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.”