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Miss America is a competition that is held annually and is open to women from the between the ages of 17 and 25. Originating in 1921 as a "bathing beauty revue", the contest is now judged on competitors' talent performances and interviews. As of 2018, there is no longer a swimsuit portion to the contest, or consideration of physical appearance. Miss America travels about 20,000 miles a month, changing her location every 24 to 48 hours, touring the nation and promoting her particular platform of interest. The winner is crowned by the previous year's titleholder.
The current titleholder, , is Miss North Dakota 2017, , who was crowned on September 10, 2017, by her predecessor ().
On February 1, 1919, there was a beauty pageant held in the Chu Chin Chow Ball at the Hotel des Artistes in . The winner, , was called "Miss America." Neither the title nor this pageant were related to the current "Miss American Pageant" which would develop a year later in . Rather, the origins of the "Miss America Pageant" lie in an event entitled The Fall Frolic which was held on September 25, 1920, in Atlantic City. This event was designed to bring business to the Boardwalk: "three hundred and fifty gaily decorated rolling wicker chairs were pushed along the parade route. Three hundred and fifty men pushed the chairs. However, the main attractions were the young 'maidens' who sat in the rolling chairs, headed by a Miss Ernestine Cremona, who was dressed in a flowing white robe and represented 'Peace.'"
The event was so successful that The Businessmen's League planned to repeat it the following year as a or a "bather's revue" (to capitalize on the popularity of newspaper-based beauty contests that used photo submissions). Thus, "newspapers as far west as Pittsburgh and as far south as Washington, D.C., were asked to sponsor local beauty contests. The winners would participate in the Atlantic City contest. If the local newspaper would pay for the winner's wardrobe, the Atlantic City Businessmen's League would pay for the contestant's travel to compete in the Inter-City Beauty Contest." Herb Test, a "newspaperman", coined the term for the winner: "Miss America." On September 8, 1921, 100,000 people gathered at the Boardwalk to watch the contestants from , , , , , , , and . The 16-year-old winner from , , was crowned the "Golden Mermaid" and won 0.
The pageant continued consistently over the next eight decades except for the years 1928–1932, when it was temporarily shut down due to financial problems associated with the and suggestions that it promoted "loose morals." With its revival in 1933, 15-year-old won, prompting future contestants to be between the ages of 18 and 26. In 1935, Lenora Slaughter was hired to "re-invent" the pageant and served for 32 years as its Director. By 1938, a talent section was added to the competition, and contestants were required to have a chaperone. In 1940, the title officially became "The Miss America Pageant" and the pageant was held in Atlantic City's Convention Hall. In 1944, compensation for "Miss America" switched from "furs and movie contracts" to college scholarships, an idea generally credited to , Miss America 1943.
During the early years of the pageant, under the directorship of Lenora Slaughter, it became segregated via rule number seven that stated: "contestants must be of good health and ." Rule number seven was abolished in 1950. 1945, , the only winner to date, became and faced during her time as Miss America, leading to a cutback in her official duties. Although there were , , and contestants, there were no contestants for fifty years (African-Americans appeared in musical numbers as far back as 1923, however, when they were cast as slaves).
In 1970, however, , 1970, competed as the first African-American contestant in the pageant. She also participated in one of the last -Miss America tours in . A decade later in 1983, (and Miss Syracuse) 1983, (the first woman to win the competition as ), faced discrimination in response to her win and later resigned under pressure due to a scandal involving nude photographs. Three decades after these events, (and Miss Syracuse) 2013, , the first woman to win the crown as , faced and comments in social media when she won. Two years later at the pageant, former Miss America CEO Sam Haskell apologized to Vanessa Williams (who was serving as head judge) for what was said to her during the events of 1984.
In 2018, the pageant ended the swimsuit portion of the competition., the organization’s chairwoman, who was Miss America in 1989, explained on ABC’s “”: “We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance, ... We are moving it forward and evolving it in this cultural revolution.”
