In pop culture today there are hundreds of subcultures and every single one has its own stereotypes and stigmas. There are Trekkies, hipsters, bikers and cosplayers; and truth be told, with 2.5 million girls competing in pageants in each year, pageant girls are definitely a major subculture of their own. So, I thought it would be fun to create a list (based on personal experience of course) of 10 random facts about pageant girls that you may or may not have already known.
10 Random Truths About Pageant Girls
By Kathryn Kueppers
3. Little kids both flock to you and fear you.
Having a sparkling crown and sash on in public places is like being a Disney Princess to little ones. They are simply in awe of that sparkly thing on your head! Some tykes want to follow you around while others hide behind their moms and peak at you through their fingers. You get questions like “where’s your castle” or “are you a real princess?” Often any fear goes away the moment you take off you crown and offer them to try it on. It's crazy cute!
4. We have ALL made fast food stops in evening gowns, or changed into gowns in the bathrooms.
McDonalds, Culvers, DQ, Cherry Berry, Subway, Burger King, you name it! Nothing like a pre or post-pageant quick change or pick me up at one of your favorite rest stops!
5. We all secretly dislike being compared to toddlers and tiara’s.
Many of us from the midwest generally started participating pageants in our late teens or early adulthood years. However, sometimes people think our moms signed us up early on and had us wear make-up and poofy dresses before we could recite our ABC’s, which could not be farther from the truth.
7. We crush the stereotype that women take hours to get ready.
It’s not uncommon to have less than an hour to get stage-ready for a competition if you’ve been rehearsing all day. On top of that, we go through full wardrobe changes about 3 times during the pageant and are given probably 8 minutes on average to do so. And if you’re like me, you just leave your heels on the whole time (factor in balancing abilities, or lack there-of!) But after surviving the pace of a pageant, we can be ready for any appearance in no time flat, complete with the crown on our heads and our lipstick in the perfect matching shade.
8. You will ALWAYS find pizza and snacks backstage during the pageant (and leftovers are not a thing.)
I have fond memories of hording the bag of gummy bears and swiping the last slice of pizza by the end of the night. Sometimes the nerves make you less hungry, but by half-way through a pageant, it’s worth ruining your lipstick for some sugary goodness.
5 Things I Learned from Swimsuit Competition
1. The Importance of Re-Constructing My Personal Body Image.
You change, your body changes, and so your view on your body will also change. There is something to be said for re-assessing what you expect yourself to be able to do and what you want to look like. These things can change day-to-day.
I learned this between being a Culinary Student and preparing for the swimsuit competition. When I started both, I was proud of doing just a few, rather weak, push-ups. I also was complacent asking for help lifting heavy trays out of the oven. I was more concerned with being thin than fit.
Now, I’m much more proud of being independent, of not needing help, and of accomplishing 50-100 push-ups in a day. That’s the change only a year has brought me. However, what happens when I have kids? When I grow older? The things that my grandma’s body can still do that make her proud are very different from the things my body can do that make me proud. Nonetheless, we both can do great things with what our bodies can handle.
Working out, taking my strength more seriously, and preparing myself mentally to walk on a stage in a swimsuit caused me to look for healthy ways to view my body. Re-constructing my body image was one of those changes in view.
2. How to Work Out.
I never took working out seriously until I started preparing for swimsuit. I would go on long walks, do sit-ups here and there, and eventually I learned how to do a push-up. I was content being weak and was convinced I had no athletic abilities. Deciding to take this phase of competition seriously was one of the best things I ever did because I was finally motivated to see what limits I could push myself to. Thank you Melissa Paakh for stepping into my life and showing me what the heck to do! I practiced working out and would do the same routine until I was proficient at it before moving on to a new one. This included warming up and stretching properly before and afterwards. This ensured that I understood what I was asking my body to do. I was able to rise to each challenge before I moved to the next one.
