The High Holy Week of Pageantry: Miss America 2013, No There She Is

If you follow me on Twitter and/or Facebook you know that I was scratching my head when Mallory Hagan was announced the winner of the 2013 Miss America Pageant. I felt that I knew so little about her that after she was crowned I actually had to look up her platform in the program book (turns out it is about preventing childhood abuse). Yes, I was surprised too (especially with Miss SC next to you).

[By the way, doesn't Alli Rogers look like Kristen Haguland here?!]

Hagan was not on my list of frontrunners, nor on that of most pageant aficionados (and Vegas odds makers didn't predict that she would do well either). Overall though I did pretty well in predicting who would go deep-- including SC (who I didn't think would win, but who I thought would go far-- suspicions confirmed by her performance on stage Saturday night), OK, MD, and TX.

I'm guessing this was a case of the Pageant being won in the interview room, as NY placed high after swimsuit and evening gown, as revealed by one of the co-hosts; while she wasn't a standout to me, she obviously was to the judges. Based on the 20/20 Pageant Confidential special that aired before the live show, it appears that the MAO and producers had favorites as well... And Miss NY was one of them.  All of the Top 3 (NY, SC, and WY) were featured in the news special. It's worth mentioning that the most media-hyped contestants-- Miss DC Allyn Rose (breast cancer story) and Miss MT Alexis Wineman (autism) didn't do well. Wineman was voted in as America's Choice, but the judges quickly dismissed her, and Rose didn't even make the Top 16. Previously backstory-hyped contestants like Kayla Martell (alopecia), Bree Boyce (weight loss), and Heather Whitestone (deaf) went much further or even won in previous years.

While I really enjoyed the Pageant overall and thought it was a strong group of interesting contestants (and others, even non-pageant fans, obviously agree), I was confused by the winner. The talent competition basically summed up my feelings on this year's event- some were outstanding (like OK) and others were cringeworthy (I'm looking at you IN). The extremes were there, along with some enjoyment (the bad was so bad it was good).

I'm not surprised that among the 13,000 girls the Miss America Program attracted in the past year that many of them were smart, talented, and interesting. I think the pendulum is swinging back in support of Miss America due to the synergy between glitz and entertainment and scholarship money. I don't think this is a Honey Boo Boo effect, but I do feel that there is a greater acceptance of women being smart, educated, fit, talented, and beautiful and Miss America is framing itself for that market.

I wrote about some of those women earlier this year for Slate and The Hill in three pieces on former Miss America contestants running for political office. The first of these pieces appeared in June and the other two in October and November. I was happy for the program and the women featured that Marie Claire printed a story on the same topic in this month's issue-- but very disappointed for myself that this recent piece is essentially a mash-up of my three previous articles on the subject. It's not available online, but you can see that this national magazine article is getting mentioned more than my earlier articles. Now I know how Miss World feels, ha!

In any case, given all the publicity it makes sense that this year's television show earned its highest ratings in nearly a decade. Of course we've gotten some controversy already as well: 1) Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap is accusing Pageant organizers of racism after she was asked to move seats at the live show in Las Vegas, 2) A smart NYT op-ed reminds us that Miss America does indeed have a complicated racial past, 3) Some have mixed feelings about Alabama native Hagan winning as Miss NY, 4) Miss Iowa Mariah Cary (yes, really) invited a bit of media ribbing after awkwardly/awesomely responding to her OSQ ("on-stage question" in pageant lingo) that she only supports recreational and medical use of marijuana; Cary was another contestant with an interesting backstory (Tourette's), so I do wonder if that played into this at all, and 5) Many, including former queens, found it in poor taste that the hosts said several times that the contestants had not been eating and they then gave the ousted contestants doughnuts on stage so they could binge. Not exactly the message they want to be sending out. But at least the in SUPER POOR TASTE contestants' choice of the 16th member of the Top 16 disappeared, and the judges' choice was nice in a way (still hate the hurry-up-and-get-ready-in-front-of-everyone way they handle talent, but I guess it's here to stay now).

But any year you get multiple mentions in The New York Times, appear on TMZ, and get high TV ratings means it was a pretty good year for Miss America. And, who knows, perhaps we'll see a reigning Miss America competing on Dancing with the Stars soon?

So, here she is. Again. (Even if they didn't play a good version of "There She Is" during Hagan's coronation walk!)

