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What It Means to Hold the Miss USA Pageant During the Pandemic

A Q&A with Hilary Levey Friedman

Miss USA Preliminaries, 2011
Miss USA Preliminaries, 2011. Photo credit: Tim Kretschmann

The show must go on . . . even during COVID. Wait, what? The pandemic didn’t bring everything to a halt. As a surge of new cases reaches new peaks at the end of 2020, the Miss USA pageant was held last night, November 9, at the Exhibition Centre and the Soundstage at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. In years to come, it will become part of American feminist history as Hilary Levey Friedman writes about in Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America. What importance does the competition hold today, especially during our pandemic times? Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Levey Friedman to find out.

Christian Coleman: Why is Miss USA being held in person during the pandemic?

Hilary Levey Friedman: The simplest answer is that the organizers could make it happen, and the contestants wanted to compete (one exception is Miss Wyoming USA, who had to withdraw due to school obligations and her first runner-up stepped in a few days before the competition started). How could they make it happen? Endeavor, which owns Miss USA, also owns UFC and manages other sporting events, and they have been successfully organizing events since May. They were able to find a network and venue—FYI and Graceland respectively—where production and contestants could be safely housed together on a timeline that worked.

CC: This year’s Miss Utah USA, who identifies as bisexual, will be the first out LGBTQ contestant. Sexuality is an issue pageants have historically avoided. Do you think Miss USA is taking a step away from being one of the most heteronormative things a young woman could do?

HLF: Rachel Slawson is the first out LGBTQ contestant since 1952. Even if she wins, there’s still a long way to go to say participating in pageants is not an incredibly heteronormative activity. It’s worth noting Miss America has also only had one out contestant: Miss Missouri 2016 Erin O'Flaherty, who identifies as a lesbian. Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs did marry a woman in 2018, though she was not out when she won. The fact that I can list just three names shows there is much more work to do in terms of non-heterosexuality being embraced in national pageantry.

CC: This year’s Miss Hawaii USA, Samantha Neyland, is the first Black Miss Hawaii. She’s been using her title to get involved with a legislative coalition to make Hawaii recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, as Hawaii is one of four states that does not. How do you see her involvement with civic engagement and racial justice in the evolution of pageants being a pivotal starting point in developing political skills?

HLF: Here are but a few things politicians and pageant queens have in common: representing a locality and/or state, engaging in community issues, and speaking in front of others, whether it be a legislators, press, or a crowd (well, someday that will happen again!). Neyland’s advocacy is very of-the-moment, as is the work of many politicians, so there is that similarity as well. Of course, there are fewer rhinestones in politics, but not necessarily fewer power suits.

CC: Many contestants like Miss Utah USA and Miss Oklahoma USA have a major focus on mental health. Is this the first time contestants have brought attention to this issue at a pageant?

HLF: Mental health has long been a focus of pageants and contestants, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders to obsessive compulsive disorder. But both of these women, Rachel Slawson and Mariah Davis respectively, have been very open about their suicide attempts, which is a very personal and brave decision that hopefully gives others hope and inspiration.

CC: And finally, you said before that the three Ts of Miss USA are Talent, Tuition, and Tits (formerly Trump). With the contestants’ rising level of engagement with social issues (and policy!), do you see Miss USA busting its stereotypes and having more in common with Miss America pageants?

HLF: Given that Miss USA does not have a talent competition, that difference remains. Ditto scholarship: Miss USA awards a cash prize. However, I do agree that, in terms of providing a platform for these women to engage on social issues, there is convergence. This year, partly due to the pandemic, Miss USA more than doubled the length of the interview from three to seven minutes, which brings it closer to the ten-minute Miss America interview. I think that alone is indicative of the increased emphasis on advocacy within Miss USA.


About Hilary Levey Friedman 

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 hilaryleveyfriedman.com and on Twitter (@hleveyfriedman).