3. No Body Is Truly Perfect.
What you see on social media is just the tip of the ice-berg. See Body Reality for a reference. When I started working out, of course I wanted to look perfect and have my body change in just a few weeks. I saw plenty of gorgeous fitness gurus and models looking flawless and wanted to be like them. I realized pretty quickly how bad this was for me and how easily it was tearing down my self-esteem when all I wanted was to look confident on-stage. So, I started noticing just how perfect these photos were due to the lighting, the camera angle and the model's pose.
As an experiment I’d try taking photos of myself. I’d lounge around, sit comfortably, slouch, and snap a photo. Then I’d pose and adjust lighting and snap another one. After looking at both photos of myself, it finally hit me how unrealistic my standards were. Shortly after, I saw articles like the one above coming out.
No one will always look 100% perfect. What I started looking forward to in working out was how good I felt and how much more energy I had. I also noted how excited I got when I thought of competing for swimsuit with real muscle tone. I stopped checking the scale and staring in the mirror so much.
4. That Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.
I had heard this saying before, but it started to stick with me as I was making my previous revelations. Obviously, pageants have a subjective side. I’m not going to perfectly please every judge out there. What does tend to “please people” or make people notice is you is confidence, more than anything. Confidence comes from within. So, revelation #4 was that the only “beholding eye” I needed approval from was my own. It doesn’t always come easy, but I ultimately know that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (thanks for that one, Eleanor Roosevelt!) I’ve taken that to mean that if I give other people the power to determine how good I’m doing or how secure I should feel, I will probably never be whole. It has to come from within.
5. The Value of Being Strong Over Being Skinny.
I’ll just say it: I have always been incredibly weak. This is probably why working out has made me so deep and emotional (please note sarcasm.) Once upon a time, little Kathryn couldn’t do a single push-up (even on my knees) and even avoided eating cereal in the morning because a full milk jug was too heavy to handle. Early on, I decided to accept that I would always be a physically weak person. The swimsuit competition shook that ideal to the core. When I started working out and really trying, the first revelation I had was that I hated being weak. I didn’t want to be the girl who always needed help lifting things, I just resigned myself to it. So, I worked at it. I became emboldened to push myself more in the kitchen, stock the freezer by myself or try to lift the mixing bowl that I could easily crawl into. I turned out to be stronger than I believed. Today, I’m significantly more independent in the kitchen and progressively more-so in life. I’m stronger, happier and healthier, and these are the traits I want to “flaunt” more than anything. Not just for two seconds in the swimsuit competition, but going forward in life.
Diving into the history of our Miss Americas can honestly be a full time job. With almost 100 women who held this coveted title, there are far too many stories to tell about each of their years and the things they accomplished. But I will try!!
This is Part 2 of my blog. I've been looking at some of the former Miss Americas through the decades to see a snapshot of what they did. I’ve selected women from each decade that jumped out to me, to share a bit of their stories. Obviously, choosing who to write about has been tough!! I wanted to go into detail on every Miss America I read about.... Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this glance at who your Miss Americas were.
Miss America Through the Decades
Tawny Godin was Miss New York before she became Miss America. Fun fact, she was fluent in Spanish and conversant in German, Latin, Greek and Russian, an ability that no doubt made her stand out among the crowd She won with a piano piece she composed herself, adding to her long list of accomplishments. She went on to be a news anchor, TV host and appear in a few movies and TV series. She was at one time married to Duke of Hazzard star, John Schneider, and she now lives in California.
Dorothy Benham is the second woman crowned from Minnesota. She captured the nation with her vocal performance of Adele’s Laughing Song. She ended the song by effortlessly singing and holding out a ‘high D’ to a captivated audience. Since her reign, Dorothy has appeared on Broadway, the Hour of Power, and enjoys a successful career as a vocalist. She continues to be an active Miss America advocate, volunteer and a reminder that Miss America stays with you in everything you do in life. Having met her in person on multiple occasions, Dorothy is one of my biggest inspirations, and she remains one of the most beloved Miss America’s to fans around the country.
