- Miss America is a beauty pageant that has been around since 1921, where it started out as a bathing suit contest designed to attract tourists to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
- In the almost 100 years since, it has grown into a huge organisation that provides scholarships to women, and encourages female empowerment.
- The pageant has gone through many modifications, including network changes, location changes, and even the removal of the swimsuit portion.
- Visit Insider’s home page for more stories.
Miss America began in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There weren’t many rules (yet), and only a handful of women participated, but the pageant grew quickly. As the decades went by, it changed with the times – or didn’t, depending on your viewpoint.
It was first broadcast on radio, then on TV – in both black and white and colour. When it started, it only allowed white, unmarried women who had never had an abortion to compete. Today, it still has rigid guidelines about who can and can’t compete.
Keep scrolling to learn about the evolution of Miss America, and what the pageant looks like today.
Miss America first took place in September 1921, and was then known as the Inter-City Beauty Contest.
Back then, it was judged half based on applause, and half on the judges’ decisions. Contestants were also able to represent “key cities,” not just states.
The winner was chosen after a day of mingling with judges and audience members on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The very first Miss America winner, Margaret Gorman, was 16 years old and hailed from Washington, DC.
It was created in an attempt to keep tourists coming to Atlantic City after Labour Day.
Clearly, there was no shortage of interest. It was scandalous though – one contestant wore tights with her bathing suit, not bloomers, and it caused a commotion.
The pageant was so successful that it took place annually until 1927. The name was officially changed to Miss America in 1922.
The pageant was cancelled after 1927 due to “a combination of bad press and criticism from religious and women’s groups.”
The pageant organisers voted to shut it down, but agreed to return to the boardwalk in the future, once the Boardwalk Convention Centre was built.
While the pageant was shut down in 1927, it returned for a year in 1933, only to be shut down again. However, it returned for good in 1935.
When Miss America returned in 1933, it was without the outdoor parades and other attractions of years prior. Atlantic City hotels deemed the events too expensive to host during the Great Depression, skipping the event in 1934.
However, it returned in 1935, and has been held every year since.
Two new rules were established in 1938: contestants had to be between 18 and 28 years old, and the talent portion of the pageant became mandatory.
The talent portion was first introduced in 1935, but was optional at the time, only counting towards 25% of the contestants’ scores.
Another rule, added in 1938, limited the competition to single women – contestants couldn’t be married, divorced, or have had a marriage annulled if they wanted to compete.
The corporation behind the pageant officially changed its name from The Showman’s Variety Jubilee to The Miss America Pageant in 1941.
The rules were also amended to state that a contestant could not compete more than once, after the 1940 First Runner Up took the top honour at the 1941 pageant.
In 1945, under the leadership of Lenora S. Slaughter, the pageant began providing scholarships. Today, it’s known as the “world’s largest provider of scholarships for women.”
Slaughter served as the head of the organisation until her retirement in the ’60s.
The first — and only — Jewish winner, Bess Myerson, was crowned in 1945, right after the conclusion of World War II. She faced anti-Semitism, but used a nationwide tour to speak about the hate, with a platform called “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”
Pageant organisers told Myerson to change her last name to something that sounded less Jewish, but she refused. She also encountered many hotels with “No Jews” signs, so she decided to do something about it.
Myerson paired up with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish organisation focused on fighting anti-Semitism, and travelled across the country on a “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate” speaking tour.
In 1947, reflecting a change in fashion, contestants were required to wear two-piece swimsuits. They would be banned the next year.
This was also the last year in which the winner was crowned in her bathing suit – she’s been crowned in her evening gown since ’48.
The first Asian-American woman competed in the 1948 pageant. Yun Tau Zane represented Hawaii, which wasn’t officially a state yet.
Zane also won Miss Congeniality that year, which was introduced in 1939.
The Miss America title became post-dated by three months in 1950. So instead of the 1950 winner becoming Miss America 1950, she was crowned Miss America 1951. The practice is still in use today.
Due to this change, there technically was no Miss America 1950 – the title jumped from 1949 to 1951.
