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How American pageants are turning politics into a beauty parade

In the US, beauty pageants are an increasingly popular way for young women to begin a career in public office.


Homecoming queen: Miss Iowa 2011 takes part in an Independence Day parade in her home state.
Photo: Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux/Eyevine

As she walked out into the glaring lights of the auditorium for the bikini round, Arielle Yuspeh could feel her sash slipping from her shoulder. By the time she reached centre stage, where the contestants slip off their sarongs and reveal their swimwear-clad bodies to the judges, it had come off completely and was tangled somewhere around her waist. With all eyes on her, she froze for a second or so, gave the judges a horrified grimace, then shrugged.

Back in the dressing room she allowed herself a single, loud exclamation – “Damn it!” – drawing disapproving glances from some of the other girls. Yuspeh knew she had lost, and felt oddly relieved. She couldn’t relax for long, though: she had only a few minutes in which to put her hair up and get dressed for the evening-gown round.

It was day one of the Miss Louisiana USA pageant at the Heymann Performing Arts Centre in Lafayette. Knowing she’d fluffed it, Yuspeh felt she could indulge in a snack. The organisers had provided backstage treats from the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A for the contestants, but less than a quarter of the girls touched the stuff.

Miss Louisiana USA was something of a homecoming for Yuspeh: her first pageant had been Miss Louisiana Teen at the age of 13. She remembers being turned off by the experience, and did not compete again for almost ten years, during which time she had moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles. When she went back to pageants at 23, she says, it was partly as a social experiment, to try to change the system from the inside. “I wanted to redefine what was womanly, what a beauty pageant was.” She says she then became immersed in the world of pageants. “I don’t think I understood before just how much they impacted society, both consciously and subconsciously. I wanted to impact the world.”

The ambitions of her fellow contestants weren’t as different from hers as you might think. Many said they wanted to be models or actresses, but plenty wanted to become TV reporters or news anchors. Yuspeh, whom I’ve known since just after she competed in Miss California USA two years ago, is more specific: she wants to go into politics. “As a journalist, or in campaigns at first,” she says. “Then – maybe – eventually as a candidate.”

She is not alone. It is becoming increas­ingly common for women in America to use beauty pageants as the springboard for a political career. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, blazed this trail (she famously came third in the Miss Alaska pageant in 1984) but many are following in her footsteps. Miss Vermont 2010, Caroline Bright, lost an election for the state senate in 2012 by fewer than 500 votes. Miss Arkansas 1994, Beth Ann Rankin, nearly managed to unseat the then incumbent Democrat, Mike Ross, in Arkansas’s fourth congressional district in 2010. Heather French Henry, Miss America 2000, is being considered to challenge Senator Mitch McConnell for his Kentucky seat, which is thought to be vulnerable to challenge in November.

Shelli Yoder, Miss Indiana 1992, lost a tight race in 2012 for her state’s ninth congressional district, also to an incum­bent Republican, Todd Young. Lauren Cheape, who took part in the Miss America 2012 contest as Miss Hawaii, won a seat in her state’s house of representatives at the last election and now serves as the state house minority whip. Teresa Benitez-Thompson, Miss Nevada 2002 and third runner-up for Miss America 2003, was elected to the state assembly in 2010 and is now the chairwoman of its committee on government affairs. The list goes on.

Hilary Levey Friedman, a Harvard socio­logist who studies beauty and competition, is writing a book about pageants’ role in American society. She argues that the changing nature of pageants is creating a new class of winners who will go into politics, “especially with the way the political system works these days”.

“Contestants and winners are developing particular skills that are transferable to the political arena,” Levey Friedman notes. “You can develop them elsewhere as well, but there’s an argument to be made that you can develop them more quickly and at an earlier age because you participate in Miss America.”

Erika Harold, who beat Teresa Benitez-Thompson to win the Miss America title in 2003, is now running in the primaries for Illinois’s 13th district against the incumbent Republican, Rodney Davis. She tells me that her experience as a pageant-winner served her well in getting into politics. “When you’re Miss America you have a bully pulpit for a year,” she says. “You travel the country, do interviews and gain the ear of people you wouldn’t usually get to connect with.

