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.

Miss AmeriCARA

My relationship with Miss America 2018, Cara Mund (North Dakota), began in September 2015, almost exactly two years before she was crowned. I was getting ready to teach my first class at Brown (called "Beauty Pageants in American Society") and before the semester began I reached out to pre-registered students to see if any of them wanted to attend the Miss America 2016 pageant in Atlantic City. Cara was one of the students who signed up. At the first class I learned that she had been North Dakota's Outstanding Teen in 2011 and that she had already competed at Miss North Dakota.

Three days later we met up in Atlantic City, where we saw Betty Cantrell crowned Miss America 2016-- and much more interesting (to me) the return of Vanessa Williams to the Miss America stage.

A few weeks later when Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle came to seminar to talk about her book Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain, Cara was one of the students reporter Steve Klamkin spoke to at the end of class; she was quoted in this article (and stay tuned for more from this interview).

For the rest of that academic year I advised Cara as she worked to graduate with Honors from Brown (which is not something most undergraduates do at Brown given the increased workload). When I found out she would be competing at Miss North Dakota that year I wanted to go-- I'd never been to North Dakota and I'd never seen someone I personally know compete. I had an amazing journey across the gorgeous state of ND (the Badlands, Medora Musical, and Salem Sue were particular highlights) and was thrilled when Cara did a superb job on the stage at the pageant, where she finished as first runner-up. She swept nearly every category (including the biggies of interview, talent, and platform) and I could see why. Her talent was very strong and she was very charismatic in her on-stage presentation.

With one year of eligibility left, Cara knew she had to give her dream one more shot. After interning in DC for one of her U.S. Senators, she returned home to Bismarck to get ready to compete at Miss North Dakota 2017. Focused on her goal, Cara worked to get ready, giving it everything she had. When she was crowned in June I watched on Facebook Live and screamed while watching in my PJs in bed. Immediately I knew that there was no way I wouldn't be in Atlantic City this year!

In the meantime, I judged Miss America's Outstanding Teen in Orlando in July, where my boys got to see Cara during the competition, though I didn't...

Once the competition concluded we got to meet up and talk about what was to come in September.

All along I felt reasonably confident that she had a very good chance of making Top 15. I knew she was smart, genuine, talented, kind, and had done serious work on her platform. As she headed off to AC Cara seemed to hit her stride. And the whole time she was in NJ she was calm, taking in every moment, excited to compete at Miss America. I knew she performed well in the first two nights of preliminaries, and when I made it for the last night of prelims I saw her absolutely nail her onstage question (about integrating her platform work on Make-a-Wish with the national platform of Children's Miracle Network hospitals).

She was on some people's short lists, though I don't always put much stock in prognostication because no one can see the 10- minute judges' interview, which is so crucial. That said, several pageant people, especially Executive Directors who I have judged with before, saw her making the cut, which bolstered my confidence.

By Saturday evening I upped my confidence level to 75% (having to do with TV production especially). That said, I was a *wreck* all day Sunday. As I kept reapplying deodorant I reflected that if I was this nervous for Cara, how would I ever survive my kids doing something high stakes. I couldn't imagine how Cara's mom felt!

So, based on my pageant knowledge I had her in Top 15 and I knew that if she did make the cut she would make Top 10 because her pageant talent was very strong and it would be on TV. After that though, pre-show, I wasn't sure. With the separate celebrity panel you just don't know what can happen (the year Cara went to Miss America with me there was a double prelim winner who didn't go far in front of the new panel). Once the show started and she came out in the opening production number I did get a chilling premonition that she could win the whole thing. It sounds so silly, but the way she was waving and smiling, and engaging with the audience read as very "Miss America" to me (I didn't voice this to anyone though, and her aunt sitting next to me said before the live show started that she really thought she was going to take the crown).

The only time I was truly nervous the whole night-- I actually texted my husband that I might throw up-- was when she wasn't called until spot #14 into the Top 15. If you can find me in this screen shot my husband took you will get some clue about how excited I was. I was relieved on many levels-- most importantly for Cara as this was the fulfillment of a big goal, and for myself that I hadn't completely misunderstood the system!

I was right that she would do her talent, and because she went third, I had some time to reflect in Convention Hall. Cara's talent went so well that I then felt sure she would make the Top 7. And new this year was a "personality" question before the cut to Top 5. If that went well I knew the judges would be on her side, that she'd speak well and probably move on to Top 5. Whoa!

