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.

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...

The Fix Is In: Miss Universe 2016

To me there are three High Holy Days of Pageantry each year: Miss America is the apex (with a Holy Week to go along with it), then Miss Universe, and Miss USA. It's no secret that my favorite part of Miss Universe are the national costumes. I actually missed them live this year because I was on a train ride to the North Pole with my kids in New Hampshire (again, see that previous link for my feelings on the lack of traditions and rituals in Miss USA/Universe, because who would have ever thought Miss Universe would be on a Sunday in late December?!). 10656353_10205232723284251_863363905_nMy eldest son's face clearly presages people's reactions to the crowning moment a few hours later...

Because of the important trip to see Santa and his elves, and then getting our intrepid travelers abed, I didn't turn on Fox until 9:30ish last night. The Top 3 were being announced and I immediately thought Miss Philippines would win. I gasped when I saw her dress and the history with Miss USA and Miss Colombia with Miss Universe (recent winners, etc.) told me that the pageant-happy Philippines would be celebrating in half an hour.

I only half paid attention during the Seal song and the long walks, though I do think it was nice that they Top 3 got so much attention and time to shine. As for the final question it was *such* a softball and I thought Miss USA was too rehearsed/Patty and that Miss Philippines continued to exude grace. All I could think during Colombia's answer was how much she looked like Sofia Vergara's unknown younger sister...

When Miss USA was announced second-runner-up, I think the only one truly shocked was her:


And then the real weirdness began. I have seen over 100 pageants (for research and over my life course watching all three Pageants each year). When the winner is called from the final two (which doesn't always happen, as I briefly explain here), the usual protocol is to announce the name of the first-runner-up, so by default you know who the winner is. Then a few seconds later you introduce the new queen by her old title and new title. When it didn't go down this way I actually thought, "Huh, that was odd." I also thought it odd that there was a pause before the outgoing Miss Universe (also from Colombia) came out, although they then jumped excitedly together. I assume there was some frantic movement off camera that the television audience couldn't see.

When Harvey came back out I was shocked and immediately knew what happened, even though this was unprecedented. I honestly initially thought, along with many others, that this may have been a publicity stunt. Some pageant fans still believe this for some interesting reasons. But I have now watched the press conferences after and if it was I don't think Harvey was in on it and it appears to be a terrible mistake from someone who I don't believe has ever hosted a pageant before. There was a reason people like Bert Parks, and now Chris Harrison (who hosts another elimination show filled with emotion and anxiety), needed longevity to perform their iconic roles well.

As I write at the end of my Psychology Today article on this (which covers more the sociological analysis of why me might care so much), "As this story continues to dominate social media and major news sites (and sadly not other pageant-related stories like the tragic car accident right outside the hotel after Miss Universe last night (link is external), Miss Canada World being denied the opportunity to compete earlier in the weekend over political issues with China (link is external), and the appearance of Miss Slovenia at Miss Universe after a health crisis (link is external)) it is clear that pageantry and dream fulfillment still exert a powerful hold on a diverse group of people worldwide."

(And after you read my Psych Today piece you will understand that whenever I see my own mother's crowning moment, that up-close dream fulfillment, it makes me tear up because it is amazing to see the moment when her life changed, and by extension mine as well [I wish in some ways I had a video of when I tore open my college acceptance letter, in the dark ages before email, etc.]. Note that this was her reaction to NOT being called FIRST-RUNNER-UP, since that name is always read first!58d20194b899c4f88c2fece95b541ce9One final aside: They de-crowmned Colombia, but left the sash on her. How awkward was it to get that sash off?! Anyone know of any photos of this?)

And as I explain in this thoughtful article at Christian Science Monitor, "'Miss Philippines and Miss Colombia displayed grace under pressure in an unexpected and unprecedented situation,' says Friedman. 'What happens in the next few days will show what may or may not have occurred behind the scenes. For better or for worse both contestants, along with emcee Harvey, will live on in social media infamy.'"

I'm guessing that for the next Pageant (and all the preliminaries and state contests leading up to it), a new ritual may be added to the crowning ceremony: SHOWING THE WINNER AND AUDIENCE THE RESULTS CARD!


Why do people watch Miss USA?

Another year, another Miss USA crowned. You likely won't remember,  or ever know, but Miss USA 2014's name is Nia Sanchez and she represented Nevada. Her crowning has made a few headlines, like this article about her final answer on sexual assault on campus (though George Will is the one really making headlines about this these days), but in general the winner was tame. No big viral YouTube moments. No "firsts." Just a very pretty, thin girl winning a crown and a year working for Donald Trump (although the "normal" weight of one contestant generated conversation, which if you look at her pic you will realize is exceptional given how thin even she is!. 450312696-miss-nevada-nia-sanchez-is-crowned-miss-usa-during-the.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlarge by Stacy Revere for Gerry Images

What was different this year was that the pageant was THREE HOURS LONG. Judging by my Twitter feed most people like me (loyal pageant watchers) were bored. It took over an hour to even announce a Top TWENTY. While it was great to get that much time for a pageant on a Sunday night, I would have far, far preferred to see that time go to Miss America.