Vanessa Williams becomes the first African-American woman to win Miss America. Sadly, she was under constant security because of threats against her. My mother was Miss Minnesota the year that Vanessa won and told me how Vanessa’s resignation over nude photos published in Penthouse was a huge national news story at that time. Since that unfortunate incident, Vanessa beat the odds and made a comeback as a vocal artist. She is now a nationally recognized actor, singer and designer. At the 2016 Miss America pageant, Vanessa was welcomed back to the organization with a prime time TV apology by then CEO, Sam Haskell. Vanessa is pictured here with Suzette Charles, who took over for Vanessa after she resigned.
Registered nurse, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, wins the title of Miss America. She devotes her year to promoting and advocating the nursing profession. Kaye Lani’s advocacy for nursing was so impactful, that she (with help and support from Gretchen Carlson after Gretchen became Miss America) worked to establish the "contestant platform" as a part of the Miss America competition. Since then, there have been hundreds upon thousands of women from local, state and national levels who have served, volunteered, and advocated for issues important to them. Kaye Lani started something very impactful during her rein.
Gretchen Carlson was the 3rd Minnesota native to win Miss America! She was a classically trained violinist and an honors graduate at Stanford University. Since she also promoted her passion, Arts in Education, during her year, Miss America decided to make "personal platforms" an official requirement of the competition. Gretchen went on to have an amazing career in the news industry including hosting her own show on the FOX TV network “The Real Story,” and is a New York Times best-selling author of her books, “Be Fierce” and “Getting Real.” She is currently leading the movement to end sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, she has accepted the position as Chairwoman of the Miss America Organization. Needless to say, Gretchen is making Miss America and women across the country proud, especially those of us from Minnesota!
Heather Whitestone, winning both a Talent and Swimsuit preliminary at the Miss America pageant, becomes the first deaf woman to win the title. She brought the audience to tears with her beautiful Ballet en Point dance to “Via Dolorosa.” During her talent presentation speakers were put face down on the stage so that she could feel the vibrations of the music and dance to those vibrations as she could not hear the song. After her reign, Heather served on the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and was also a spokesperson for the Starkey Hearing Aid Foundation. After the birth of her two sons, Heather decided to have cochlear implants to help her to hear the voices of her children. Now that she is regaining some hearing, Heather has lobbied legislators on Capitol Hill on behalf of the deaf to bring awareness to implants and to those who have hearing loss.
If you click on her photo, it will take you to a video of her talent!
(This was the year I was born!) Katherine (Kate) Shindle, from Illinois, wins the title! She worked tirelessly throughout her year as an AIDS activist, visiting schools across America to educate young people. Kate has enjoyed a successful career on Broadway and was even elected as President of the Actor’s Equity Association. In 2014, Kate authored the book “Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain” which recounted her experience as Miss America. The book was openly critical of the Miss America Board and as a result Kate became an outcast by the national board. In December of 2017, there was a scandal from emails that were sent by then Miss America CEO Sam Haskell, which were critical of former Miss America’s, including Kate. It resulted in the resignation of Sam Haskell and his entire board. Kate has now been voted in as a member of the new Board at Miss America!
Erika Harold wins the title with a platform of Empowering Youth Against Violence, sharing her own personal experience about overcoming bullying. She was a graduate from Harvard Law School and became a litigation attorney, eventually representing religious institutions protecting their First Amendment rights. Erika was next appointed to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Equality. She is currently running for the position Attorney General in Illinois!
Cara Mund, is the first Miss North Dakota to become Miss America! She is an Ivy League honors graduate from Brown University and plans to go to Law School after she completes her year of service. Cara has been weathering the storm gracefully as the Miss America Board resigned, and the new Board is being placed. Cara has been a lifelong champion for the Make A Wish Foundation, which she continues to support, along with the Children’s Miracle Network. Minnesota is excited to welcome Cara in June of 2018 as she will be a guest of honor at the Crowns & Gowns Ball which will celebrate the 70th anniversary of BeBe Shopp, Miss America 1948!
If you enjoyed reading Miss America history and would like to learn more, go to www.missamerica.org and check out the “Our History” page for a complete list of these phenomenal women! There is so much you can learn from all of them.