“You learn the ability to keep compo­sure,” she adds. “I think the ability to maintain composure and grace under pressure will serve me well in the campaign and debates.”

Levey Friedman feels that the intersection of pageants with politics reflects the modern political atmosphere in the US. “You have to look good on camera. You have to be able to be recorded at any moment. You have to be ready to live in infamy, go on YouTube, go viral. We are seeing more crossover into politics because of the types of women who are now being attracted to the pageant programme, but also it is because of the ‘politi-tainment’ of America today.”

Yet it is impossible to write off Harold, a mixed-race Harvard Law School graduate, as all style and no substance. When she was Miss America she drew fire from the press by using the title to campaign on controversial, conservative-leaning topics such as sexual abstinence. She is in a tough and scrappy primary race in Illinois this month, facing down a Republican establishment that is overwhelmingly white, male and resistant to change. If she succeeds she will face an even tougher election later on in the year against a strong Democratic contender. Harold has been on the receiving end of extraordinary abuse from members of her own party who resent her for running at all. In June, Jim Allen, a local GOP chairman and then member of Congressman Davis’s re-election team, distributed a viciously unpleasant and racist rant calling Harold a “street walker” and saying she would soon be “back in Shitcago” working for “some law firm that needs to meet their quota for minority hires”. When the email was made public a spokesman for Davis denounced the remarks and Allen was forced to resign as chairman, but Harold still faces an uphill struggle. However, she remains sanguine and optimistic. “Politics is certainly not for the faint of heart.”

Miss America started in 1921 as a way to improve tourism on the New Jersey coast in Atlantic City. According to the historical Encyclopedia of New Jersey, 100,000 people turned out on the local boardwalk to witness Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old from Washington, DC, named the “Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America”. She won the Golden Mermaid trophy and $100 in prize money, and when she returned in 1922 she was “draped in an American flag and called ‘Miss America’ ”. The pageant was born.

Today, pageants are huge global business. In the US there are two main franchises, Miss America and Miss USA, which run competitions from the national and state down to local level; there are countless small, independent and one-off events besides. Some are for specific communities, such as Miss Chinatown USA for Chinese Americans and Miss Latina US. Some of them support causes or groups: Miss Black Deaf America is organised by the National Black Deaf Advocates organisation, and Miss Earth United States requires its contestants to campaign for the environment.

Beverly Stoeltje, a professor of anthro­pology at Indiana University who also teaches gender studies, says that although American culture was founded on the rational principles of a republic, that left a yearning for something of the Old World. “We have these pageants, which crown these queens. In this culture, since we don’t have monarchs, we create them.”

America creates lots. A study in 2012 by the Columbus Dispatch found that 2.5 million women participate in roughly 100,000 beauty pageants in total in the US each year – a figure that does not include the equally vast child pageant industry. At the top of the pyramid are the Miss America and Miss USA Organisations, through each of which about 12,000 contestants pass every year.

It can be prohibitively expensive to enter the more prestigious contests. One of the aspiring beauty queens I saw in Lafayette – who didn’t win – was boasting backstage about her $6,000 evening gown. Another had had her dress custom-made. Some pageants carry an entry fee: Miss Louisiana USA charges $895 and some pageants in California demand as much as $2,000; but usually if a contestant has won a preliminary local competition, which most of the girls taking part have done, the organisers cover the fee.

On top of that, most contestants invest in pageant coaches to teach them how to walk, speak and present themselves in a way that the judges will like. Pageant coaching can run anything between $150 and $300 an hour, with immersive weekend courses costing even more.

But it can also pay off. When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America in Atlantic City in September, the scholarships she won totalled more than $50,000. Last year the Miss America Organisation made more than $45m in cash and scholarship assistance available. Miss USA – founded in 1950 by the Catalina swimwear company but now owned by the entrepreneur Donald Trump – has similar funds available.

That can be a huge draw, says Harvard’s Levey Friedman. “Even if you don’t win,” she says, “there’s a tremendous amount of money available, even at the state level. You can rack up a significant amount, to pay for education or pay off student loans. I have to add that you still have to put on high heels and walk around in a bikini. A lot of people take issue with that today.”