Margaret Gorman, Miss District of Columbia, was declared "The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America" in 1921 at the age of 16 and was recognized as the first "Miss America" when she returned to compete the next year. The contest that year was won by () and again in 1923. She returned to compete a third time in 1924 but placed as first runner-up that year, and pageant rules were then amended to prevent anyone from winning more than once. Beginning in 1940, served as the first official host of the pageant. In 1941, Mifauny Shunatona, , became the first contestant.
In 1945, became the first and the first (competing as Miss New York City, a competition organized by a local radio station) to win the Miss America pageant as . As the only Jewish contestant, Myerson was encouraged by the pageant directors to change her name to "Bess Meredith" or "Beth Merrick", but she refused. After winning the title (and as a Jewish Miss America), Myerson received few endorsements and later recalled that "I couldn't even stay in certain hotels […] there would be signs that read no coloreds, no Jews, no dogs. I felt so rejected. Here I was chosen to represent American womanhood and then America treated me like this." She thus cut short her Miss America tour and instead traveled with the . In this capacity, she spoke against discrimination in a talk entitled, "You Can't Be Beautiful and Hate."
In 1948, Irma Nydia Vasquez, the first , became the first contestant. In addition, in 1948, Yun Tau Chee, the first , was also the first contestant., , was married and divorced during her reign; after this, a rule was enacted requiring Miss America contestants to sign a certification that they have never been married or pregnant. Starting in 1950, although the pageant continued to be in September, the Miss America title changed to "post-dated", thus that year's pageant winner became Miss America 1951, and there was no Miss America 1950. The pageant was first nationally in 1954, hosted by . Future television star was crowned . It would also be the last time Russell served as host. He recommended, and was replaced by, , who served as the host for the second televised pageant in 1955 and stayed as host until 1979. Television viewership peaked during the early 1960s, when it was the highest-rated program on American television.
With the rise of and the movement during the 1960s, the Miss America pageant became the subject of a series of protests that attacked it as sexist, racist, and part of U.S. militarism. The first demonstration took place during the pageant held on September 7, 1968 (won by 1968, ), when about 200 members of the group demonstrated as part of the . In addition, a pamphlet distributed at the protest by , No More Miss America!, became a source for feminist scholarship. The protest was co-sponsored by 's Media Workshop, an activist group she founded in 1966 to protest the media's representation of , along with the feminist Jeanette Rankin Brigade and the . Morgan later stated that the Miss America pageant "was chosen as a target for a number of reasons: it has always been a lily-white, racist contest; the winner tours , entertaining the troops as a 'Murder Mascot'; the whole gimmick is one commercial shillgame to sell the sponsor's products. Where else could one find such a perfect combination of American values—racism, militarism, sexism—all packaged in one ‘ideal symbol,’ a woman." The protesters compared the pageant to a county fair where livestock are judged. They thus crowned a as Miss America and symbolically destroyed a number of feminine products, including false eyelashes, high-heeled shoes, curlers, hairspray, makeup, , , and . Burning the contents of a trash can was suggested, but a permit was unobtainable; news media seized on the similarity between burning draft cards and women burning their bras. In fact, there was no bra burning, nor did anyone remove her bra. The later demonstrated at the pageant.
1970,, became the first contestant in the competition's history during the pageant (September 12, 1970). Browne drew attention from reporters and from security personnel in Atlantic City who maintained a visible presence during pageant rehearsals. Browne was not a finalist, however, losing to future media personality, 1970, . In August 1971, Browne traveled to with George, 1970, Vicky Jo Todd, 1970, , 1970, Karen Shields, 1970, Donna Connelly, and 1970 (George's replacement), Belinda Myrick. They participated in a 22-day tour for began in . Browne later commented that she thought "it was one of the last Miss America groups to go to Vietnam." 1980, , finished the pageant (September 6, 1980) as fourth runner-up, making her the first African American contestant to place in the top five.
