Established in 1921 by local Atlantic City businessmen as a way to extend the summer season, The Miss America Organization has since grown to become one of the most recognizable household names in America.
Miss America remains a role model to young and old alike. Over the years, Miss America has continually made a difference in people’s lives through her charitable and community service endeavors, using her national platform to educate millions of Americans on important issues facing society.
Miss America is more than a title, it’s a movement of empowering young women everywhere to achieve their dreams by giving them a voice to inspire change and by honoring their commitment to helping others.
Decade in Review: 1920s
In September 1920, Atlantic City Businessmen staged a “Fall Frolic” to secure summer tourism past Labor Day. This city-wide festival was highlighted by a spectacular rolling chair parade down the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk.
By 1921, East Coast newspapers were looking for ways to increase their circulation. Newspaper organizations decided to sponsor photographic popularity contests from among their readership and awarded their respective winners with an all expense paid trip to the Second Annual Fall Frolic. Once there, frolic organizers placed the young women in an “Inter-City Beauty” contest in which the judging was largely based on their general appeal in appearance, personality, conversations with the judges, and interactions with the crowds. In order to build hype, the women were later put in the running for the Golden Mermaid trophy given to “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.” Margaret Gorman swept both events. By September 1922 she became known as “Miss America.” In the ensuing years it would grow and reflect some of the most powerfully held attitudes towards what it meant to be an ideal American woman.
The pageant was a product of its times. In the decades just prior to its creation, there was a marked transformation around women’s roles in society. The years from 1900 to 1920 were rich with expanding social, political and cultural activity for women. As America moved headlong from the Victorian to the modern age, a new image for women developed, symbolizing the changing times. According to leading magazines and periodicals of the time, the modern woman was vigorous. She exercised and was encouraged to eat right. This was an unprecedented break from the rigorously controlled physicality prescribed for the ideal 19th century woman, with its emphasis on delicacy and fragility.
The first pageant winner reflected these changes in attitude towards beauty. Margaret Gorman was girlish and wholesome-looking. She also bore a striking resemblance to silent screen star Mary Pickford, who was just achieving fame as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, noted in the New York Times, “She (Margaret Gorman) represents the type of womanhood America needs; strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of home-making and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country resides.”
Despite the best efforts of the pageant officials, the pageant gained a reputation for being a little risqué. Annual protests from women’s and religious groups questioned the morality of a beauty contest that featured bobbed hair and bare limbs. In 1928, the protestors won, and the pageant was discontinued as commercial supporters withdrew in response to accusations that the pageant lacked decorum.
September 25th: Atlantic City businessmen stage a “Fall Frolic” in order to attract tourists to the seasonal resort beyond the traditional end of summer, Labor Day. It was a modest success. Decisions were made to increase the number of scheduled public attractions and make it a two-day event the following year.
At a newspaper circulation manager’s meeting in Philadelphia, nine East Coast newspapers decided to hold photographic “popularity contests” from among their readerships to increase their circulations. Subsequent city finalists would be judged on personality and social graces during citywide summer events. They would become known as the Inter-City Beauties. Each individual winner’s prize would be an all expense paid trip to Atlantic City’s Second Annual Fall Frolic as an honored guest.
Jumping on the extra media attention the newspaper contests elicited, frolic organizers decided to include yet another event just for them: the “Inter-City Beauty” contest to be held September 7th. It was judged on 50 percent audience applause and 50 percent judges’ decision after a day of mingling with the contestants, and a final appearance on stage. Sixteen year-old Margaret Gorman, “Miss Washington, D.C.” (and a Mary Pickford look-a-like) would eventually win the Watkins Trophy in this event. She would also win a trophy for her appeance in the Boardwalk Parade noting her popularity with the crowds of parade-goers.
The next day, based on the popularity of the visiting Inter-City Beauties, they were also entered into the Bather’s Revue. They competed against the winners of “professional” and “amateur” ranks, representing over two hundred women, for the elusive Golden Mermaid. Riding on a wave of popularity from the previous day, Margaret Gorman won this event, too. Lesser awards to finalists include swimwear and trophies by designer Annette Kellerman, a woman widely known for her scandalous 1907 arrest for indecent exposure. While trying to popularize wearing a one-piece swimsuit with tights instead of the standard bloomers, Annette’s involvement raised many eyebrows.