Yolande Betbeze was crowned Miss America 1951. She refused to pose in a bathing suit after her win, which infuriated Catalina Swimwear. They began planning their own pageant for 1952, which became Miss USA.
Catalina Swimwear was so offended by Betbeze’s refusal to wear their bathing suits that they pulled their sponsorship and created their own pageant, Miss USA. The first Miss USA was held in Long Beach, California, in 1952.
Miss USA winners go on to represent the US at Miss Universe, a worldwide beauty pageant.
The pageant was first televised in 1954 on ABC. Over 27 million people watched as Lee Meriwether, Miss California, was crowned.
ABC was the pageant’s home for many years, and Meriwether went on to become a successful actress, starring in shows like “Barnaby Jones” and “The Munsters Today,” and as Catwoman in the first “Batman” movie.
The next year, Bert Parks took over hosting duties. He would remain the host until 1979.
The first colorized broadcast took place in 1966.
Colour TVs were first sold in 1953, but they were too expensive for the average consumer. But by 1966, all three big broadcast channels were showing prime-time TV in colour.
By the late ’60s, people — women specifically — began protesting the pageants.
While the Miss America website puts a positive spin on the protests by saying that women protesters “used Miss America as a symbol for their fight, which encouraged even more change for the Miss America Organisation,” in reality, they were using Miss America as a symbol for everything that was wrong with America’s treatment of women at the time. A flyer advertising the protest called Miss America a “degrading, mindless-boob-girlie symbol.”
The idea of “bra-burning feminists” stems from this protest: it featured something called the Freedom Trash Can, in which women were encouraged to throw their bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, and issues of Cosmopolitan and other women’s magazines.
According to Snopes, bras were not specifically lit on fire – the garbage can holding everything was briefly on fire, but bras weren’t the only target.
Besides finding the pageant to be sexist, many Americans protested it because they believed it supported the Vietnam War.
The Miss America Organisation has always had strong ties to the armed forces – the Miss Americas of the ’40s sold a considerable amount of war bonds, and many finalists travelled to Vietnam throughout the ’60s (the first in 1967) and appeared at USO shows.
While shows finalists put on for armed forces in Vietnam were beloved there, they were criticised back home.
In August 1971, the Miss America USO Show embarked on a 22-day performance tour in Vietnam, amid growing resentment of the Vietnam War.
Miss America 1971 was the 50th Miss America pageant, and it celebrated its golden anniversary with a much-needed step towards diversity.
Up until 1971, contestants had always been white.
Cheryl Browne became Miss America’s first black contestant, representing Iowa in 1971.
It would be years before a black woman would win the title.
Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America in 1984. She received hate mail and death threats.
Williams revealed that she had gotten hate mail and threats after she was crowned.
A police officer in her home town of Millwood, New York, told the Washington Post that some of the threats were sent by the same man who “said more or less that he disliked blacks and that if he ever met Williams he’d throw acid in her face.”
Seven weeks before Williams’ official Miss America duties were complete, she resigned due to Penthouse Magazine publishing unauthorised nude photos of her. Many people believed she resigned due to pressure from the organisation.
Williams resigned in July, just a few weeks before her reign would have ended. After she was crowned, Penthouse Magazine announced that they would be releasing nude photos taken of her during the summer she worked at a modelling agency. The photographer, Thomas Chiapel, had promised that the photos would just show her silhouette, and that she’d be unidentifiable – a lie.
She resigned, most likely due to pressure from the organisation, according to Time.
Runner-up Suzette Charles replaced Williams, becoming the second black Miss America.
Charles enjoyed the shortest Miss America reign ever. She replaced Williams on July 23, 1984, and crowned her successor on September 9, 1984.
Later that year, Sharlene Wells was crowned the first foreign-born Miss America. She was born in Paraguay.
Wells was born in Paraguay, making her the first Miss America not born on American soil.
1985 was the last year that bust, waist, and hip measurements appeared in the event’s programs.
In a step towards focusing less on physical appearance, the pageant stopped putting contestants’ measurements in the program.
