On September 8, 1921 lovely young 16 year old Margaret Gorman won not one, but two beauty pageants on a visit to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Just a wisp of a girl, 108 pound soaking wet—if you didn’t count soggy pounds of the voluminous bathing suits of the era, Gorman had been declared queen of her home town Washington, D.C. where she was still an athletic school girl with a sparkling personality.
As Miss District of Columbia she had been invited to the sea side resort for the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant. While she was there she was also invited to compete in a rival event then known as the Inter-City Beauty Pageant. It was there that she was declared Inter-City Beauty, Amateur. The fledgling contest also had a new wrinkle, perfect of its beachfront home—a bathing beauty contest. She won that, too, and was proclaimed The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America and awarded the Mermaid Trophy.
Due to the diligence of some hard working flack, Miss Gorman’s picture was splattered on the front pages of newspapers up and down the east coast and the fledgling pageant was featured in newsreels shown in theaters around the country.
The local Atlantic City boosters who sponsored the contest were delighted and recognized that the beauty pageant could become a major draw for tourist dollars. They planned a second pageant for the next year.
Gorman was invited back in 1922 to defend her title. But there was a problem. Another girl had since been elected Miss D.C. Almost as an afterthought, pageant officials let her compete as the reigning Miss America. Despite being a favorite of both fans and photographers she does not win. Mary Katherine Campbell, Miss Columbus, Ohio unseated her.
Gorman returned to Washington and continued to compete successfully in other pageants and worked as a professional model. She married Victor Cahill and settled into a life as a fashionable Washington socialite. She died in her home town in 1990.
As for Campbell, she accomplished what Gorman could not, returning to take the title in 1923. She competed one more time in 1924, becoming First Runner Up after which the rules were changed to prevent competing for more than one year. She was also the last young woman to compete in a system where professional model, amateur, and bathing beauty winners competed for the Miss America Crown.
The pageant eventually took the name of its crowned winner. It had an up and down history, tainted by occasional scandals and changes in management. The contest was suspended for a few years in due to the Depression.
A few years later it was back in business and promoting a Hollywood screen test as one of its major prizes. Among girls competing was Dorothy Lamour who managed to get into films on her own.
The pageant didn’t really become the American institution most of us recognize until 1945 when the top prize became a $5,000 college scholarship and Bess Myerson, Miss New York became the first—and only—Jew wear the tiara.
In 1952 pageant co-sponsor Catalina Swimwear pulled out of the contest when the final announcement of the runners up and winners was conducted in evening gowns instead of bathing suits. The company set up a rival pageant program—Miss USA/Miss Universe which dispensed with Miss America’s Talent completion and emphasized for flesh in sexier bathing suits, eventually including rather modest bikini.
In 1955 annual national television broadcasts began and host Bert Parks crooned There She is, Miss America for the first time. The winner was Phyllis George of Kentucky who, like Myerson, would go on to a successful TV career.
Through the 50’s and into the 70’s the Miss America Pageant was annually the most popular show on television, beating events like The Oscars, and baseball’s World Series games in those days before the Super Bowl became an unofficial national holiday. The show promoted solidly conservative values and although scholarships were the prize, it was made clear that contestants had no career ambitions beyond marriage and raising a family.
Changes in cultural attitudes began to batter the pageant in the late. There were protests against exclusion of Black contestants. But it really drew the ire of Feminists who derided it as a meat market. There was a protest outside the contest in Atlantic City in 1967. The next tumultuous year, 1968 had an even bigger protest that attracted wide-spread attention. 400 protesters from the New York Radical Women crowned a sheep queen and trashed beauty products including make-up, false eyelashes, wigs, and bras. They wanted to burn the items in a barrel, but no permit could be obtained. Just the suggestion of a conflagration caused the press to proclaim the protestors bra burners and add a new pejorative to the American lexicon.
Although still hugely popular, producers began to fret that the pageant was losing its appeal to younger viewers. Before the 1980 pageant iconic host Parks was unceremoniously fired setting off wide spread protests led by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Despite the backlash, pageant officials stuck by their guns. Former Tarzan Ron Ely became the first of a string of hosts and co-hosts, none of whom were able to stem the tide. For the 70th anniversary in 1991, Parks was brought on by host Gary Collins to sing his famous anthem for the last time. A year later he was dead.
In 1984 Vanessa Williams finally became the first Black to win the pageant. But her reign was cut short when she was forced to resign after nude pictures from an earlier photo shoot appeared in Penthouse. Despite the scandal Williams has had perhaps the most successful post-Miss America career ever as a model, recording artist, actress, and business executive. Several other African-Americans have since won.
The pageant never really recovered from the Parks debacle and rating for the TV broadcast fell for several years despite increasingly frantic attempts to breathe new life into the franchise. After only 10 million households tuned in for the 2004 show, ABC dropped it like a hot potato.
Officials had to scramble to find a home on Country Music Television (CMT) and tinkered with the format. They also abandoned the pageant’s roots in Atlantic City for the glitzy casino glamor of Las Vegas. After only two years CMT declined to pick up its options through 2011.
After having to delay the traditional post-Labor Day program until January 2008 when TLC finally picked it up.
In the meantime the MissUSA/Miss Universe pageants had been picked up by Donald Trump who pumped them up with gaudy productions and lots of skin. Those shows remained popular draws. But several scandals and quirky selections of host cities—including for a time scenic Gary, Indiana for Miss USA have damaged that property. The Miss Universe Pageants decision to stick by production in Moscow despite systematic oppression of Gays, has drawn sharp criticism from activists.
By contrast the Miss America pageant where winners dedicate themselves to promoting personal “platforms” during their year long reign looks like a model of social responsibility. In 2010 the show returned to ABC where it has once again become a major ratings winner.
It’s come a long way from Margaret Gorman.