Confessions of a Beauty Pageant Drop-Out

[Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Campus Progress.]

It was with a combination of contradictory emotions -- familiarity, estrangement, anticipation, disdain, and even a twinge of regret -- that I tuned in and watched the Miss America Pageant last month. Why? I'm not your average viewer or loyal fan.

No, I was a teenage beauty queen.

It might have been a long shot, but had circumstances been slightly different, I could have been in Las Vegas competing for that crown myself. As an insider, I want to correct some of the most common misperceptions about Miss America's image of women, but I also understand some of the deepest flaws in the organization's brand of feminism.

Raised in a conservative Republican family, I entered and won my first pageant at the age of 11. I was constantly encouraged to look beautiful, even sexy, from very early on. It was fun, and it was a mutually beneficial experience. I got to dress up in gorgeous, expensive gowns and command the attention of hundreds of people while on stage, and my mom got to dote on me and rake in quality time as we drove all over Southern California on weekends for different competitions. It was like Little League, but with high heels and bustiers instead of cleats and jerseys.

After we moved to Texas when I started high school, I went on to earn such titles as "Miss Teen North Texas" and "Miss Dallas Teen" in the younger age categories of the Miss America and Miss USA systems. Toward the end of high school, I burnt out on pageants and stopped entering, much to the very vocal dismay of my mother.

During college, I experienced a dramatic ideological leftward shift (also to the very vocal dismay of my mother), which at first made me ashamed of my prior participation in the pageant circuit. Ultimately, however, my newfound progressive beliefs brought me full circle, and I returned to pageants more determined than ever to make it to Miss America.

To be sure, I do not defend all pageants. Some are entirely without merit. The Jon-Benet-style contests I entered as a child are decided almost exclusively on the basis of appearance. Winners earn little more than a gaudy tiara and a 5-foot trophy, and the pageant directors walk away with a ton of cash bilked from gullible parents who unfailingly believe -- and try to prove -- that their child is just the cutest kid in the whole world.

Or, for instance, though the Miss USA Pageant (part of the Miss Universe system) includes an interview phase and the winner does some charitable work, it is a for-profit enterprise owned by Donald "The Donald" Trump and NBC. Founded in 1952 by Catalina Swimsuits as a product promotion tool, it seeks women as models. Just watch the show (it's coming up in April) and you can't miss all of the product placement interspersed throughout -- the reigning Miss USA hawks everything from suntan lotion to flashy diamonds. So the formula is simple: the most attractive woman makes the best spokesmodel and, therefore, the best Miss USA.

But, I swear, Miss America is different! Why else would a proud lefty feminist like myself want to enter a local preliminary with dreams of winning a state and then national title? The short answer: money, celebrity, and a cause.

The non-profit Miss America Organization proudly proclaims itself to be the world's leading provider of scholarship money for women, offering over $45 million to American women last year alone to pay for higher education. After crowning the new winner on Saturday, Deidre Downs, Miss America 2005 and a Rhodes Scholar finalist, will enter medical school at the University of Alabama with the help of a whopping $50,000 scholarship. I have designs on medical school myself and could certainly use the assistance.

The organization's stated purpose is to "[empower] young women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence." In fact, despite the high profile of the swimsuit competition, a substantial majority of a contestant's score is based on the talent and interview competitions. The scoring system ensures that, often, the winner isn't necessarily the one with the most obviously comely figure or brightest smile.

Every contestant is required to enter with a platform, a cause to advocate during a year-long speaking tour should she win, about which a panel of judges asks rapid-fire questions during the interview. The most common selections are comfortably non-controversial, such as literacy education or breast cancer awareness, while some women have ventured into hotter topics with surprising ease; Miss America 1998's platform was a relatively progressive vision of AIDS prevention and treatment.

It was this aspect of the competition that appealed to my own progressive activist ideals. I had fantasies of using the built-in fame and PR resources of the Miss America title to advance my personal vision of large-scale public health reform in the United States. My plan involved advocating for universal health insurance, expansion of the National Health Service Corps and public health infrastructure, incentives for the practice of evidence-based health care, and mandated adoption of electronic medical records by all hospitals and clinics, among other reforms. Anyone can speak to student groups in vague platitudes about "awareness" of drugs or diseases. I wanted to make a concrete difference in policy and thought I could get more press attention now as Miss America than I'll probably ever be able to get once I become a public health official.

