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The Racial Politics of Miss America

I remember the date, September 17, 1983. I was in high school. I had just gotten off work at the local grocery store in my hometown. Many teenagers had weekend jobs during these years. I was no exception. It was almost midnight. I had just gotten home and turned on the television. My parents were asleep. I turned to NBC to catch the end of the Miss America pageant. It was here where I saw legendary television host Gary Collins announce the second runner-up. She was a young White woman from Alabama. I was not surprised. Then he announced the first runner-up: Suzette Charles, Miss New Jersey. I was like “wow, she’s Black!” I immediately became glued to the television. A few minutes later, Collins announces “ladies and gentlemen, Miss America 1984 is … Vanessa Williams, Miss New York.” I was admittedly surprised. I sat in front of the television for several minutes and watched in silence as Ms. Williams took her walk down the runway. I was so astounded that I woke my parents up to tell them the news.


On January 30, 2010, another Black woman, Caressa Cameron, Miss Virginia, became the latest recipient of America’s most coveted pageant crown. Beginning in 2006, the pageant changed the date of the pageant from September to January. This same year, it also moved from its longtime home of Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Las Vegas. In September 1950, the Miss America Organization decided to postdate the year of the winner so that the titleholder would be able to serve for the majority of the actual year of her reign. Therefore, there is no Miss America 1950. Yolanda Betbeze is Miss America 1951.


While Cameron’s win in January 2010 did not elicit as much shock and surprise as Williams’ in 1983, it did make me (and I’m sure a number of other people of color) proud to see yet another Black woman win the Miss America title. Since 1983, eight African-American women have won the crown: Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984; Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984; Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990; Marjorie Judith Vincent, Miss America 1991; Kimberly Aiken, Miss America 1994; Erika Harold, Miss America 2003; Erica Dunlap, Miss America 2004; and, now, Ms. Cameron, Miss America 2010. That is an average of once every three years. This is quite remarkable given the fact that it was not until September 1970 that the first Black woman, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa, competed in the national contest. The pageant has also had one Asian American winner, Angela Perez Baraquio, representing Hawaii who became Miss America 2001. The number of Black contestants who have finished in the top five has been noteworthy as well. 


Observers of contemporary popular culture have provided a number of reasons for the considerable success of Black contestants. I have my own theories. By the 1990s, American society had began to actively embrace multiculturalism and diversity (at least publicly). Also a growing number (and percentage) of 18- to 24-year-olds were members of ethnic minority groups; thus, it would be reasonable that by this time a considerable number of women who competed in such pageants would be women of color.


Moreover, the credentials of pageant contestants since the late 1980s are considerably more impressive than they were prior to that time. By this point the Miss America Pageant, heavily critiqued by feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s, was determined to break way from the image of a kitschy, after-dinner event dominated by male judges and organizers that emphasized the physical attributes of the contestants while downplaying their intellectual abilities. Pageant officials now sought more well-rounded and, in particular, better educated contestants. In the case of some Black winners, this was particularly true. At the time of their respective pageants, Debbye Turner was four months shy of receiving her doctorate in veterinarian medicine from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Marjorie Vincent was in her final year of law school at Duke University. They were most likely the best educated contestants in their pageant competitions.


Although initially slow to recognize it, by the 1980s, corporate America came to the realization that African-American women drove an annual hundred-million-dollar-plus consumer market and that much of that spending was on clothes and cosmetics. Before long, we saw Queen Latifah, Halle Berry (herself a former beauty pageant contestant as the first runner-up at the Miss USA pageant in 1986), Gabrielle Union, Beyonce, and other Black celebrities as spokespersons for L’Oreal, Cover Girl, Revlon, Maybelline, Oil of Olay, Neutrogena and other products. Moreover, these and other Black women now regularly grace the covers of major women’s magazines such as Elle, Glamour, Vogue, Seventeen, Redbook and Vanity Fair. This new practice had intended and unintended consequences. Corporate America realized (and capitalized) on the knowledge that African-American women were just as aesthetically conscious as any other group of women and were willing to pay handsomely to reflect that ideal. Yet such changes in the public presentation of the image of Black beauty on the cover and in the pages of these magazines undoubtedly transformed in the minds of many Americans of all races the always highly subjective definition of beauty. No doubt, pageant judges and organizers noticed these related transformations and decided that it would be economically and politically wise to adopt a policy of racial inclusion.


Subtle changes in the organizational structure of the pageant also helped African-American contestants. Under intense criticism to revamp its image, many of the old guard who dominated the pageant for decades passed away or retired by the 1970s, making way for a newer, more culturally aware group of people who understood the importance of reaching outside its traditional fan base as crucial to the survival and success of the pageant. In an effort to appear relevant, the pageant resorted to a number of reality-television-like stunts such as confessional interviews, gossipy comments among contestants about one another, etc., to appeal to the 18- to 34-year-old television demographic. Pageant organizers took advantage of the fact that the Miss America Pageant was reality television at the moment reality television began to saturate American popular culture.


Pageant organizers also understood that the 18- to 34-year-old demographic that was most likely to view and support the program and purchase its advertised products was disproportionately biracial and multiracial. Moreover, Whites, who still dominate this demographic, have come of age in a post-segregated America and thus entertain ideas about race and beauty that contrast sharply with earlier generations of Americans. It would only make sense that such an audience would embrace ethnic pluralism and diversity. In short, they support contestants who look like them or are not alarmed by the prospect that some contestants do not share their racial background. By the 1980s the Miss America Pageant was different because America by that point was different.


Relatedly, the pageant, in an attempt to increase its audience appeal, ceased selecting relatively obscure and overwhelmingly White judges who were often well into middle age and were little known outside their professions and instead recruited major Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes, supermodels, talk show hosts, well-known TV actors, rap artists, etc., to serve as judges. Personalities as diverse as Rush Limbaugh and Vivica A. Fox, Debbie Allen and Chris Matthews, Delta Burke and Greta Van Susteren have all judged the national competition. These are people who are more likely to be worldlier, holistic, and even controversial in their thinking and decision-making, thus giving contestant selection an edginess unknown in the 1950s or even the 1970s. 


That a number of the judges in the post-1980 statewide and national contests have been African-American no doubt plays a role as well. Thus, all judges bring a mindset that says diversity is a characteristic they embrace or at the very least they are unwilling to reject. While we have yet to see a Latino Miss America, there is no doubt that we will before long. In fact, the rival Miss USA pageant has had seven Latino winners since 1985, in addition to several Black winners since 1990.


For the time being, the Miss America Pageant is no longer on mainstream television. It just finished up its three-year run on The Learning Channel (TLC). Where it will land next is anyone’s guess. However, it is an event that seems to have nine lives. It has survived the Great Depression, World War II, the feminist criticism hurled toward it during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, sex scandals and other related events that have buried other popular contests from earlier eras. It is resilient. If her press conference several weeks ago was any indication, Carissa Cameron will carry out her duties with admirable grace and class during her one-year reign. She will no doubt be a fantastic representative in carrying out the legacy of the Miss America Pageant for all women and especially for African-American women.   


Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).

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