and much-needed college scholarships. The current Miss America, Nia Franklin, says she has received around $65,000 in scholarship money.
Rising college costs in the United States, coupled with the staggering amount of debt American graduates accrue, undoubtedly make pageant scholarships attractive to many, especially Black women. A 2018 report issued by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) revealed that while two-thirds ($890 billion) of the country’s $1.4-trillion student debt is held by women, Black women graduate with the most debt; on average they hold $30,400, while their white counterparts hold just $22,000.
It’s no wonder then that in 2019, pageants continue to appeal to educated Black women like attorney Cheslie Kryst (Miss USA), who label themselves feminists or womanists. Although I may not like it, I get it. As the daughter of parents who neither attended college nor had a college fund prepared for me, my pageant wins awarded me tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money and prizes that helped me to afford the pricey private college I attended. So I will never begrudge any woman for any (legal) way she chooses to support her college career.
In “It’s time to rethink the Miss America pageant,” Margot Mifflin, author of the forthcoming book, Looking for Miss America, pointedly asks: “What failure of American democracy explains how a beauty contest accounts for the largest scholarship fund, about $6 million, for women in the United States?”
I think it’s the same failure that communicates to young women that if they want access to the American Dream that is often inaccessible to those who lack either money or education, they have to jump through some very specific hoops to reach it, be the right kind of pretty, the right kind of thin, the right kind of smart…
It’s also the same failure, perhaps, that prompts many middle and working class Americans to join the military—not because they’re highly motivated to serve their country—but because that’s their most viable option for affording college. A 2011 Pew Research Survey indicated that 75 percent of enlisted soldiers cited education benefits as an important reason why they enlisted. So whether wearing a bikini or a beret, they all offer up their bodies to country in pursuit of their piece of the American Dream.
Still, pageants gave a start to Williams, Diane Sawyer, Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Palin, even Oprah Winfrey, who, as a teenager, competed in the Miss Black America pageant as Miss Black Tennessee and was offered a job at WVOL, a radio station that served the Black community in Nashville. Without beauty pageants, would Oprah, who grew up in extreme poverty, have turned into the international media mogul and philanthropist that she is today?
Before TED Talks, Twitter, and YouTube, pageants gave young women an unparalleled platform to speak and advocate for a social cause—not to mention access to success, money, and power typically reserved for men. But to attain that access, women had to trade in what society deemed their primary worth: their beauty. And while pageants have evolved to evaluate more than beauty, in many ways, the contemporary model is more insidious than the first. Today, women aren’t just asked to be beautiful. They also are expected to be smart, talented, articulate, non-controversial, and fit. This keeps women in the beauty parlor of impossible standards, desperately trying to achieve a natural look that is anything but. This constraint applies to all women, no matter their race.
Like many other institutions, American pageantry is a reflection of our culture’s obsession with perfection, entertainment, and voyeurism. It arguably birthed our insatiable desire and consumption of reality TV. Before America watched contestants compete on The Bachelor for a male contestant’s heart, it watched Miss America contestants compete for the crown. Beauty pageants cleared the way for Tyra Banks to teach “smizing” to contestants on the 20-plus cycles of America’s Next Top Model, and the pageant bikini contest is the undeniable predecessor to the (now-cancelled) Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. American pageantry is equally a reflection of America’s assertion of its “right” to judge and govern women from all angles—from what they wear to what they say—and how they say it. Check your news feed any day during this election day and see which candidates are associated with the term “likeability.”
As times have changed, American pageants too have changed. In 1995, after years of struggling to regain its footing in an increasingly feminist culture, the Miss America organization allowed the American public to decide if it should eliminate its “physical fitness in swimwear” competition. America said “no thanks.” Then in 2008, the organization took to reality TV to improve the competition’s ratings and popularity. That failed as well. It was only last year, after an internal scandal with its CEO, that Gretchen Carlson (Miss America 1989) became the national chairwoman of the organization and eliminated the swimsuit competition. This seemingly positive advancement ignited an internal firestorm among some state pageant directors and contestants.
Facing similar anti-swimsuit sentiments, the Miss Teen USA pageant eliminated its swimsuit competition in 2016, replacing it with an athletic wear category—a slightly better alternative. (This move came after WME-IMG, a renowned talent agency, purchased the Miss Universe organization from Donald Trump.) Still, pageant critics and supporters argue that this move might financially position the pageant to create brand partnerships with leading athletic companies, thus boosting its profits.
Pageantry’s unwillingness to free women from the shackles of beauty and its promotion of addictive consumerism reflects America’s unwillingness to untether itself from them. While many women and girls have long abandoned Disney’s princess narratives, Meghan Markle is our new #biracial #blackgirlmagic fantasy. Pageantry’s demands and rebukes live inside of us as a sort of gendered double consciousness where we partially see ourselves through pageantry’s patriarchal gaze. Will we ever be free?
Yet, it is affirming to see Black women being celebrated in pageantry, especially because we were excluded for so long. There’s something next-level—and I dare I say prophetic even—about seeing us rock our natural hair on competition stages, especially as there’s a legal battle raging in federal courts around if we can do so in the workplace. To watch us succeed at the highest level of competition in any industry—be it beauty or business—is inspiring. Privilege is power, and it’s long overdue for Black women to have access to some of that.
The night I won my title, I celebrated accomplishing my dream of becoming a national spokesperson (for the Miss Teen of America program), but I underestimated the growth that would follow: home and hotel stays throughout the U.S. that introduced me to the American South and Midwest, international travel that increased my social consciousness, meeting inspiring young people I spoke to about achievement and leadership, and finding more security in my identity as a Black woman.
I’m rooting for Nia, Cheslie, and Kaliegh because being a national title holder is a mixed bag: it’s as fraught with emotional, mental, and physical demands as much as it is filled with glitz and VIP treatment. Being a Black titleholder is its own quandary, for you are both a visible reminder of the progress our country is making, plus all that’s left to fix.
When asked about the historic significance of three Black women simultaneously holding national titles, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst took a moment to highlight a more important stat. “There are no more black women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies,” she told CBS News. “This [pageant] landmark should be celebrated, but it is a also a reminder of how far we have to go.”
Perhaps a better question is not whether pageants are sexist or if they can combat oppression, but rather how we can change the climate that fuels them: How can we transition our culture from using women’s bodies to peddle consumer goods to utilizing women’s voices and ideas to create life-saving inventions and revitalize communities and cities? How can we reimagine women’s bodies and identities?
As we seek answers to these questions, I hope we can also celebrate the little wins along the way to the big ones. I can applaud Nia Franklin, Cheslie Kryst, and Kaliegh Garris because what they accomplished—through beauty and brains—was not possible just 50 years ago. 2021 marks the 100-year anniversary of Miss America, but I don’t believe pageants will exist 100 years from now. I believe they will be relics of our antiquated past. Until that day, I celebrate Black girl magic, not just on the pageant stage, but on the world stage. We are worthy. We always have been.
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