A few years later, ( 1983) won the title of on September 17, 1983, making her the first African American woman to wear the crown. Williams later commented that she was one of five minority contestants that year, noting that ballet dancer "had already had a cross burned on her front yard because she was the first black ." She also pointed out that " was the first runner-up, and she was biracial. But when the press started, when I would go out on the – on the tour and do my appearances, and people would come up and say they never thought they'd see the day that it would happen; when people would want to shake my hand, and you'd see tears in their eyes, and they'd say, I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime – that's when, you know, it was definitely a very special honor." Williams' reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies, however. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and hate mail. Williams , however, after the unauthorized publication of nude photos in . First runner-up, 1983, replaced her for the final weeks of Williams' reign. Thirty-two years after she resigned however, Vanessa Williams on September 13, 2015, for the pageant as head judge (where 2015, , won the crown). The pageant began with former Miss America CEO Sam Haskell issuing an apology to Williams, telling her that although "none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today's organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams. I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be." (Williams' replacement) said in an interview with that she was perplexed over the apology and suggested that it was given for the purpose of ratings.
In 1985, 1984, , became the first foreign-born, bilingual Miss America, as she was born in , . 1994, , won the becoming the first Miss America (she lost most of her hearing at the age of 18 months). At the pageant held on September 19, 1998, ( 1998) became the first Miss America with and the first contestant to publicize an insulin pump. Around the same time, Miss America officials announced they had lifted the ban on contestants who were divorced or had had an abortion. This rule change, however, was rescinded and Miss America CEO Robert L. Beck, who had suggested it, was fired., 2000, was crowned , thereby becoming the first , the first , as well as the first teacher ever to win the pageant.
A few years later, the pageant held on September 18, 2004, would be the last one televised live on (which dropped the pageant after this broadcast, as it "drew a record-low 9.8 million viewers") and the last one held in for ten years. 2004, , reigned as Miss America four months longer than usual as the pageant was moved to a January broadcast at the 's (). It was also broadcast live on ' . After two years, the pageant moved to . The pageant held on January 15, 2011, showcased 2010, , (the first Miss America contestant to advocate a ) and 2010, , (the first contestant). also resumed broadcasting the pageant with the 2011 competition. The pageant, held on January 12, 2013, was the last one to take place in Las Vegas. 2012, , won the competition but only served for eight months as the pageant moved back to its former broadcast slot in September 2013 2012, , ("America's Choice" winner) was the pageant's first contestant.
With the pageant, held on September 15, 2013, the competition returned to , , . () won the title of Miss America. Davuluri was also the first and second to win the crown. Shortly after her win, however, Davuluri became the target of and comments in social media relating the proximity of and to . News agencies cited tweets that misidentified her as Muslim or Arab, associated her with groups such as , and questioned why she was chosen over 2013, , (a soldier who won the "America's Choice" award and was the first contestant to display tattoos during the swimsuit competition). Davuluri said that she was prepared for this backlash because "as Miss New York, I was called a terrorist and very similar remarks", and Vail denounced the social media backlash, offering her support to Davuluri. In addition, a torn ACL and MCL forced 2013, , to perform her baton routine with a decorated leg brace, while Nicole Kelly ( 2013) was the first contestant without a forearm to compete in the pageant.
, who was crowned 2014 and was preparing to compete in , was stripped of the title and the crown because she was deemed to be too old. Longacre filed a million lawsuit, and Miss America officials later blamed the error on state pageant officials whom, they said, "missed the age discrepancy in Longacre's submitted paperwork." 2014 () eventually won the title of , making New York the first state to produce a winner for three consecutive years.
