Early on in her breezy sweep through 100 years of the Miss America pageant, author Amy Argetsinger—a Washington Post style editor and former Beltway gossip columnist—makes a confession. She loves the pageant, she writes, “and I’m not going to apologize for it.” She’s gamed out the candidates with her girlfriends, rooted for her favorites, and traveled to the finals in Atlantic City.
Once upon a time, liking Miss America wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary—everybody watched it. Now hardly anyone does, and those who love it, who volunteer on the sprawling circuit of feeder pageants nationwide, really, really love it.
The story of Miss America is in fact two stories: one about a cultural behemoth that for decades seemed to actually represent something about womanhood and America, and the other about a weird, passionate subculture defiantly clinging to its tarnished crown.
Argetsinger interweaves these two stories, leading readers through the 2019 local and statewide season in Virginia, until, as fate would have it, Miss Virginia—a pharmacy student named Camille Schrier, whose talent performance involved pyrotechnic chemistry and who emphasized her identity as a “woman of science” throughout the contest—was crowned Miss America.
Bathing Suits to Bra Burning
Argetsinger conjures the shallow, spangled drama of state pageants—You’ll never believe what happened next!—without judging or sneering. But a certain sadness and strangeness still cling like hairspray to the whole process.
Even stranger, perhaps, is the story of the survival of this hucksterish American institution, from its founding in Atlantic City in the early 1920s through its Depression-era foundering and revival under the iron rule of Lenora Slaughter.
As head of the pageant for more than 30 years, Slaughter introduced talents and chaperones to the free-for-all beauty contest and enforced classist, racist rules. After its arrival on television, in the early 1950s, the pageant became an institution on a par with the Oscars and the Super Bowl.
In 1968, the feminist group New York Radical Women staged the protest that birthed the myth of “bra burning.” (Bras went into a trash can, not a bonfire.) In the decades since facing off with the feminists, the pageant has lurched unsteadily into the modern world.
In 1983, Miss America finally crowned its first Black winner, Vanessa Williams, who worked tirelessly for almost her whole year-long reign before Penthouse unearthed some early nude photos and the pageant pushed her to resign. (The pageant would eventually issue a public apology more than 30 years later, when it brought Williams back as a judge in 2015.)
In 2018, under the fraught leadership of Miss America 1989 and former Fox News star Gretchen Carlson, the pageant nixed the embarrassing swimsuit-and-heels portion, instead focusing on the contestants’ academic achievements and their advocacy of various causes. This change troubled a lot of pageant diehards, and Argetsinger herself is ambivalent about it.
The more the pageant’s glitzy, cheesy heart is dissected, it seems, the harder the whole thing is to hold together. (A cynic might wonder if a better way for America to support young women would be to simply fund their education, instead of tossing out scholarships based on their skill at belting out Barbra Streisand numbers.)
As Miss America struts, or stumbles, to its centennial, in September, the pageant’s declining audience has prompted big questions about its meaning, relevance, and future. Argetsinger’s upbeat approach skirts the existential hand-wringing to focus instead on the stories of the contestants. Her sympathetic ear brings forth candid, conflicted testimony from an array of former and almost Miss Americas, and she emphasizes the sisterhood and support that many of the women found—often years later—among other winners.
Other books have grappled more deeply with the power structures and cultural impact of the pageant, but few have done such a lively, clear-eyed job at evoking its pleasures.
Joanna Scutts is the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It