Also, if you are interested in competing, check out my previous blog about how to enter a local pageant: "7 Steps to Enter A Miss America Local Pageant." I outline the steps you need to take to start your own journey towards the "Invisible Crown"!
In the midst of my research, the Miss America email scandal broke, the top people resigned, and the Miss America pageant world turned upside down. I feel very lucky that I was totally absorbed with Miss America history so I could view this as the latest of the obstacles the organization has faced. The remarkable women from the past solidified my own conviction that Miss America would endure in the future. And it was absolutely thrilling to see the signatures of my idols on the letter demanding the resignation of the board. These were the women who had inspired me and now they were taking action! I especially could not be more proud that our own Minnesota native, Gretchen Carlson, is now the new Chairwoman.
So as the Miss America Organization finds her new footing once again, let’s take a look at some of these former Miss America’s through the decades and see a slice of what their years brought. There is so much I could write about each woman but that would be a book. So I’ve chosen women from each decade that were interesting to me, to share a bit of their stories.
Photo from the collection of Allen "Boo" Pergament, Atlantic City historian.
Miss America Through the Decades
Part 1- The First 50 years
It all started with Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old high school student, who became the first Miss America by beating out 7 other contestants in the “Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest.” Margaret wore dark knee-high stockings and a chiffon bathing costume with a skirt down to her knees. It was her personal achievements in school and her extroverted personality that the judges noticed, as well as receiving the biggest audience applause (audience applause was half of the contest.)
Norma Smallwood becomes the first Miss America of Native American ancestry. She became a very popular poster girl reportedly making over $100,000 in appearances and product endorsements during her year, which was more than Babe Ruth made that year! This was an unimaginable sum of money for that time. After Miss America, she toured with the Orpheum Circuit for a period before settling down.
This was a pivotal year for Miss America, but not because of the woman who won, but because of the woman who stepped up to lead the Organization. Lenora Slaughter, Miss America’s only female Director, took over. Under her guidance she introduced the talent competition and would eventually came up with the idea of awarding scholarships as the prize. She also established rules for age and marital status, and she brought back the boardwalk parade, which drew an estimated crowd of 350,000 people. The Organization grew tremendously under her leadership over the next 33 years.
Venus Ramey, our first red-headed Miss America, was a great promoter of war bonds. At the age of 19, she went on a vaudeville tour and sold $5 million in war bonds. She was honored by the United States Treasury Department for her work and even got to meet First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Venus’s face was painted on the side of fighter planes and it was reported that these planes went on 68 raids and NEVER lost a man! Venus became a national celebrity and boosted US morale when we were at a losing point in the war. She is one of the first Miss Americas to use her title to make a difference through getting involved in political activity.
Bess Myerson is the first Jewish-American Miss America and the first winner of a Miss America scholarship. Because of anti-Jewish sentiment, Lenora Slaughter suggested Bess change her name to Beth Merrick, but Bess declined. Throughout Bess’s year she was the target of great anti-semitism and had far less appearances because of it. This put her into a position of working with the Anti-Defamation League and launching a speaking tour. She became a voice that might not have been heard had she not been Miss America. Bess courageously faced her foes with her motto “You can’t be beautiful and hate.”
Minnesota’s own Bebe Shopp was crowned at the age of 18, and is to this day our oldest living Miss America. She was the first Miss America to be crowned in her evening gown as previously, every former Miss America was crowned in a swimsuit. Bebe made national headlines her year when she denounced the new bikini craze that started in France. To this day, Bebe remains very active in the program and attends the national pageant every year.
This is the first year the Miss America pageant was nationally televised and Lee Meriwether wins the title of Miss America becoming a household name overnight. Lee went on the have a very successful career in TV and movies that has her still working today. She proves Miss America can set you up for continued success.
1955 is also the year the iconic song, “There She Is, Miss America” was debuted. Bert Parks sang it to Lee Meriwether upon her crowning. Also during this year, Miss America hit the one million dollar mark in scholarships awarded since 1945, 10 years earlier.
Stay tuned for the next 50 years!
Photo by Emily Stock, Tiger Lily Photography
Kathryn Rose Kueppers, Author