Over fifty newspapers from across the country sent representatives to compete in the “Inter-City Beauty” contest. The event was extended to three days. With a new “Miss Washington D.C.” for 1922 already selected, Margaret Gorman received a new title, “Miss America”. She was expected to defend her numerous 1921 laurels as the returning champ. In the end, it was Mary Katherine Campbell, “Miss Columbus” (OH) who was selected to succeed Margaret.
Over seventy entrants competed. It was estimated that three hundred thousand people attended. The event had become so big, results of the prize-winners were later aired nationwide via radio. Although never before seen as a problem, concern arose over the fact that a leading contender for the “Miss” America title was a married woman. With no rule barring her participation, she finished as a runner up. But her inclusion fueled the fire started by women’s and religious groups against the competition as lacking in decorum. Mary Katherine Campbell successfully defended her title.
The Newspaper Publishers Association issued a bulletin advising its members to disassociate themselves with the pageant as it has supplied Atlantic City with “the most flagrant use of free publicity.” Not one paper backed out. In fact, even more newspapers sent representatives, and the new Pageant Director, General Armand T. Nichols, and his Board of Directors extended the event to five days.
Informal judge’s interviews continued as a part of judging in those early years to assess personality and intelligence. Judge’s Chairman and famed artist Howard Chandler Christy returned for his fourth straight year to serve in this capacity. Other notable 1924 judges included Norman Rockwell and Earl Carroll. Miss Boston was revealed to be married and placed in the professional division. She sued, but the pageant finally remembered to include a rule barring married women from competing for the Miss America crown. Ruth Malcomson, Miss Philadelphia (PA), would win the honor in a close race with Mary Katherine Campbell, while Miss San Diego, Fay Lanphier, finished third.
Early in the year, Ruth Malcomson, the 1924 winner, published a stinging article in Liberty Magazine blasting women’s groups (“members of coffee klatches and mah jong clubs”) for berating her involvement in the competition. She hinted that the women’s groups were exploiting her, not the pageant. Pageant organizers accepted a deal with Paramount Pictures to film “The American Venus” with the pageant as a backdrop and its winner assured a starring role. Ruth Malcomson refused to defend her title, claiming that “professionals” were now entering the “Inter-City” competitions. Rules were changed so that no former Miss America winner would be permitted back into the competition.
For the first time, Miss America received “live” radio coverage. Returning to the competition as “Miss California,” Fay Lanphier became Miss America 1925. Later that year, former judge Howard Chandler Christy unveiled a statue called “Miss America 1925.” It depicted “a Miss America” in the nude which bore a strong resemblance to Fay. Although he later confessed that Miss Lanphier never posed for him, public outrage became evident. In November, despite unsupportable evidence, The New York Graphic sold syndication rights of an article to eighty-six other newspapers that the 1925 pageant was fixed. The pageant sued for three million dollars, but the damage was done.
In January, “The American Venus” was unveiled to the American movie-going public. Filled with adult situations and nudity (although not involving Fay Lanphier or other contestants), the pageant’s image suffered. At the same time, Miss Lanphier embarked on a successful appearance tour, which would net her $50,000. Surprisingly, attendance at the 1926 pageant was better than ever.
In September, the first woman of Native American heritage, Tulsa’s Norma Smallwood, would win the crown. She was highly criticized in the press for her business acumen as she proceeded to make approximately $100,000 (an income higher than either Babe Ruth or the President of the United States) through personal appearance fees and product endorsements. Her romance with the son of a prominent Pittsburgh businessman was also highlighted unfavorably in the press.
In September, a situation with Norma Smallwood, the 1926 winner, would deal the pageant a public relations nightmare. She requested $600 from the pageant for her appearance in crowning the new winner. When pageant officials could not come up with the money forthright, she left the event to accept a paying job in North Carolina before crowing Illinois’ Lois Delander as Miss America 1927. Norma graciously tried to explain her actions, but the press and pageant’s stalwart critics had a field day.