In September 2014, comedian ran a segment on his show, , that investigated the Miss America Organization's claim that it is "the world's largest provider of scholarships for women." Oliver's team, which included four researchers with journalism backgrounds, collected and analyzed the organization's state and federal tax forms to find that the organization's scholarship program only distributes a small fraction of its claimed " million made available annually". Oliver said that at the national level, the Miss America Organization and Miss America Foundation together spent only 2,000 in cash scholarships in 2012. Oliver found that at the state level, the pageant claimed that it had provided ,592,000 in scholarships to despite not actually distributing any such scholarships. The pageant appeared to multiply the value of a single available scholarship by the number of contestants theoretically eligible for it, while using the term "provided" in a way that did not mean "distributed." The Miss America Organization responded by stating that Oliver affirmed that it provides the most scholarships to women and that the million figure was based on all scholarships made available whether or not they are accepted. In February 2015, Sharon Pearce announced that she was stepping down from her role as President of the Miss America Organization. At that time, former CEO Sam Haskell was named Executive Chairman of the Miss America Organization, retained the title of CEO, and assumed all of Pearce's responsibilities. In addition, , , was appointed one of the new trustees to the Miss America Foundation. In September 2015, Miss America officials announced that the organization grants .5 million in scholarships, a number which still includes adding together offers of in-kind tuition waivers from multiple schools when a contestant could accept one at most.
On March 24, 2016, the Miss America Organization announced a contract renewal with to continue carrying the pageant for the next three years to the 2019 edition.
In June 2016, was crowned , becoming the first openly lesbian Miss America contestant.
In late December 2017, published an article exposing derogatory emails sent and received by CEO Sam Haskell, board members Tammy Haddad and Lynn Weidner, and lead writer Lewis Friedman. The emails, sent between 2014 and 2017, featured instances of expletive name-calling and unprofessional comments. The comments were often sexual or violent in nature and targeted former Miss America winners, notably and , both of whom joined 47 other former Miss Americas (including all Miss Americas from 1988 to 2017) in signing a joint open letter calling for the firing or resignation of all involved. On December 22, the Miss America Organization released statements to USA Today, saying that it was made aware of concerns several months prior. They stated that the organization does not "condone the use of inappropriate language" and reported that its investigation had determined that Haskell was under "unreasonable distress resulting from intense attacks on his family from disgruntled stakeholders". The organization also reported that its relationship with Friedman had been terminated. Haskell explained that attacks on his character impaired his judgment when responding to the emails. Miss America's also suspended Haskell, who released a statement labeling the HuffPost article "unkind and untrue". Hagan and Shindle criticized the decision to suspend Haskell, rather than fire him, as inadequate. The following day, the President of Miss America, Josh Randle; executive chairwoman Lynn Weidner; and Haskell all resigned. The scandal prompted the pageant's producer, , to cut ties, and the (CRDA) announced that it was reconsidering its contract with Miss America, with its executive director Chris Howard describing the scandal as "troubling", and both Frank Gilliam, incoming mayor of Atlantic City, and State Senator called for CRDA to end its relationship with Miss America. On December 24, Haddad also resigned.
In January 2018, , who won the Miss America in 1989, was elected as the new chairwoman of the organization, becoming the first former Miss America to serve as its leader. , , was also appointed to the board alongside fellow Miss America winners, () and ().
On June 5, 2018, it was announced that Miss America contestants would no longer be judged based on their physical appearance and that the national Miss America event would be considered a competition, rather than a pageant, and the titleholders now candidates, rather than contestants. When the program airs on September 9, 2018, the swimsuit competition will be replaced with state titleholders participating in a live interactive session with the judges, "to highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America." While the evening gown competition will allow contestants to choose clothing, "that makes them feel confident, expresses their personal style, and shows how they hope to advance the role of Miss America." In interviews, emphasized the organization's desire to be more welcoming, "open, transparent, [and] inclusive to women," and to prioritize displaying the talent and scholarship in the contestants. During Miss America 2.0, the talent portion will make up 50% of the contestants' preliminary score.
Gallery of past titleholders
Further reading and viewing
Archives and collections
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