Yes, I am a bit biased toward Miss America in general, but this is also because Miss America has an extra component to the competition-- talent. All Top 10 Miss America finalists used to have their talents televised live. I feel strongly this should return (and not in the reality format elimination way they do it now). Sometimes those talents are laughably terrible, sometimes just cringe-worthy, more often average, and occasionally really good. But at least there we see more than tan bodies, stick thin legs, and too much hair and make-up. Truly, some of the contestants (especially Miss TN with her Tammy Faye eyes and whose look made her look like an aging politician's wife!) look like parodies of women. Talent remains one of the biggest differences between the two systems, as I mention in this news article out last week.

I was reminded of this talent issue because I DVRed both Miss USA and the Tonys. Thank goodness; see that loooong factor. I was surprised that the two were up against one another given that there is a substantial overlap in their target audiences. That said, it was so obvious that one three-hour broadcast sent a very different message and showcased a lot more talent than the other. You figure out which one is which. There may have been some over the top moments in both, but the one I mean had more authenticity than is showcased in this clip of what contestants would do if they won:

(Note that Nevada did NOT do this when she actually won!)

Despite all this, apparently I am wrong because ratings for Miss USA were UP this year and the total number of viewers increased over the three hours! So what do I know, right?! So I am honestly curious: why do 5 million+ people watch Miss USA? Obviously it's for the beautiful, scantily clad women, but isn't the Victoria's Secret fashion better (apparently, yes, as they get almost twice as many viewers)? Miss America has more history and gravitas, even if most people can't distinguish between the two. Is it for the judges (like Lance Bass who has recently judged both!)? Or is it timing and there is more on TV in September? Or something else entirely?

In any case, the winner was an early favorite of mine, so at least I was right there. And I have to say that I feel for the first runner-up, Audra Mari from North Dakota. She was also first runner-up to Miss Teen USA in 2011! Perhaps she can try to win Miss America, which has never had a Miss North Dakota win, next? So long as she has a talent!

Update: I LOVE some of these answers I am getting, especially since they suggest that competition is innately interesting and there is nothing wrong with pretty things and sequins. Great reminder! I guess you could ask why some people watch hockey or soccer or football as well...

"Pageants are the ORIGINAL reality tv. I like to watch because 9 times out of 10, my "faves" are the winners. I actually take the time to read profiles, particularly for Miss America."

"Because they're fun. And because I like sparkles and drama and dresses that twirl. And I missed the point at which it became taboo to like these things, or to require a "larger meaning" behind every choice I make. The scholarship money was nice. The skills I developed were great. But would have I participated if I earned no money, and just got the crown? Yep."

Pageants, Pageants, Pageants! From Miss America to Miss USA to Mini Miss

A lot has been going on in the pageantry world recently and I've been writing and talking away!  All the biggies have gotten some press coverage. 1) Child pageants- Toddlers & Tiaras returned earlier this month and so far the biggest story to come out has been about Tinker Tea (a sick concoction of pixie sticks, Mountain Dew, and sweet tea). It turns green, hence it's name. Anyway, more evidence that the "reality" show has become a launching pad for all sorts of infamy and opportunities to make money as this mom attempts to sell her sad brew to others.

2) Miss USA- Of course, Miss Utah's flubbed answer stole the show. In case you missed it:

It's clear that her mind went blank-- you can see it happen-- and she did well answering a question a few minutes before. I don't think she's a rocket scientist, but her nerves clearly took over. To me it honestly wasn't as bad as Miss South Carolina Teen's answer from 2007, where the girl seemed to project the confidence that she was making sense. In any case, while I'm sure both were embarrassed, they did receive almost/more press than the winner, so...

Far more worrisome to me was how thin many of the contestants appeared; not just in swimsuit but also fully clothed. Their toothpick arms came up in a discussion I participated in on HuffPost live about "Making Over the Pageant Industry." I was the only non-pageant contestant on the panel, which included two former Miss Americas, one former Miss USA, one former MAO state queen, and one former MAO local winner.

3) Miss America- Speaking of Miss America, thankfully, more accomplishments than mistakes have been in the news thanks to Ericka Harold, Miss America 2003. Harold, who I spoke with last summer when I was writing a series of articles on beauty queen politicians, is enormously impressive. I went on record saying this recently in The Washington Post (this piece also discusses Heather French Henry, who is considering a run and who was on the HuffPost Live panel with me as well); sidenote, I simply love being described as a "pageant scholar" and I may add this to my CV! It's very disheartening to hear that Harold is being racially and sexually derided-- even by members of her own party. She, and all candidates, deserve better.

And I can speak from experience that not all pageant contestants blank on TV and they often do have important things to say and contribute to the world. I spent part of last week and the weekend judging Miss New Jersey in Ocean City, NJ. Cara McCollum, a rising senior at Princeton, was crowned and she will represent the state as the Pageant returns to its birthplace, Atlantic City, after seven years away. There will be a lot of attention on Miss New Jersey this year, but I'm confident Cara is up to the challenge. For more on her, and my thoughts, check out this blog entry I wrote for PAW (Princeton Alumni Weekly).

Cara McCollum and Miss NJ Judges, photo credit to Richard Krauss Photography