Miss Delander, a high school student honoring in Latin and a previous award winner for reciting Biblical verses in her hometown of Joliet, was overwhelmed at being chosen the winner. However thankful, she spoke mostly of her worry in missing school, which had already begun back home. After turning down lucrative offers in show business after her reign, she returned quietly home with her parents to continue her studies.
March 3: Unfortunate happenings with the press and ever increasing pressure from women’s groups and church officials make pageant organizers fearful that the pageant was beginning to give the city a bad name. Despite a $7,000 profit on the 1927 event alone, they vote 27-3 to discontinue the famed Atlantic City Pageant. The blow was softened with an agreement to look into its return when the vast Boardwalk Convention Hall was opened in 1929 or 1930.
September 22: The New York Graphic printed its retraction that their sources for their November 1925 article on the pageant “proved unreliable.”
Boardwalk Convention Hall opened but no pageant was held. Instead, another organization in Maryland formed a ‘National Beauty Contest” to crown a Miss America. Amid controversy, Lilyan Andrus of Ohio would claim the title.
Decade in Review: 1930s
In 1933, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Some prominent Atlantic City businessmen finally decided to revive the pageant after being convinced they were missing out on valuable revenue by Armand T. Nichols, who directed the pageant from 1924-1927. The outdoor parades and other big attractions were left out due to the high cost that Depression Era businesses could not afford. Due to the lack of adequate publicity, the 1933 event was a financial disaster. The pageant was not revived in Atlantic City on secure financial footing until 1935.
Innovations to raise the pageant’s public image included the talent segment added to the competition in 1935 and the formation of the vast Hostess Committee. The committee was made up of prominent Atlantic City women.
Images of the beautiful women of the pageant began to permeate the culture through newsreels, newspaper coverage and journals. As the country moved toward the 1940s, Miss America was becoming a national figure.
Taking matters into his own hands, Pageant Director General of the 1920s, Armand T. Nichols, Atlantic City local and former Mayor’s secretary, attempted to convince city officials to bring back the fabled Atlantic City Pageant. Despite being in the throes of the Great Depression, he convinced the city it was losing out on valuable revenues for having abandoned it. He cited a successful event of a much smaller scale staged in Florida where a “Miss America’ (Tampa’s Margaret Ekdahl) was crowned. But, Atlantic City Hotelmen refused to endorse its return.
Isolated city pageants (newspaper sponsored) continued to crop up as Armand T. Nichols tried to redevelop contacts from the 1920s. But Atlantic City businessmen remained adamant in their decision not to stage the pageant.
Wildwood, New Jersey picks up the ball and stages a “Miss America” pageant. A petite brunette by the name of Dorothy Hann took the title as Miss Greater Camden (New Jersey). Although not nearly the scope of the 1920s events in Atlantic City, it is considered a success. Atlantic City gave Armand T. Nichols the green light to hold the pageant once again in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Convention Hall in September 1933.
Despite backing from the Mayor and the endorsements of other city officials, the Atlantic City Hotelmen still did not endorse the pageant as they had in the past. Thirty representatives took part, most wearing state titles. But gone were the outdoor parades and other attractions deemed too expensive to stage for Depression-era businesses. Prizes to the eventual winner (fifteen year old Miss Connecticut, Marian Bergeron) were also hard to come by.
After being named a winner in the “professional” class division, a defiant Miss New York City abruptly quit, charging the pageant wasn’t “on the up and up.” RKO, who had promised a screen test to the new Miss America, abruptly withdrew their support. Instead they awarded the screen test to Elsa Donath, Miss New York City, billing her as “the girl who turned down the title of Miss America.” She was also the contest winner RKO had helped sponsor at the Madison Square Garden preliminary where Miss New York City was chosen.
Miss Oklahoma suffered an appendicitis attack shortly after arrival. Miss Arkansas admitted she was married and other women from Iowa, Illinois, and Idaho were disqualified when their official residency papers didn’t arrive on time. This time both Atlantic City and Armand T. Nichols decided to lay Miss America quietly to rest.
In an ill-fated attempt to pick up the ball, Madison Square Garden sponsored a “Queen of American Beauty” contest. Helen Mack, of New York, was proclaimed the winner.