Yes, it would be a purely strategic move. But Miss America advocating progressive public health reform would be sort of like Nixon going to China, right? My platform, while admittedly overly ambitious, stood out in its detail and goals. Plus, I thought I could show the Miss America Organization, my fellow contestants, and the public that even a borderline hippie could win the Miss America title and do some good through relatively unorthodox titleholder advocacy (and maybe, just once in a while, trade in those colorful tailored business suits for some worn-out cords).

So it was with some excitement that I entered the Miss Arlington pageant in February of 2005. But my delusions of grandeur quickly evaporated. All of my prior reasons for quitting came flooding back to me. The heavy make-up, the smothering smell of endless cans of hairspray, the excited backstage patter about wardrobe selections, pushy stage mothers primping and fussing over their daughters, spending hours on end with my body bound up in tight undergarments.

And I remembered the subtle dishonesty of it all. I found the local competition utterly oblivious to the true substance of contestants' lives. When the Miss America finalists were asked on Saturday about a childhood experience that challenged them, neither the judges nor the audience really wanted to hear about the deep problems that I'm certain many of these women have experienced because doing so would simply be uncomfortable. Take the first runner-up, Miss Georgia, a young woman who grew up in the South with a blonde mom and an Asian dad. She took an unusually bold move for a pageant contestant by even mentioning race, noting that in her youth, she experienced taunts because of her background. But still, she glossed over the mammoth issue of racial rifts in American culture with perfect pageant sheen. She acted like her encounters with racism were only discrete moments that existed exclusively in the past, that the ongoing racial dynamics of America couldn't puncture the supposedly color blind pageant world bubble. It seemed that she was "over it," having purged her childhood trauma from her perfect heart, body and brain.

But that's what viewers want. They want "cute," they want neatly packaged problems articulated as profundity, and many of the contestants were eager to oblige. I chose my daddy as my escort for the evening wear competition. Kids made fun of me because of my big glasses and gangly limbs, and it made me a stronger person. Viewers and pageant organizers don't want to confront the process of being a woman. They want to see the product of being a woman -- a complete package with challenges overcome, plus honor roll status and a rockin' bod.

I enjoyed or at least tolerated all of these things as a teenager. But in the midst of the Miss Arlington pageant, I realized I had changed too much to endure them for even a day as an adult.

And then, of course, I won -- the first step toward lthe 2005 Miss America pageant -- based largely on my platform-based interview score, the highest of the contestants.

I gave up my crown just one week later, after what was for me the final straw: I learned how little say I would have if I were to win the national or even state title. Miss America must sign her life away for a year in a contract that obligates her to be, first and foremost, a public relations tool for the pageant--wearing what they tell her to wear and giving prepared speeches at fundraising events. Time to pursue her own cause is limited at best.

Under the weight of so many compromises, I finally gave up on pageants once and for all. Still, the media hype about this year's culminating contest compelled me to be one of 3.06 million people to tune in to the Miss America Pagent last month. They said it was going to be a return to tradition, and I wanted to see what that might look like.

After watching, I found the changes to be minor and irrelevant. They brought back the Miss Congeniality award and did away with reality show-style gimmicks that had been adopted in recent years to try to boost ratings. But those were replaced with new gimmicks, hardly traditional, such as live satellite feeds from a Miss America house party in Maine, live blogging from the pageant, and a hunky host from one of the most popular (and sex-filled) shows on television.

Watching the show in light of my own complicated pageant history, it wasn't tradition or lack thereof that struck me. Instead, it was my sense that the Miss America Organization's anti-feminism is found less in its eternally popular swimsuit competition and more in its ironic ability to take smart, talented women -- many of whom will go on to become physicians, attorneys, professional opera singers, and teachers -- and transform them into living, breathing public relations props who must ignore their whole selves that got them that lucky gig in the first place.

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