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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.”

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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 freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.