Miss America 2013

The High Holy Week of Pageantry: Miss America 2013, Press and Predictions

The time comes round every year: Miss America week! Tomorrow is the live broadcast and as usual I'm excited (but this year should be especially interesting with a 20/20 feature on the pageant starting at 8 pm). The 2013 Pageant will be a little different for me than last year's-- a time when I thought I might never sleep again-- but now my one-year-old (!) let's me sleep so I'm good to go (I was also reminded of this when I spoke on NECN yesterday about how hard it is for individuals to project themselves into the future). Little Man on his first birthday!

Now I know Miss Universe was only a few weeks ago (both pageants have made date shifts in the past few years, which means we get more concentrated pageantry and less spread-out glitz) so it might be useful to explain the difference between Miss USA/Universe and Miss America. As you might be able to tell from the previous sentence Miss America is an end in itself; you don't win and go on to compete for Miss Milky Way. Also, the three "Ts" separate the two pageant systems (this is my trademark here, so please quote me!): tuition, talent, and Trump. Miss America requires a talent, awards scholarship money, and isn't owned by Donald Trump.

Miss Alabama USA 2012 has been in the press lately thanks to her boyfriend and a zealous sportscaster.  Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, has been getting a lot of attention since she was shown during the national championship game earlier this week (proving pageants and football still mix a lot, especially in the South). It's been a bit of a distraction to Miss Alabama America 2012, Anna Laura Bryan, who just won a big prize at Miss America (the Quality of Life Award goes to the contestant who has the "best" platform issue-- hers is related to autism). If you need an even easier way to remember the difference between the America and USA systems, Miss Alabama 2010, Ashley Davis, put it succinctly on Twitter: "Kate Middleton would be Miss Alabama, while Kim Kardashian would make a great Miss Alabama USA."

Other Miss America contestants have garnered their own fair share of press attention in the weeks leading up to the pageant. For instance, if you Google Miss DC Allyn Rose you get over 3 million hits.  Rose has appeared on all the morning talk shows, People, and many more in light of her decision to undergo a double mastectomy after the Pageant. Her mother passed away from breast cancer and while Rose herself has never had cancer she has a genetic predisposition (note that Miss New Hampshire, Megan Lyman, has survived cancer; Miss Alaska has shaved her head for cancer). It's unclear if the hype will help Rose, but I think we can all agree that we'd love to see her talent-- artistic roller skating-- live tomorrow night. Here she is competing in prelims earlier this week:

Allyn Rose doing her artistic roller skating routine in preliminaries at Miss America

Other health-related issues have some contestants in the press. Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, is the first state winner to compete with autism (STILL love the name of her platform). But Miss Puerto Rico, Kiaraliz Medina, takes the cake. During the opening number of the first night of preliminaries (though some reports say it was from her flamenco talent routine) she fell down the stairs. Later in the week she actually competed in swimsuit using crutches, which I'm pretty sure is a Miss America Atlantic City/Vegas stage first.

Miss Puerto Rico in Swimsuit on crutches!

She later competed in evening gown without her crutches. I wonder if that impressed Miss America judge McKayla Maroney (yes, gymnastics and pageantry: worlds collide)?!

McKayla not impressed as Miss America judge

(That's beloved former Miss America Katie Stam Irk who is also judging this year; another fun fact is that Mary Hart, host of ET, competed the year my mother crowned Phyllis George-- Hart made Top 10 [and sang poorly] but obviously did alright for herself in the end!)

Now that we know the preliminary winners it's a bit easier to make some predictions for tomorrow night. I think SS winner Miss South Carolina will go far, along with talent winner Miss Oklahoma. Not sure about the others, but I like talent winner Miss Maryland. I also personally like Texas and New Hampshire (who I met when I judged the Miss University/Strafford County Pageant) and am interested to see how my home state gal Taylor Kinzler does (she has a bit of the Miss America look; I saw her compete live at the 2011 state pageant where she was a runner-up).  I'll also throw Arizona in the mix since I know a very smart friend and Harvard beauty queen helped her prepare!

On a final note I always love pageant names, which I learned this year by studying the pageant book. Who else wants to see (no joke) Mariah Cary from Iowa do well (just so the announcers have to keep saying her name-- too bad she doesn't sing though, talent is tap dance)?! And she's not the only Mariah (so is Miss Nebraska). And, there are two "Sloanes" competing as well, Miss Arkansas and Miss Kansas, which I find particularly fun.

