Miss Universe vs. Sports Illustrated: The Ultimate Goal of Swimsuits?

In honor of tonight's Miss Universe pageant I wanted to share a clip from earlier this month about Sports Illustrated's 2018 Swimsuit Edition open casting call. This five minute Good Morning America segment with the six finalists manages to capture basically all the major streams of my research: pageants, femininity, smart women, sports, and competition (even a version of "participation trophies")!

After chatting with the first three finalists, at about 3:25 in the clip, GMA co-host Lara Spencer declares, "I feel like I'm at Miss America!" I assume she meant that she was talking with beautiful fit women and asking them brief questions that are supposed to convey the essence of themselves. And because "swimsuits" were involved? In all seriousness, the only major thing missing was talent.

Whether or not she knew who the fourth finalist was, Spencer laughs when it turns to be Miss USA 2015 saying, "Speaking of..." Olivia Jordan replies: "Honestly, this was always the ultimate dream... I was hoping Miss USA would open doors [like these]." Jordan, who was second runner-up at Miss Universe, said that as a title holder she learned to take every opportunity and use her voice.

But what does it mean that *this* was always the ultimate dream for Jordan? Does she mean modelling? Does she mean appearing on GMA? Does she mean being part of SI Swim (in an interesting year)? It's unclear and probably upset the Miss USA organization a bit, no? While it's true that Miss USA is far more linked to modelling than Miss America (think Olivia Culpo), they've been trying to rebrand themselves as more service oriented with contestants who have stories (like the military or nuclear science).

Whatever Jordan's "ultimate dream" refers to, it's quite different from the next finalist in the line, Haley Kalil (married to Matt Kalil who plays center for the Carolina Panthers, so a sports connection there that may be overlooked). Spencer highlights Kalil's scientific and academic bona fides. The redhead declares that girls can be scientists and swimsuit cover girls explaining that, "There is nothing more powerful and more beautiful than a smart woman."

Certainly this is a certain type of femininity being promoted to young girls these days-- achieve academically and professionally and own your body/sexuality/appearance at the same time-- but what does it mean to say a smart woman is beautiful when she wears literally strings to make that point? The choice to focus on STEM and women here, for SI Swim, is fascinating though because, to go back to Miss America per Lara Spencer, it's one of the major platforms they have been pushing the past few years.

Things get awkward with the last finalist because the segment is out of time, so Spencer instructs her just to "strut" as her name appears on the screen (so much for Jordan's focus on women using their voices). I looked up Allie Ayers on my own.

On the official SI Swimsuit website they describe Ayers in the following way: "A state championship basketball player, turned pageant queen, turned swimsuit designer and model — is there anything this blonde beauty can't do?!" The choice to put sports first, then highlight pageants, then the beauty industry is interesting, as it seems to favor the sports championship most; though scholastics are not otherwise mentioned for Ayers, a notable exclusion. The website goes on to say: "So why SI Swimsuit? Allie is a middle size model, who isn't a big fan of traditional categories like "plus size" and "runway," and is looking for a platform where women of all shapes and sizes can see their bodies represented. Talk about a perfect fit for us!"

SI Swimsuit says that this nationwide search for the 2018 issue is meant to promote more "attainable beauty" for women of all sizes and colors. But it's still about looking good in a bikini, even if you have some other major achievement (like sports, or science, or pageants, or some other career). There's nothing inherently wrong about this but it is evidence that while pageants may be on a ratings decline, pageant culture is pervasive influencing sports, media, science, and more.

And on a final note, turns out all six finalists will be in the issue prompting the, "Everyone is a winner!" declaration. See, even my Playing to Win research made an appearance in this five minute clip! But let's stick with my research as you won't be finding me in a bikini any time soon... Now on to see national costumes, still one of my pageant highlights each year.