The ’90s saw winners become more invested in social justice causes — every winner was required to have a platform that they would speak about on their national speaking tour.
The winner of Miss America 1990, Debbye Turner, was the first to have an official platform, or a special cause to promote awareness of – she chose “Motivating Youth to Excellence.”
The rules regarding age changed again in 1993, for Miss America 1994 — now contestants had to be between 17 and 24 by the time of the national finals.
This age change was controversial. In 2014, Amanda Longacre, a former Miss Delaware sued the Miss America Organisation for unfairly disqualifying her. She claimed that she entered the competition fully disclosing her age, but was disqualified anyway for turning 25 in October 2014. Pageant rules state that the contestant cannot be older than 24, and cannot turn 25 by the end of the year.
She was replaced after only a few weeks as Miss Delaware, and lost her scholarship money. According to court documents, she was told by a senior official at the Miss Delaware Scholarship Organisation that they would make it up to her by throwing her a wine and cheese pajama party.
The pageant continued to become more progressive. In 1994, Heather Whitestone became the first Miss America with a disability.
Whitestone, deaf since she was a toddler, became the first Miss America with a disability in 1994.
Whitestone told ABC News that she knew she had won when she looked at her fellow finalist to see her reaction – the winner almost always cries, and Miss Virginia, Cullen Johnson, was dry-eyed and smiling.
The Miss America 1998 pageant allowed contestants to wear two-piece bathing suits for first time since 1947.
It’s hard to believe now, but bikinis were banned until 1997.
In 1998, Nicole Johnson won the Miss America 1999 crown, and became the first winner with diabetes. She also became the first contestant to publicise her insulin pump.
Johnson’s official platform was “Diabetes Awareness.” Since her days as Miss America she’s worked as a journalist and an international consultant and advocate for diabetes issues, helping to raise over $US26 million for diabetes research.
Johnson wasn’t just the first winner with diabetes, but the first winner with any type of life-threatening disease.
In 1999, then-CEO Robert Beck announced that the pageant would be getting rid of the rules that stated that contestants couldn’t be divorced or have had an abortion.
Beck changed the rule, which had been in place since 1950, after he was advised that forbidding divorced women, and women who have had an abortion or given birth to children that later died, might be in violation of New Jersey anti-discrimination laws. The new rules would state that the contestant was currently unmarried, and that she was not the natural or adoptive parent of any child.
This move was met with an extreme amount of backlash – the reigning Miss America, Nicole Johnson, expressed disappointment with the change, and many pageant officials at the state level were against it. The president of the Miss Kentucky pageant, Libby Taylor, even stated the new rules “strike at the very heart of the ideal that Miss America represents.”
The move garnered backlash, and Beck was fired two weeks after the announcement. The rule still stands — though Miss America claims that they “don’t ask” contestants if they have gotten abortions.
Beck was fired from the organisation after proposing the new rule. He had also made a troubling comment comparing the pageant to a horse race, implying that the talent portion is unimportant.
Broadly reached out to the Miss America Organisation to ask what their current stance is. They responded that “Miss America must be childless.” When further asked if women who had had abortions were allowed to compete, a spokesperson replied “We do not ask.”
In 2004, the last Miss America pageant was broadcast on ABC after record-low ratings. It returned to the station in 2011. It was also the last pageant held in Atlantic City until 2013.
Even though former CEO Robert Beck was chastised for implying that the talent portion was unimportant, just a few years later it was cut from the pageant’s broadcast. Instead, in order to save time, a pre-taped montage of the contestants performing their talents was shown.
ABC dropped the pageant in October 2004, and Atlantic City quickly followed suit in August of the next year – pageant officials claimed it was too expensive to put on the pageant there without ABC’s help.
The contest moved to Las Vegas, and was broadcast on CMT for Miss America 2006. It was held in January, making the competition and the year of the winners’ reign the same again — it hadn’t been that way since 1950.
CMT (Country Music Television) picked up the pageant in June 2005, citing shared core values.
The station pushed the pageant back by four months, holding it in January and making the pageant the same year as the title for the first time since 1950.
