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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.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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