I can say sincerely that once Texas was called as fourth runner-up, I knew she'd won. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life to just go nuts screaming and yelling and saying "Oh my God!" over and over again as she was crowned and walked down the runway. Even though I had a raspy voice until the Thursday after, I wouldn't change a thing.

My husband, who had never watched a pageant before we started dated, watched the whole thing back at home. He even recorded his reaction during crowning, which included, "Wow, this just got real." After, he launched into his statistical explanation of the cuts, which pretty much sums up our relationship, and which I made him email me: The revelation of information follows a very interesting "U-shaped" pattern at Miss America. The first cut is a very sharp cut - from 51 contestants down to the top 15 - so that (from a naive perspective) the odds are not that great for any given candidate to make it. More than 70% of contestants are eliminated in this first cut. But once a contestant makes the top 15, the fraction of candidates cut in each round shrinks dramatically. Just 20% are cut after swimsuit (3 of 15), 16% after evening gown (2 of 12), 30% after talent (3 of 10), and 28% after the personal question (2 of 7). As a result, a candidate can make it from the top 15 into the top 5 without any great surprise, as each cut is a relatively high probability. "Sure she wont be cut after swimsuit," you say, since 80% of candidates make it to the next round. So before you know it, a candidate has made the top 5, where once again the odds become much lower, since only 20% of them (1 of 5) wins the crown.

The rest of the details of that evening can be saved for another time, but I finally got to see Cara around 2 am in Miss America's suite. It really sets in then that a new path is set for the winner for the next year, and beyond (especially when security tells everyone they have thirty minutes and then they're gone).

I had so much adrenaline that I didn't sleep until 4:45 am, and then only for a few hours before I made the drive back to Rhode Island. Along the way I spoke with some reporters. Steve Klamkin called and I did this radio interview, which is worth a listen for the last minute, where I guarantee you will get goosebumps if you listen to the old interview he dug up from 2015.

Because I've let this experience marinate a bit, I'm less giddy than I was for the first week after (though you can get a sense of that from my social media posts). My feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and relationship hasn't dimmed at all. I'm loving following Cara's travels and I can't wait to welcome her back to Providence at some point this year.

And let's just say that when I do teach Beauty Pageants in American Society again, I may now have an in with another Miss America... ;)

The Pageantry of Politics

This is adapted from a Facebook post I wrote last week. Monday night Emma Gray sent me a link to her great Huffington Post article about how Clinton's loss has motivated a new generation of women to consider running for office.

I then proceeded not to share it. Why? Because I felt so much chagrin that Gray chose to write about *me* to start it off. I felt undeserving, mainly because I hadn't done anything to earn such attention. As most people who know me know, I am a do-er; talk is cheap, it's action and accomplishment that count. "Write about me when I DO something," I thought.

When one friend emailed me about it, that's what I said. When another sent me the link, that's what I texted her back. And then more people started to share on Facebook and comment and again I felt embarrassed, but also touched.

Last Tuesday night another group of women, in person, who are on the Temple Torat Yisrael Board of Trustees with me (more female leadership in action!) talked me down a bit. But I decided I still needed to process before sharing.

And then on Wednesday morning I was quoted in The New York Times about the links between politics and pageantry, especially when it comes to the way the cabinet is being formed. I spoke to the impressive Susan Chira last week, though I thought the article would come out later.

Now this, THIS, I wanted to share it right away. The NYT! My research (the book I am working and working and working on)! This shows the consequential sides of pageantry I have been trying to illuminate and disentangle! Illustrates the seriousness with which I always say we OUGHT to treat popular culture! This is a type of action I understand and can be proud of (though still need to finish writing that book, but that's another story).

So I can share the research, I can share the pics of my kids, but it's hard to share myself. Oh, yes, right, this is why more women don't run for office, huh?

Today after balancing work obligations and sick kids I arrived at the Rhode Island State House to watch the Electoral College vote. Yes, I cried (and, yes I worried I might smell like sick child). And I was reminded again of the pageantry of politics: the ritual, the costumes, the traditions, the songs, the pomp. And also the competition, the voting, the winner-take-all system.