In 2008, the pageant changed TV stations once more, now being broadcast on TLC. It was struggling for relevance in the new millennium.
TLC (The Learning Channel) picked up the pageant in 2008, after low ratings on CMT. In order to bring the show into the 21st century, they also added an interactive component – a 16th finalist that was chosen by the audience at home.
In order to capitalise on the nation’s growing obsession with reality television, TLC aired a show called “Miss America: Reality Check.”
TLC is best known for its reality shows, like “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Little People, Big World,” and “Jon and Kate Plus 8.” So, of course, when they bought the rights to show Miss America, they decided to film the boot camp leading up to the pageant, turning it into a reality show.
The 2011 competition featured the first contestant with a gay rights platform, Miss New York 2010, Claire Buffie. She placed in the top 12.
Miss America is a generally conservative event, so a contestant – even though she was straight – choosing the platform of LGBT rights was a big deal. Buffie told the New York Daily News that she chose the issue “because my older sister, Sarah, is gay, and I have a lot of gay friends and a gay roommate.” She also added that they are “people that I care about so much and that I never want to see treated as second-class citizens.”
The pageant returned to its home network, ABC, in 2011 – but continued to be held in Las Vegas to appeal to a younger audience.
Miss Montana 2012, Alexis Wineman, competed in Miss America 2013 — she became the first contestant with autism.
According to her website, Wineman was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) when she was 11 years old.
Seven years later, she was representing the state of Montana at the Miss America 2013 pageant, making her the first contestant with autism, and just the third disabled contestant in the pageant’s history.
Miss America returned to Atlantic City in September 2013. Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, won the crown.
As a result of the move, Miss America 2013, Mallory Hagan, only served for nine months, before the Miss America 2014 pageant took place in September 2013.
Of the return to Atlantic City, CEO Art McMaster said “Sadly, this organisation went west for a while. That sadness is over. We are back to the city where the Miss America pageant began, where the Miss America pageant was raised, and where the Miss America pageant belongs.”
Davuluri quickly became the target of racism and xenophobia. An Indian-American woman, she was frequently misidentified as Middle Eastern or Muslim, and associated with terrorist organisations.
Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014, making her the first Indian-American woman to win – she even performed a Bollywood dance for her talent portion.
But once she was crowned, the internet exploded with racist comments, calling her “Miss Arab” and “Miss 7-11,” and accusing her of terrorism.
To her credit, Davuluri only said “I’m so happy this organisation has embraced diversity. I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America,” in a press conference after her win.
Another first in 2013 belongs to Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, who became the first contestant to show off her tattoos.
Vail has two visible tattoos: the Serenity Prayer down the right side of her abdomen, and the insignia for the U.S. Army Dental Corps on her left shoulder.
She explained to People that she was showing off her ink because “My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers. What a hypocrite I would be if I covered my ink. How can I tell other women to be fearless and true to themselves if I can’t do the same? I am who I am, tattoos and all.”
Thirty two years after her resignation, Vanessa Williams returned to the pageant in 2015 as head judge. She, and her mother, received a formal apology from the organisation for her treatment during the scandal.
Williams returned to the pageant decades after her resignation – and after a very successful career as a singer and actress.
“You have lived your life in grace and dignity, and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned,” CEO Sam Haskell told her on stage. “Though none of us currently in the organisation were involved then, on behalf of today’s organisation, I want to apologise to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams. I want to apologise for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be.”
Erin O’Flaherty, MIss Missouri 2016, competed in the 2017 pageant, making her the first openly gay contestant.
O’Flaherty came out during college, which was also when she started doing pageants. “I can’t tell you how many positive messages I get on a daily basis from people, and not only in the LGBT community,” she told the Washington Post.
While she didn’t win, her inclusion was a big leap for LGBT representation on the pageant circuit.
In December 2017, multiple high-ranking officials within the Miss America Organisation were terminated or resigned due to a leak of emails that contained insults, profanity, and other unprofessional comments.
