Beauty Queens

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Beauty Queens

From America's Favorite Pre-Teen to Miss Nude World, America offers a plethora of beauty contests and competitions for females, and the occasional male, to be crowned a beauty queen. In American Beauty, Lois Banner suggests that beauty queens illustrate the American ideals of social mobility and democracy: anyone can be a pageant winner and better herself, since anyone can enter a contest. Additionally, there is always another chance to win because new queens are crowned every year.

Beauty queens are chosen for every conceivable reason. Their role is to represent pageant sponsors as an icon and a spokesperson. Queens represent commodities like Miss Cotton; products like Miss Hawaiian Tropic [suntan lotion]; ethnic identity such as Miss Polish America; festivals and fairs such as the Tournament of Roses queen; sports like Miss Rodeo America; and geographic regions such as Miss Palm Springs, Miss Camden County, Miss Utah-USA, Mrs. America, and Miss World, among others. While the best known contests are for young women, there are competitions for almost everyone from grandmothers to babies. Specialized contests include Ms. Senior, Miss Large Lovely Lady, and Miss Beautiful Back. Although not as numerous, men's contests garner entrants of different ages also. Males can choose from the conventional masculine contests like the International Prince Pageant or drag contests such as Miss Camp America.

Early twentieth-century beauty queens were often referred to as bathing beauties. Their outdoor contests were held in Venice, California, Miami Beach, Florida, and Galveston, Texas, and other beach resorts as early as 1905. The contests were usually one of many competitions including comic contests for men dressed like women and contests for children. Early contenders were actresses and showgirls as well as amateurs in their teens. Without a hierarchy of lower contests, as there is today, to winnow down the number of participants (there could be over 300 entrants), sponsors regularly disqualified contestants for misrepresenting their marital status and the region they hailed from. Early contests in the United States invited foreign contestants, like Miss France, to vie for Queen of the Pageant or Beauty Queen of the Universe. Among these competitions is the most long-lived contest, the Miss America Pageant, which began in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1921.

The presentation of ethnic queens began as early as Miss America, whose court included Miss Indian America (who did not compete). Early ethnic contests include the Nisei Week Japanese Festival, which started in Los Angeles in 1935, and Miss Sepia for African American women, which began as early as 1944.

Beauty pageants and beauty queens have not always been popular. Until the late 1940s, when Miss America gained respect because the winners sold war bonds and won college scholarships, beauty queens were not generally well thought of by the majority of Americans. One congressman around 1915 wanted to create a federal law banning beauty contests. At the time, women who exhibited their bodies or wore makeup were considered daring, if not suspect. Other early protesters were religious and women's groups who issued decrees about how contests exploited young women for the profit of the organizers who, in almost all cases, were men. By the 1950s beauty pageants had become status quo.

Since the 1960s protesters have become more theatrical in showing how the contests objectify women. The Women's Liberation Front crowned a sheep as Miss America as part of an all day demonstration in 1968. Students elected a cow as homecoming queen at one college in the 1970s. In the 1980s protesters at a Miss California contest wore costumes of baloney, skirt steak, and hot dogs.

As beauty competitions gained respect, the ideal American girl became engraved in the American psyche. By the 1950s, when the Miss Universe contest began, the beauty queen was at her pinnacle: a stereotypically pretty, talented, politically conservative, WASP young woman who was more focused on marriage than a career. The contests floated through the 1960s until the Women's Liberation Movement made contestants and sponsors reflect on their values. By the 1970s a career and self-fulfillment were added to the qualities of a beauty queen. Well-known contests like Miss America and Miss USA also were slowly being racially integrated. By the 1980s and 1990s many African American women had won national titles in mixed competitions. Contestants with disabilities that did not affect their appearance, such as hearing impairment, were also not uncommon. In fact, conquering an impediment such as diabetes or sexual abuse was seen as a competition asset.

A service industry has grown up around pageantry, the term used to describe the beauty contest phenomenon, supplying clothing, cosmetic surgery, photography, music, jewelry, awards, makeup, instructional books and videos, and personal trainers. While early models and actor contestants may have had an edge on the amateurs because of experience performing, almost all modern beauty contestants train intensely to win. They take lessons on speaking, walking, applying makeup and hairdressing, as well as studying current events.

The prizes beauty queens win have not changed much since the 1920s. Among these are public exposure, crowns, cash, savings bonds, fur coats, jewelry, complete wardrobes, cosmetics, automobiles, and opportunities to model or act for television and film. Scholarships, a relatively new prize, were introduced in the 1940s by the Miss America Pageant. Since then, national beauty queens have spent a year on the road—selling war bonds, appearing at shopping center and sport event openings, and speaking to government, educational, and civic organizations such as the National Parent Teacher Association or American Lung Association, among other duties. State, national, and international winners like Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss Arkansas make paid appearances for their pageant and sponsors. National and international winners can earn over $200,000 during their year.

—ViBrina Coronado

Further Reading:

Banner, Lois. American Beauty. New York, Knopf, 1982.

Burwell, Barbara Peterson, and Polly Peterson Bowles, with fore-word by Bob Barker. Becoming a Beauty Queen. New York, Prentice Hall, 1987.

Cohen, Colleen Ballerino, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, editors. Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power. New York, Routledge, 1996.

Deford, Frank. There She Is—The Life and Times of Miss America. New York, Viking, 1971.

Goldman, William. "Part 3: The Miss America Contest or 'Do You Take Preparation H?"' Hype and Glory. New York, Villard Books, 1990, 189-298.

Morgan, Robin. "Women vs. the Miss America Pageant (1968)."The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968-1992. New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1992, 21-29.

Prewitt, Cheryl, with Kathryn Slattery. A Bright Shining Place. Garden City, New York, Doubleday-Galilee, 1981.

Savage, Candace. Beauty Queens: A Playful History. New York, Abbeville Press, 1998.