Welcome Home, Miss America
After six years in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Miss America pageant is coming back to New Jersey! In September 2013, it will be held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the site of the first 85 pageants.
The Miss America pageant was first held in Atlantic City in 1921. The year prior, the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City needed a way to keep people on the boardwalk after the summer season ended. On September 25, 1920, the Fall Frolic was held on the boardwalk. All sorts of festivities went down that day, and the parade of beautiful young women turned out to be the most popular. It was so popular, in fact, that the League decided bring it back the next year with a few tweaks. Beauty contests were becoming popular, and so an “Inter-City Beauty Contest” was held in 1921. Young women from all over came to compete. 16-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, DC took first place and won $1,000. In 1922, she returned with the intent to sweep the competition again, this time draped in an American flag and calling herself “Miss America.” And that, my friends, is how the Miss America pageant got its name.
Since that first pageant, three Jersey Girls have been crowned “Miss America.” Only two are part of official Miss America canon, though, and only actually took first place in the pageant. That woman was Bette Cooper of Mount Arlington, NJ in 1937. When she found out the amount of appearances she’d have to make as Miss America, she felt overwhelmed and stated that she’d need a less grueling schedule because she planned to attend college. She went to Centeary Junior College, now Centenary College of New Jersey, and graduated in 1938. Thanks to her, contestants now sign an agreement about their responsibilities as Miss America, should they win.
The other official Miss America from New Jersey was Suzette Charles of Hamilton Township in 1984. She holds the record for the shortest Miss America term served – seven weeks. She initially won first runner-up to Vanessa Lyn Williams of New York. When nude photos Williams took for Penthouse magazine surfaced, she resigned as Miss America and Charles took the crown.
The third woman to win the title of “Miss America” is up for some debate. From 1928 to 1932, the pageant was suspended due to financial concerns. In 1932, Wildwood, NJ held one anyway, unabashedly using the title “Miss America.” Dorothy Hann of Camden won, though her victory isn’t considered official by the Miss America Organization.
The organization’s evolved through the decades. It started as a two-category competition: popularity and beauty. Today, there are five categories: Swimwear, Personal Interview, Talent, Onstage Question and Evening Wear.
The interview and talent portions of the competition were added after feminist critics denounced the pageant, comparing it to a livestock show where women were judged by superficial standards. In 1968, protesters from the New York Radical Women, a women’s liberation group, picketed on the boardwalk during the pageant. They handed out a brochure titled “No More Miss America” and threw things like makeup, pots and pans, women’s magazines and girdles into a trash can, symbolizing that they refused to be defined by the roles and ideals associated with these items. Journalists covering the event compared their protest to Vietnam War protesters who burned their draft cards and coined the term “bra-burning feminist.”
It’s gone from being called a “pageant” to a “scholarship progam,” a fact that was referenced in the 2000 movie Miss Congeniality. In the movie, Sandra Bullock played an undercover FBI agent posing as the New Jersey contestant in the Miss United States pageant. Today, the Miss America program and its affiliates are the largest provider of scholarships to young women in the United States.
Miss America’s return to our shore is part of the larger attempt to revitalize Atlantic City. In its heyday, the pageant drew thousands of visitors to the city. It’s heyday was half a century ago. After peaking in the early 1960s, Miss America’s ratings have steadily declined. Event organizers hope this, along with other non-gambling attractions, will help to re-brand Atlantic City as a varied, family-friendly destination instead of a graying slots hub. Only time will tell.