My Thoughts on Miss America 2014: The Return to Atlantic City and Other Pageant Controversies

It's been a little over two weeks since Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014. After an initial media burst, interest has faded a bit-- though she is still in the public eye more than I might have expected. Also, thanks to the French ban on child beauty pageants, a proposed ban in Quebec, and serious protests at Miss World, beauty pageants have remained very much in the public conversation. The 2014 Miss America Pageant got a lot of attention this year because of the return to Atlantic City and a September pageant date. A few contestants, like Miss Kansas, got the lions share of pre-pageant media attention (thanks to her tattoos, military background, and archery talent-- though no one but me seemed fascinated by her shade of bleached blonde hair that basically blended with her skin tone...). Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, got some negative press attention after a NY Post article quoted her as saying that Miss America 2013 (also from New York) was "[expletive] fat." Here are more details on that, and my thoughts on the controversy, published on Yahoo! Shine.

Because of the return to AC, Miss America even got attention from the paper of record's editorial page. I was one of six participants in a New York Times Room for Debate forum on whether Miss America is bad for women. You can read my piece (and the others) by clicking here. Was also a total bucket list moment when mine was one of three excerpted in Sunday's Review section!


Most of the comments-- both positive and negative-- were extremely thoughtful. While I can't respond to all of them, I did want to point out two facts as they directly relate to what I wrote and to several commenters. The first is that in addition to scholarship money Miss America actually earns a salary, which is six figures. Each state queen also earns appearance fees. If a winner never goes back to school (or has no student loans) she never sees that scholarship money, but she did in fact earn a nice chunk of pocket change for her year. Second, many women who never win a state title still earn a significant amount of scholarship money. For instance, when I judged Miss NJ, one woman who didn't even make Top 10 at the pageant still earned several thousand dollars in scholarships (note, NOT cash prize) thanks to her service and academic performance. At each local even swimsuit and talent winners earn scholarships that start at $100, or even $50, but the rewards add up each year.

Due to the NYT article I also had the pleasure of appearing on Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC the day of the Pageant, along with a former Miss America and some critics. Here I am sitting next to Soledad O'Brien (let's just say that in general it was a bucket list Sunday!):

54.You can watch the clip by clicking here, or watching below, and if you do you will see I tried to give historical and social context to where Miss America is today.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

In the second segment I didn't get a chance to give my point of view about young girls competing, which is why Prof. Harris-Perry asked me to write this follow-up piece on why I never competed as the daughter of a former Miss America.

(Lest you think I am uncritical of Miss America as well, think again. For instance, check out this piece I wrote that ran at The Forward about why it's hypocritical of Miss America to say it celebrates diversity when it was held during the High Holy Days for Jews, eliminating a segment of the population from competing.)

After leaving the MSNBC studios I hustled back to Atlantic City to see the live event. Here I am in front of the stage in Boardwalk Hall before the televised portion began:


Being in the audience is a bit like being in the audience at the Super Bowl (not that I've ever done that!); you would likely have a better view at home, but the atmosphere is great fun. In the live audience you don't get to see many of the "video packages" seen at home-- though we did get to see the taped opening number and hear the contestants' state intros (I admit I totally laughed out loud when Miss Vermont announced she was lactose intolerant).

It's also fun during commercial breaks, with people like Dena Rizzo keeping the audience entertained and happy. This also explains why I didn't make time to Tweet or anything-- it's all part of the show.

While I obviously missed the 20/20 special (though I watched it the next day), I knew all about Miss Florida's injury. I have to say that during her talent the entire audience was behind her and it was a special uplifting moment when she twirled so well (and interesting how people reacted by booing after the emcee cut off her [bad] on-stage answer). Plus, who can't get behind a BEDAZZLED knee brace?!

Even during the live pageant I just hated seeing the eliminated contestants forced to sit on stage and watch, I DETESTED the way talent was handled as usual (not letting contestants know beforehand so they can be properly prepared to do their best on national TV), and I disliked the constant talk about food and binging after the pageant.

Overall it was a strong Top 5 and could have gone several different ways, but when Miss New York was crowned I immediately thought: 1) Third time ever for back-to-back state winners, and 2) First ever Indian-American winner, how cool. It wasn't until the next day that I heard about the horribly racist online reaction, something that didn't even enter my mind when I headed off to visitation. But it did give rise to good articles (like this one) and an interesting way to welcome Vanessa Williams (also Miss Syracuse, New York, and America) back into the Miss America fold.