Politics seems weightier to many, but often the two mix. Monday's vote comes on the heels of the Miss World Pageant over the weekend, where Miss Puerto Rico won (on American soil). Many in the US aren't very familiar with Miss World (admittedly, myself including, and this Washington Post article does a good job explaining why), but Miss World had its own political issue with Miss Canada speaking out against the Chinese government. Read The New York Times and The Boston Globe for more on this situation, which shows the platform pageants provide contestants/winners can matter in the political arena.

Stay tuned for more personal and professional mingling of pageantry and politics in the future...

My Annual Miss America Predictions [edited with results]

It's both a somber and celebratory day on which to hold the Miss America finals: September 11th. As much as people can criticize (with some validity, granted) various aspects of the Miss America program, remember that we are a country where women can decide to parade on live TV in skimpy bikinis while wearing the equivalent of 8-inch heels (with those platforms I refer to them as "stripper shoes"), or remain full covered. The fact we have a choice is what I embrace about America. In any case, it's been a relatively quiet build-up. The only "big" story this year is Miss Missouri, the first open lesbian to compete on the Miss America stage. I want to add, because it hasn't really been covered, that statistically speaking it is *highly* unlikely that Erin O'Flaherty is the first lesbian to compete on the Miss America stage. It's also possible that a former Miss America is a lesbian. O'Flaherty isn't the first out Miss America contestant, but she is the first to win a state title. In 2013 Analouisa Valencia competed at Miss South Carolina, for example.

There have been other minor stories (Miss Michigan competed in evening gown in a jumpsuit; only one contestant, Miss New Hampshire, a Type I diabetic, competed in a one-piece swimsuit), but nothing that stands out to the more general public, or even pageant insiders from what I can tell.

donald-kravitz-getty-imagesMiss Michigan has certainly got a lot of press beyond the pantsuit for attacks made on her for her appearance and Asian background after winning the state title.

With all that said, here are my picks for the Top 15, in no particular order. You can see all 52 contestants here.

  1. Missouri- For reasons mentioned above I can't imagine she will be left out, perhaps as the voted in "People's Choice." Though I don't think she'll go deep.
  2. Michigan- Ditto, but she also won preliminary talent, and I DO expect her to go deep. But not win, likely too outspoken for what Organization wants to recover from some bad press from the outgoing queen this year.
  3. DC- Won prelim swimsuit, cute, apparently good speaker, but can't see her winning given similarities with Miss USA this year
  4. Maryland- Very beautiful, won prelim swimsuit as well, singing patriotic song for talent (good choice for tonight)
  5. Arkansas- People were surprised she won a prelim talent, but it wasn't awful and was certainly entertaining. And her name! "Savvy Shields" was born to be a beauty queen...
  6. South Carolina- Was Miss America's Outstanding Teen, strong dancer, gorgeous, needs to step up on stage presence to win, but definitely a contender for me
  7. Georgia- Seems strong all around, would be back-to-back win for state which I don't see happening right now
  8. New York- Intriguing, always send strong contestants
  9. Oklahoma- Ditto Miss New York
  10. Alabama- Won a ton of lesser prelim awards
  11. Alaska- I simply find something about her interesting
  12. Idaho- Won Miss Sweetheart last year (though in some ways that hurts her-- a story for another time!), but good dancer, and I like the red hair
  13. New Jersey- I judged her a few years ago and then thought, "She looks like a classic Miss America." She switched talent from dancing to singing, so not sure what to think there... Sentimental choice then!
  14. Mississippi- I just hear her name a lot, no other reason.
  15. OHIO- As of right now, if I had to choose a single name to win, this is it. From the NIGHT SHE WON HER STATE, I picked her. Strong talent (singer, which is easier when Miss A travels), beautiful, won prelim swimsuit. Young, but I think they want that this year...

Note I am leaving one other prelim winner off my list, TN. Prelims are super important indicators, but not always. And I didn't like her in evening gown. [edited: TN WON TALENT! Whoops! Ok, I still just didn't feel performance enough)

To see why swimsuit prelims don't matter as much look at the scoring breakdown, and you'll see why I put all three talent winners in.

14344243_10154430415472095_119086745808441907_n"Composite" is the part of the score that carries over from prelims, especially when a new set of "celebrity" judges come in today who didn't do the 10-minute interview with each contestant (but they do watch videos of finalists). Unclear to me who gives the composite score this year-- prelim or final night panel. Anyone know?

Also, for the record, if only Miss Puerto Rico would make the talent cut, she would BREAK THE INTERNET. (Note the video comment, total bummer, trust me.)