Check back next week for my final pageant thoughts, and follow my running commentary on Twitter Saturday night (where I'll be careful not too tweet too much and get put in Twitter jail)!

The "Cool" Power of Pageantry

This morning I was on NECN's Morning Show talking about the controversy surrounding the Indian Land Elementary Warrior School Pageant-- a child beauty pageant meant to be a fundraiser in South Carolina that was ultimately canceled after parent protests.

You can read more of my thoughts on "Parents against pageants" by clicking here.  In a nutshell I think there are reasons to be concerned about schools sponsoring elementary school-age pageants (as opposed to high school level "pageants" like Prom/Homecoming Queen), but that doesn't mean all child beauty pageants are bad. As I say, there's reason to think it's easier to do a child pageant at 6 months than 6 years.

As Steve, the anchor, mentions about 55 seconds into the clip, Miss USA (the first ever from Rhode Island-- hence her New England connection), appeared about 45 minutes after I did. I know it's easy to confuse us-- ha!

At about 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the above clip Olivia Culpo does address the South Carolina school pageant.  Note that she does so in very stereotypically pageant fashion though, emphasizing that beauty is really on the inside.

I was somewhat surprised to hear Culpo respond in that way because as I was driving to NECN's studios earlier I heard her talking on the radio.  During her radio interview I was a bit shocked by how candid (and fun) she was about a few things.  One of the things she said was a bit negative though-- which I think she herself recognized because she then effectively said, "Whoops, shouldn't have said that on the radio!" While talking about her cello playing the radio hosts asked her why she chose to compete in Miss USA, which doesn't have a talent component.  She responds that she thought about doing the "American" system, but decided to do Trump's Miss USA because it's "cooler."  You can hear this exchange starting around 3:20 here.

Both Miss USA and Miss America have positives and negatives and while there are some cross-over contestants most young women opt for the system that fits them best.  Because Miss America places an emphasis on talent and interview/platform the women who go that route often aren't as "sexy" as Miss USA system contestants.  Trump's system is known for being physically sexier, but both Miss America and Miss USA have done a great job of helping women get into the entertainment industry.

Note that former Miss USAs (like Susie Castillo) are more likely to be entertainment reporters, while former Miss Americas (like Gretchen Carlson) are more likely to be news anchors/commentators.  The difference between Castillo and Carlson reflects slightly different politics (Miss America is known for being more conservative, as I wrote about in June on Slate-- though note that despite Trumps' known conservatism the Miss USA system is noted for being liberal, which helped lead to the first Miss Conservative U.S. Pageant in July).

Of course not all beauty queens go on to entertainment careers. Some go into politics, and I wrote about some of those currently running for political office yesterday at The Hill. You can check out my piece by clicking here: "From reigning to campaigning: Beauty Queen political candidates."  Despite Culpo's comment I found all the women I spoke with for this article to be pretty "cool."  I especially loved that Caroline Bright's (Miss Vermont 2010) mother has a PhD in women's studies and that Lauren Cheape (Miss Hawaii 2011) decided to run for office on her plane ride home from the Miss America Pageant (it is a long flight from Las Vegas to Hawaii, but it's not life-changing for everyone!).  I also loved Lauren's attitude about her noteworthy talent, jump-roping (yes, including a "butt bounce"!), which she uses to help fight childhood obesity and to explain to kids that you will inevitably make mistakes (like stepping on the jump rope) but you just need to keep going.

And, again, while some Miss America contestants may not be considered traditionally "cool" by their Miss USA sisters, many of them are pretty amazing individuals who I'd love to have a conversation with.  Take, for instance, the reigning Miss Montana who will compete for the title of Miss America 2013 in January.  Alexis Wineman could be the first woman with a developmental disorder to win the Pageant. The 18-year-old was diagnosed with autism at age 11.

The name of her platform is pretty clever, by the way: "Normal is Just a Dryer Setting, Living with Autism."

Wineman reminds us that "cool" comes in all different settings and any pageant that can teach children that cool and beautiful come in many different shapes and sizes is probably okay with me-- especially during October, which is Anti-Bullying Awareness Month (for more recent thoughts from me on anti-bullying this month, check out the profile of our little family toward the end of this newsletter).