Miss America also got good ratings, its best in years, which likely helps explain the more sustained media attention. Also, the fact that beauty pageants have remained part of the media conversation every week since. The week after, France made headlines after passing a bill that included a ban for all pageants offered to girls under age 16 (this has been talked about for the past year, as I wrote about previously). For my thoughts on why this would never happen in the US, read my comments in USA Today and see a bit of my thoughts on why regulation is important at Al-Jazeera English. This legislation in French has led to discussion, but no action in Quebec (for my thoughts in French, click here) and Ireland.

One place where pageants are held, but not without controversy is Bali (and other Muslim countries)-- the site of the Miss World competition this year. After death threats, etc., the exact location was moved and a winner was chosen, and this controversy kept pageants in the news LAST week. On why pageants are inherently political, see my thoughts in this TODAY Style piece on how pageants have in fact always been political, and will remain so particularly in other parts of the world.

Who knows what pageant controversy next week will bring! Any guesses?!



French Femininity: A double standard when it comes to child beauty pageants and modelling?

Being French is very au courant these days. Thus far Bringing Up Bebe is the parenting book of the year.  Paris Fashion Week just ended. And, now, a French report offers several suggestions on how to fight against the hyper-sexualization of young girls.  While those last two sentences may seem contradictory, given that France is the fashion capital of the world, perhaps we should listen. French Senator Chantal Jouanno (former Sport Minister, karate champion, and [I couldn't resist this oh-so-French tidbit] rumored recent mistress of President Sarkozy) wrote a parliamentary report on the precocious sexualization of girls in France.  Apparently, as in the US, French tweens are seeking out padded bras, high heels, and make-up.  The report targets both the pornography and beauty industries and offers some concrete suggestions for change.  I'll only talk about two aspects of the beauty-industrial complex here-- beauty pageants and modelling-- but the porn industry is indicted in the report, a point not getting much coverage in the American press coverage of the story (I mainly learned about it from this UK article).

Jouanno wants to ban child beauty pageants, or "Mini-Miss," for girls under the ages of either 16 or 18.  While I appreciate the impulse, which is similar to what was proposed in Australia last year, I don't think it is realistic for two reasons, as I mention in articles in the French press (like this one in French magazine VSD).  The first, which I first mentioned while writing about the aborted Australian ban, is that there is nothing inherently illegal about child beauty pageants. As with any childhood activity there is the potential for various forms of abuse (physical, sexual, financial), but the activities themselves aren't abusive.  Moreover it is very difficult for democratic governments to tell parents what they can or cannot do with their children. For example, if child beauty pageants are outlawed will gymnastics, dance, and figure skating follow suit?  Second, it would be easier to forbid child beauty pageants if they did not exist already.  But-- as I am told by French journalists I have spoken with about the report-- child beauty pageants are fairly popular in the north of France.  Once an activity is entrenched it is hard to completely eradicate it even in the face of tremendous pressure; in the US even after the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, which led to unprecedented amounts of media attention, the popularity of child pageants somewhat perversely increased.

That said, I hope Jouanno can promote legal restrictions and regulations when it comes to child beauty pageants.  These events should be treated like any legitimate business, with organizers following the law carefully (along with rules that anyone with any legal issues related to child endangerment not be allowed around the events).  Further, all safety concerns for children related to physical activity and work restrictions (similar to child actors) should be enforced. Finally, any health concerns related to make-up application (like who can charge for services and their level of cleanliness), hair, spray tanning, etc. should be addressed. I hope this will eventually happen in the US as well.

Age restrictions have also been proposed for models.  In fact, a child model was the impetus for the French report. In December 2010 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau appeared in a spread in French Vogue.  The images were met with little reaction in France at the time. But about 8 months later they caused a stir in the United States. This then prompted French condemnation. The back-and-forth criticisms abound, with little irony.

It seems that everyone can agree that ten is a bit young for these types of modelling gigs. But within a few years, by 14, many girls are deemed catwalk ready. While many designers at this year's New York Fashion Week tried to hire only models over 16, this proved more difficult than you might imagine.  Again, while it may not be inherently illegal to use such young models, the age appropriateness of the content of their modelling should be considered-- along with child labor laws that should apply to all child performers.

Last month another 1o-year-old model, Kaia Gerber, caused a stir stateside.  Gerber, the daughter of two models (mom is Supermodel Cindy Crawford), appeared in a Versace ad.

While Crawford was initially enthusiastic about Gerber's images, after quite a bit of negative press, she later backpedaled and said her daughter would be taking a break from modelling for several years.

Unlike Crawford model father Brad Kroenig seems to have received little to no backlash for letting his child, 3-year-old Hudson, walk in Paris Fashion Week for Chanel.

Now, of course, Hudson is a boy. So his modelling exploits are celebrated on the pages of The New York Times. Will we soon see a French report warning of the dangers of young male models as well? Somehow I don' t think so...