EDITED WITH RESULTS: I did well, and yet I didn't. I predicted only 8 of the Top 15, not bad, but not great. What was more shocking is that THREE of the prelim winners didn't make the cut, and they were three that were on almost everyone's watch lists (Ohio [my pick!], Michigan, and DC). That said I picked FOUR of the five finalists, so that seems very good. I totally missed Washington all the way around. Very interested fact as reported by Pageant Junkies is that those same four finalists were all Outstanding Teen participants. Not sure if this is causal, a selection effect, or a mix of both, but it is certainly noteworthy.

Not at all surprised by the winner, thought deserving. Just the name still gets me!

And I must say (in addition to all my Twitter comments), I was strangely uncomfortable that they played the new Daya hit, "Sit Still, Look Pretty" during the (abysmally rated, only 6 million, a sure sign should be moved back to Saturday nights!) live broadcast.

A Sweet New Set of Miss America Predictions

Today I arrived in Atlantic City for the 95th Annual Miss America Pageant. Miss-America-2016

On the way down I caught up on some New Yorker reading. Last week's issue had an article on Atlantic City, which somewhat tellingly does not mention Miss America (nor Monopoly for that matter). Nick Paumgarten's "The Death and Life of Atlantic City" had some great lines, and was interesting, if lacking a resolution. A few that seem especially during this High Holy Week of Pageantry: 1) "Most cities exist as a consequence of commercial or strategic utility. Atlantic City is more of a proposition and a ploy." 2) "In some respects, Atlantic City was where America learned how to turn idle entertainment into big business."

Like AC, Vanessa Williams is gritty, turning looks and controversy into money. Williams rose to fame by becoming the first ever African-American to win the title of Miss America in 1984. She rose to infamy by becoming the first ever Miss America to be forced to resign. She returns to Boardwalk Hall for the first time since her win as Head Judge (well, we hope!). For more on my thoughts on how this development reflects broader changes in American society, click through to my Psychology Today piece, "Will the Obama Girls Stay Up Late for Miss America 2016?"

One thing that hasn't changed is that at times the diversity of Miss America seems a bit forced. For example, yet again (a fact I bemoaned two years ago!) Miss America overlaps with the Jewish High Holidays. This is partly just the timing of things; the Pageant is traditionally held the weekend after Labor Day to extend summer tourist season. Now with TV schedules to contend with things get even more complicated. But is is Erev Rosh Hashanah and I will miss the first children's service with my kids at our new Rhode Island synagogue. So, next year in East Greenwich!

As for this year though, here are my Top 16 predictions, in alphabetical order, with a few annotations:

  • Alabama- good overall look/package
  • Florida- gorgeous girl, appears to be talented dancer, prelim swimsuit winner (interesting back story here is that her older sister was the girl who was "erroneously" crowned Miss Florida LAST year, but instead was supposedly first runner-up)
  • Georgia-prelim talent winner, has "the look"
  • Idaho- won Sweetheart last year, great look, would be fun to have a winner from this state (though my sense is she underperfomed in prelims perhaps?)
  • Iowa- DOUBLE prelim winner, seemingly out of nowhere, good speaker; I know it's not a BEAUTY pageant per se, though I have to say if she had fixed her teeth up it would have helped a lot
  • Kansas- if this doesn't work out, she should try Miss USA
  • Louisiana- prelim talent winner, attends the "Miss America school" of Oklahoma City University (and graduated from their musical theatre program!)
  • New Jersey- Quality of Life winner; I previously judged her and she has a strong overall presentation for sure (plus no Jersey win since 1937!)
  • New York- probably cursed given the threepeat, but cute as a button and talented
  • North Carolina- strong overall presentation
  • Oklahoma- adorable,but high pressure given singing Vanessa Williams' Miss A talent song!
  • South Carolina- prelim winner, extremely strong overall presentation
  • Vermont- if she gets to do her talent on live TV, I guarantee it will break the Internet (Miss Rhode Island who could also easily make Top 16 with a solid overall presentation also has some meme/hashtag-worthy moments in her dramatic monologue that is committed/entertaining)
  • Virginia- solid overall
  • West Virginia- supposed to have a great talent
  • Wisconsin- I just love her look, different!

A sweet and successful new year to all the contestants, and you, Sunday and all year long!