After the leak – which included emails in which previous winners were called “c—s,” speculations as to how many sexual partners former Miss America Mallory Hagan had, and even a death wish for a previous winner – three top Miss America officials resigned in December 2017.
The three officials were CEO Sam Haskell, President Josh Randle, and Chairman Lynn Weidner. Their resignations came after many former Miss Americas banded together in an open letter calling for their removal.
Former Miss America Gretchen Carlson was appointed the new chairman of the organisation in January 2018 — she’s the first former winner to become chairman.
Carlson, Miss America 1989, was tapped to become the new chairman of the Miss America Organisation in January 2018, after the email scandal. She became the first Miss America to head up the board.
Carlson became famous for her appearances on Fox News, first on “Fox and Friends,” and then on her own show “The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson.” Once her contract expired in 2016, she filed a lawsuit accusing then-CEO and Fox chairman Roger Ailes of sexual harassment – dozens of women subsequently filed similar claims, and he was forced to resign.
Carlson’s history with the pageant, plus her early support of the #MeToo movement, made her a great candidate for the position.
She announced that the upcoming 2018 Miss America event would not include a swimsuit portion (a first for the event), and decreed that it be called a competition, not a pageant, and that the women would be called candidates, not contestants.
Carlson’s tenure began with some big changes to the competition – namely, getting rid of the swimsuit portion. She also announced that candidates would no longer be judged on their physical appearance. Reactions were mixed.
The swimsuit portion will be replaced by an interactive session with judges in which candidates can “highlight [their] achievements and goals in life and how [they] will use [their] talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America.”
The competition has been re-branded as Miss America 2.o. The talent portion has been bumped up significantly in terms of scoring – according to Pageant Planet, talent will account for 50% of candidates’ preliminary scores, and 30% of their final score.
The current Miss America, Cara Mund, recently openly voiced her displeasure with how she was treated by the Miss America Organisation during her tenure.
In an August 2018 letter addressed to former Miss Americas and posted on her personal Facebook page, Mund wrote that the organisation has “silenced me, reduced me, marginalised me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America.”
She alleged that she had been bullied repeatedly by Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper, that she had been silenced by the organisation, and that she was afraid to speak out due to fear of being fired.
The letter has garnered serious attention, and received a brief response from the Miss America Organisation: “The Miss America Organisation supports Cara. It is disappointing that she chose to air her grievances publicly not privately. Her letter contains mischaracterizations and many unfounded accusations. We are reaching out to her privately to address her concerns.”
The recent changes to the competition, plus Mund’s open letter, have led to turmoil within the organisation. So far, 46 state pageant organisers have called for Gretchen Carlson and Regina Hopper’s resignations.
The backlash to the removal of the swimsuit portion and to the alleged mistreatment of Mund was swift. According to AP, 46 of 51 (DC sends a representative) state pageant organisers have signed various letters calling for the resignation of Hopper and Carlson.
Former Miss Americas have also expressed their displeasure with the organisation. “There are no words in the English language that would suffice her justifying how this young lady’s been treated,” said Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984.
The Miss America 2019 competition aired live on ABC on September 9, 2018, from Atlantic City. The newest Miss America is Miss New York, Nia Imani Franklin.
Franklin became the newest Miss America, and the first Miss America that competed in what has been called “Miss America 2.0.”
In October 2018, the licenses of four states — Georgia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and a fourth unidentified state — were terminated, after many states banded together to call for the removal of Gretchen Carlson.
The nationwide disapproval for Carlson and her leadership has not gone unpunished. It was announced on October 9, 2018, that four states had their licenses terminated by the organisation, who threatened another 15 states with probation.
These four states can fire their current leadership and appeal the decision, or will be prohibited from competing in Miss America 2020 and have to return their scholarship money.
Carlson stepped down from her role as chairwoman of the Miss America organisation in June 2019.
- Read more:
- Miss America is scrapping its swimsuit competition – and some people aren’t on board
- The very first Miss America contest took place in 1921 – here’s what that first pageant was like
- 10 of the biggest beauty pageant scandals of all time
- 37 photos of Miss America winners being crowned through the years
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