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Pageantry Culture Is Everywhere

A Q&A with Hilary Levey Friedman

Miss America contestants
Miss America contestants. Photo credit: skeeze

This year, Miss America, turns one hundred! Many predicted that pageants would disappear by the twenty-first century, yet they are still thriving. Why do they persist? In Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, Hilary Levey Friedman reveals the surprising ways they have been an empowering feminist tradition. Using her unique perspective as a NOW state president, daughter to Miss America 1970, sometimes pageant judge, and scholar, she traces their role in many of the feminist movement’s signature achievements, including bringing women into the public sphere, helping them become leaders in business and politics, providing increased educational opportunities, and giving them a voice in the age of #MeToo. In this Q&A, she tells us how she got interested in beauty pageants, how they are linked with feminism, and more. 

Q: What got you interested in beauty pageants?

A: I have never competed in a beauty pageant, but my mother was Miss America 1970, so pageants have always been a part of my life. My mom and I are different—for example, I am a bookworm and she was not the best of students—but studying pageants has been a way for me to think how our lives and generations are similar, yet different.

The way I got started studying beauty pageants was when I did a paper in a sociology class about why mothers enroll their young daughters in beauty pageants after the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. That paper turned into my senior thesis and started me down the path of writing about childhood, culture, and more!

Q: How are feminism and pageantry linked?

A: Pageants and feminism are inextricably linked. At key moments of the feminist movement, beauty contests have been right there. For example, in 1854, a few years after the Seneca Falls Convention, P. T. Barnum started the first commercial beauty contest. Even more telling, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and Miss America nearly share a (one hundredth!) birthday—and the pageant sash comes from the suffragist sash. Fast forward a few decades, and one of the events considered foundational to the establishment of Second Wave feminism took place outside of the Miss America pageant in 1968, selected as a site because of its cultural resonance. More recently, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has ignited a new wave of organized feminism and protests. Trump famously used to own Miss Universe/USA, and his behavior as owner was part of the campaign. Recall that at the end of the first presidential debate in 2016, Hillary Clinton brought up his treatment of Miss Universe 1996 Alicia Machado.

Q: I hadn’t thought about how pageants and politics are so connected! Can you tell me more?

A: Beauty contests have been a vehicle for business/showmen like Barnum and Trump, who turned to elected office later in life. But this makes sense given that there is definitely an element of pageantry in politics. Think of the elaborate ceremony of the party convention, or a State of the Union.

It used to be that many pageant winners wanted to marry a politician. Think of Miss America 1964 Donna Axum, who married the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives; or Miss America 1971 Phyllis George, who became the First Lady of Kentucky. Now many pageant winners want to be the politician. Several former Miss Americas have recently run for office. A few examples include:

  • Miss America 2000 Heather French Henry ran for Secretary of State in Kentucky in 2019
  • Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan ran for US Congress out of Alabama in 2018
  • Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap ran for Orlando City Commission in 2017
  • Miss America 2003 Erika Harold has also run for Congress and for Attorney General in Illinois in 2018.

Other state winners have won:

  • Miss Nevada 2002 Teresa Benitez-Thompson is currently the Majority Floor Leader in the Nevada Assembly
  • Miss Hawaii 2011 Lauren Cheape Matsumoto is the Minority Floor Leader in Hawaii’s State House of Representatives

When I have spoken to many of these women, they identify their pageant experiences as pivotal in developing political skills (like speaking to large groups or giving a media soundbite) along with civic engagement (like local parades or Rotary lunches).

Q: Wait, what is the difference between Miss America and Miss USA?

A: This is a common question! I sum up the difference between Miss America and Miss USA as the three “T”s: Talent, Tuition, and Tits (I used to say Trump). Miss America has the first two, Miss USA has the latter.

Miss USA was born from the Miss America pageant. Miss America 1951 Yolande Betbeze said that she would not do any appearances in her bathing suit, which displeased pageant sponsor Catalina, the swimsuit company. Beginning in the later 1930s, talent and education had emerged as priorities at Miss America under the aegis of the new Executive Director, Lenora Slaughter. Catalina, miffed by the change, determined to start its own event, which would place swimsuits, and hence the female form, front and center. In June 1952, the first Miss USA was crowned in Long Beach, California, followed by the first Miss Universe.

Q: How do stereotypes of beauty pageant contestants match up with reality?

A: A common stereotype of a pageant winner is that she is white, blonde, light-eyed, Christian, thin, and from a small Southern town. In my analysis of historical pageant program books, I find that most winners are, in fact, brunettes—though other stereotypes do hold up over time. One important distinction is that national pageant winners come from all over the country, while more contestants participate in Southern events. The reality is that, for most of the twentieth century, participating in a national beauty pageant, like Miss America or Miss USA, was quite simply one of the whitest and most ableist and heteronormative things a young woman could do. That profile has changed somewhat in the twenty-first century, but certain groups of women, like Latinx women and lesbians, remain underrepresented in major American beauty pageants.

Q: Do most Miss USA and Miss America contestants get their start in child beauty pageants?

A: In fact, they do not. The child beauty pageant circuit is quite separate from adult pageants, though a few child winners have gone on to win big. For example, Blaire Pancake, Miss Tennessee 2006, did many pageants as a child, as detailed in a 1994 Life article, and she also was one of the first MBAs to compete on the Miss America stage. Child pageants, in many ways, share more in common with competitive reality television shows—like So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Moms—and drag pageants, which also celebrate an exaggerated form of femininity. If you want to combine all these elements, watch some episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Pageant culture really is everywhere.


About the Author

Hilary Levey Friedman is a sociologist at Brown University, where she has taught a popular course titled “Beauty Pageants in American Society.” She is a leading researcher in pageantry, merging her mother’s past experiences as Miss America 1970 with her interests as a glitz- and glamour-loving sometime pageant judge, and a mentor to Miss America 2018. Friedman also serves as the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her first book, Playing to Win, focused on children’s competitive afterschool activities. Connect with her at and on Twitter (@hleveyfriedman).