****

The pageant system didn’t intersect with politics at all until 1989, when the Miss America Organisation introduced the concept it calls “the platform”. Since then, contestants have been required to present a topic about which they care deeply; they are then judged on their passion and knowledge of it. If they win, they spend the year campaigning on that issue.

Today, the organisers of Miss America dislike other people referring to their event as a pageant. They consider themselves first and foremost as a scholarship programme. On top of the political platform, Miss America has a talent round. “These women are incredible ballerinas, opera singers, pianists,” Arielle Yuspeh says. “Unless you’ve been taking harp lessons since inception [sic], you can’t win. “But of course,” she concludes, “it’s still a beauty pageant.”

Courtney E Martin, the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection Is Harming Young Women, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last September that she accepted they could be a good source of scholarship funds for women with low incomes. But, she concluded in her piece, “Beauty pageants should die”: “. . . I’d rather live in a world where those same girls don’t have to learn how to walk in high heels to afford college”.

Professor Stoeltje is more specific. “While the ideal woman of ‘our community’ or ‘our country’ is expected to be intelligent, she is still expected to appeal to the males who will be looking at her, whistling at her,” she says. “She represents the embodiment of female power – restricted by male tastes.”

What’s more, Stoeltje observes, pageants, like politics, tap in to a competitiveness that is innate in the American cultural psyche. “I would argue that the pageant is a space of contestation . . . Pageants’ role today is to reflect the advances of women in society, that women can be empowered – but to say that women should continue to be seductive, and to be governed by the powers that be, who are generally male.”

As a former Miss America, Erika Harold doesn’t believe the competition does any more to encourage objectification of women than any other aspect of American culture, though she appreciates that some people might think it does, especially the swimsuit round.

“But I think anyone who’s ever partici­pated, or has really seen it, understands what a small part of the competition it really is,” she says. “It is certainly not the highest-scoring part.”

Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser of the University of Southern California Annen­berg, whose research interests include women’s studies, argues that Miss America reflects the country’s essentially conservative view of perfect womanhood: “It taps in to nationalist ideas about American femininity.” She believes pageants keep the definition of American femininity rigidly confined even as they try to update that definition to stay relevant. “In terms of the American national psyche, the normative definition of femininity remains white, straight, middle-class,” she says. “So [Miss America] widens the definition of white womanhood to include black women, or allow an Indian American to win, as long as she conforms to this normative ideal [of beauty]. It’s widening the definition but not in such a way as to allow that centre to be disrupted.”

Then there’s Trump, whose Miss USA is considerably less political-minded; it lacks both the “platform” and the talent round. Banet-Weiser calls it the “boobs and bounce pageant”. It sometimes has a seedier tone, too, from which Miss America winners such as Erika Harold are at pains to distance themselves. One pageant scout affiliated with Miss USA hit the headlines last year after a contestant accused him of trying to pressure her into giving him sexual favours.

Arielle Yuspeh is at pains to point out that this kind of thing is an exception rather than the rule. But she also says that although she loves pageantry, she believes it is going in the wrong direction. She was horrified when the international Miss Universe pageant, at which the winner of Miss USA competes, was held in Russia last year. “Pageantry is supposed to be about honourable, intelligent and beautiful women who compete for a temporary celebrity title in order to do good and influence the world in a positive way. Supporting Russia right now doesn’t quite fit that,” she says.

As she walked offstage in Lafayette with her sash tangled round her waist, Yuspeh knew she was done with pageants for good. “The experience has been great in many ways,” she says now, “but I feel it’s time to push forward.” She insists she has no regrets; despite her sash malfunction, last time around, Miss Louisiana USA was her favourite pageant yet.

“Now I need to focus on the things that are important to me, like charity work,” she tells me. She is organising a gala event for RAINN, a charity that campaigns against sexual abuse. After that, politics: Yuspeh is taking courses in broadcast journalism and wants to get involved in campaigning. “I’m trying to change the world around me,” she says. “There are a million things I want to do before I run for office.” 

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit