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There she is, Miss America — wearing a pantsuit and sensible shoes.
The nearly 100-year-old contest announced Tuesday that it’s taking the “beauty” out of “beauty pageant” by scrapping its skimpy bikinis and sparkly gowns, and no longer judging contestants on their looks.
“Who doesn’t want to be empowered, learn leadership skills and pay for college and be able to show the world who you are as a person from the inside of your soul?” Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of the Miss America Organization, told “Good Morning America.” “That’s what we’re judging them on now.”
Rather than strutting around in swimsuits, pageant hopefuls will now participate in a “live interactive session with the judges” where each participant will “highlight her achievements and goals in life.”
And instead of the evening-gown segment, contestants can now “outwardly express their self-confidence in evening attire of their choosing while discussing how they will advance their social-impact initiatives.”
The change comes months after the organization’s CEO and top executives resigned over leaked e-mails that revealed them making lewd and sexist comments about past winners.
But it also follows almost a century of controversy and debate over whether the pageant empowers or degrades women.
Former Miss New York and Miss America Mallory Hagan, whose weight and sex life were smeared in several of the leaked missives, says the changes were a long time coming.
“It’s shifting the focus to what it is that makes a Miss America, to what it is that she really does during her year of service, which is speak on an issue and interact with people,” said Hagan, who was crowned 2013 Miss America — the first of three consecutive Miss New Yorks to take the title, followed by Nina Davuluri and Kira Kazantsev.
But other Miss New Yorks say a pageant queen has to look the part. “I say stick with the program. It’s worked for almost a hundred years. It ain’t broke don’t fix it. And I don’t think it’s broken! At all!” said 1972 Miss New York Judith Graham, 65 — while also acknowledging that, “It ain’t just about jiggle and jangle.”
It is a divide that has existed since the pageant’s earliest days.
First created by Atlantic City businessmen in 1921 as a stunt to attract tourists to the New Jersey holiday hub over Labor Day weekend, the inaugural event saw six “Inter-City Beauties” strut the boardwalk in bathing costumes before a 100,000-strong crowd, according to the book “Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain.”
The first winner was Margaret Gorman, a blue-eyed blond-haired 16-year-old from Washington, DC, who wore knee-high stockings and a two-piece green, knee-length chiffon and sequined outfit — unlike other contestants, who breached beach rules by going bare-legged.
Within a few years, attendance had boomed — but it had also attracted protests from women’s groups and churches, critics whom 1924 winner Ruth Malcomson derided as “members of coffee klatches and mahjong clubs.”
After allegations of corruption in 1927, the pageant was largely shelved until 1935, when longtime director Lenora Slaughter first took the reins and set about transforming the event from a cornball seaside attraction to a family-friendly happening.
“I had to get Atlantic City to understand that it couldn’t just be a beauty contest,” Slaughter said in the 1995 book “Miss America: The Dream Lives On.”
She added the talent segment, evening gowns and college scholarships, and moved the whole thing to an indoor setting.
She also created a rule that all contestants must be “of the white race.” It was eliminated in 1940 — but the contest wouldn’t see a black contestants for decades afterward.
Still, it became a platform for progress in other ways.
In 1945, as World War II came to an end, New Yorker Bess Myerson faced down significant anti-Semitism to become the first Jewish winner.
Three of the pageant’s five sponsors pulled their support, while Slaughter advised her to use the surname “Merrick.” But the Bronx-born beauty didn’t back down.
“There were people that would come to the hotel where I was staying . . . and say, ‘I’m Jewish, and it’s just wonderful that you’re in this contest,’ ” Myerson recalled in the 2001 PBS documentary “Miss America,” adding that many had “numbers on their arms,” a reference to Nazi death-camp tattoos.
“[They said] you see this? You have to win. You have to show the world that we are not ugly.”
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