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

In a Sea of New England Brunettes, a Blonde Miss Massachusetts

This past Saturday evening I had the pleasure of attending the Miss Massachusetts Pageant, held in Worcester, MA. Molly Whalen, Miss Taunton, took the title-- the only blonde title holder from New England competing for Miss America 2012.  Misses Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island were in attendance, actually sitting in the row in front of me.  The odds favored brunettes this year (most of the Top 8 were brunettes), but blonde ambition prevailed and Whalen won a preliminary swimsuit award, and ultimately the crown.

After writing about the past 25 years of the Miss Massachusetts Pageant in The Boston Globe Magazine a few weeks ago, I was especially interested in this year's results. Not surprisingly, based on my analysis, Miss Massachusetts 2011 was a vocalist who majored in the sciences (at 20 she already has a Bachelor's from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and is starting a Master of Science degree in Applied Nutrition at Northeastern University this fall). She also was a repeat contestant, competing in 2008 at age 17. Slightly more surprising is that this is only Miss Taunton's third win (the first was Miss Massachusetts 1972, the second 2002) and no previous winner has ever listed Taunton as her hometown.  Whalen actually resides in Middleboro, which has also never before had a Miss Massachusetts winner!  We'll have to wait until January 2012 to see if Whalen-- or her New England sister queens-- can finally bring the Miss America crown back to the region (the last was Miss Connecticut 1933, Marian Bergeron).

While I enjoyed the show as an audience member, I couldn't completely take off my researcher/sociologist cap.  Given that the other major stream of my research is about competition, I was thinking a lot about the fact that some of Miss Massachusetts' competitors were there watching the competition. Were they sizing up their competition? Getting ideas for their own dresses and routines? Or were they genuinely excited to meet someone else going on this strange journey with them. I'm guessing it's a combination of emotions-- and I suppose it's no different than sports teams studying game tapes really. The other perhaps more troubling competitive conflict of interest, at least to me, is using pageant directors from other states as judges.  Twenty-five years ago, in 1986, the executive directors of the Miss New York and the Miss Idaho Pageants helped select winner Kathleen Marie Callahan (who also attended the Pageant!); this year the executive directors from Miss Delaware and Miss Indiana judged.  Now I can see why it is useful to have "pageant insiders" as judges-- they know the type of young woman who is most likely to succeed in the position. Yet, they also have a horse in the Miss America race, so to speak. Even though I am sure a part of them wants the best Miss America possible, they also want "their girl" to be successful. I wonder how different state winners would look if only former state executive directors worked as judges? Granted they are only two of five member judging panels, but I still think the results would likely vary in significant ways. Given that the Miss America Pageant now only uses "celebrity" judges for preliminaries and the finals, perhaps state pageants should move in this direction as well.

A few other thoughts from this Pageant watching experience:

  • Five talented young dancers were the "Miss Massachusetts dancers" (Erin Lynch, Nick Silverio, Jessica Lynch, Danielle Turcotte, and Jacqueline Wall). They danced routines like they were trying out for So You Think You Can Dance. Three of the Top 8 contestants were also dancers. While the three finalists did an admirable job, they were not at the level of the five featured dancers. The Miss America Pageant used to have female vocalists and dancers as part of the television production, but dropped this to put the spotlight squarely on the contestants (they still have male dancers sometimes). I wonder if this is part of the reason vocalists seem to have a huge statistical advantage at Miss Massachusetts?
  • It was fun to watch the contestants compete in swimsuit, talent, and evening wear. I just wish the audience would have gotten a taste of their personalities with an on-stage question. The judges get an extended interview with the contestants, behind closed doors, two days before the final competition-- and it's often said that all these pageants are actually won in the interview room (if the judges really like someone, they may overlook a shaky talent routine, or give them higher scores throughout all phases of the competition since they already have a favorite).
  • We not only got to see the contestants and dancers perform, but also the outgoing Miss MA, her sisters, and the reigning Miss Massachusetts Outstanding Teen, Sydney Rachael Levin-Epstein. Levin-Epstein's talent was Irish Dancing. As a Levey who went to Catholic school for twelve years and has Irish blood, I must admit I still did a double take!
  • Lest one forget that this was a competition and that the contestants invest a great deal of emotional, psychological, financial, and physical energy into the event, I saw two contestants (who had placed highly) in tears at the celebration following the pageant. While I can appreciate their disappointment, I have never seen adult pageant contestants cry at "visitation" after the competition.  Granted, I've seen many a tear shed at crowning at child beauty pageants (and you have too if you've seen Toddlers &Tiaras!), but, again, never at an adult pageant. I'm sure many tears have been shed, but behind closed doors. The tears were sad to see, but a reality when not everyone walks away with a crown and a title.

In any event, it will be fun for me to follow Miss Massachusetts through the Miss America process, after seeing her crowned. Wish I could fly to Vegas this year, but the Pageant is only a few weeks after my due date, so not in the cards!  I think this year's crop of contestants is shaping up to be interesting.  The state winner with the most press thus far is definitely Bree Boyce, Miss South Carolina. Tomorrow morning she'll be on both Good Morning America and The Today Show talking about her 110 pound weight loss. Last week's story on her win really took off, especially on The Huffington Post. Last year's Miss Delaware got a lot of early national press exposure talking about her alopecia-- but Kayla Martell didn't bring home the crown. We'll see what happens with Boyce.  There's also Miss Colorado, Diana Dreman, daughter of a former Miss America, who I recently wrote about.  Finally, another story I find intriguing is Miss Nevada, whose father is a state senator. Love the first paragraph of this article about Alana Lee.  Do you have an early favorite for Miss America 2012?

PS. What do you think of my new blog/website?