Steel Pier owner Frank P. Gravatt and associate Eddie Corcoran enlisted the help of the Variety Club of Philadelphia to bring back Miss America. The new contest would be called “The Showman’s Variety Jubilee.” Corcoran hired Lenora S. Slaughter from the St. Petersburg (Florida) Chamber of Commerce for a six-week stint that lasted thirty-two years. Her immediate goal was to build interest within Atlantic City itself.
The Boardwalk Parade was brought back with 350,000 people in attendance. The 1920s pageant mascot, “King Neptune,” also made a valiant return. Fifty-two contestants, representing eleven states and forty-one key cities, took part. The Hostess Committee was formed. Three nights of preliminary competitions were staged. Talent was added as a judged category with twenty-five percent of the total score included towards the selection of Miss America. Although not mandatory, contestants were encouraged to participate and about half of them displayed their talents. The others relied solely on their interviews with the judges and the scores received in evening wear and swimsuit competitions.
Thinking she would take a chance at singing and tap dancing to “Living in a Great Big Way”, Pittsburgh’s Henrietta Leaver took top honors. Scandal soon again appeared in November when noted Pittsburgh sculptor, Frank Vittor unveiled a nude statue he made of his model, Henrietta Leaver who was then Miss Pittsburgh. Henrietta declared that she wore a swimsuit at all times and that her grandmother was present for each session, but the press went wild with the story anyway. However, the profits from the 1935 pageant were enough to reduce its previous financial deficit of 1933 by $5,000.
The Showman’s Variety Jubilee is incorporated as a non-profit civic corporation of the State of New Jersey. Forty-six contestants took part in that year’s festivities. Additional events included an American Beauty Ball, Bicycle Parade, Boardwalk Float Parade, National Fashion Show, Naval Parade, and a Championship Ocean Swim. Philadelphia’s Rose Veronica Coyle won the 1936 Miss America title. The balance of the old pageant’s debt was paid in full.
Mrs. C.D. White, wife of the Atlantic City Mayor, accepted the invitation to serve as the first Chairman of the Hostess Committee. Also formed were: a Board of Directors, an Executive Board, a Finance Committee, and a General Committee. It was revealed that a leading contender, Phyllis Randall, Miss California, had a marriage annulled. She finished among the top five. Seventeen-year-old Bette Cooper, who entered the Miss Bertrand Island (NJ) Pageant on a dare, took the national title. For reasons still unknown, Bette quickly left Atlantic City and returned home the next morning before her press conference, which was elaborately staged on the Steel Pier.
The talent competition became a required element of competition. A rule that contestants were limited to single women, never married, never divorced nor having a marriage annulled was put in place. Another rule that contestants must be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight was instituted. Miss Ohio, Marilyn Meseke, a dancing school teacher became Miss America 1938. It was estimated that over 112 million moviegoers witnessed the crowning of Miss America through newsreel coverage.
Miss America of the “new era” received a cash prize when a hat company agreed to pay her $2000 to endorse its products. Miss Congeniality (Doris Coggins, Miss Mississippi) was named for the first time and Patricia Mary Donnelly, Miss Michigan, became the first woman of her state to win the title. The pageant was staged on the world famous Steel Pier for the last time.
Decade in Review: 1940s
During World War II, the pageant once again faced discontinuation, this time because of war. Pageant officials had to think quickly and adapt to the changing world around them.
Faced with the crisis of wartime, Miss America was transformed into an emblem of patriotism and national pride. The image of Miss America was connected to the war effort as the winners of those years sold more war bonds than any other public figures. Thus began the tradition of Miss America as a morale booster for American troops. In those years, the image of Miss America, with her small-town persona, youth and energy, was becoming enshrined in the nation’s imagination as America’s ideal woman.
Also during the 1940s, The Miss America Organization created the single most important innovation of its time – a scholarship program. 1945 was a year in which only 76,000 women graduated from college. Lenora S. Slaughter, Pageant Director from 1941 to 1967, continued innovations by adding more scholarships. When most of the country was concerned about returning GI’s and not about women getting a college education, The Miss America Organization appealed to American women as an organization that believed in women. Sponsoring scholarships changed the pageant dramatically, which with time, helped the organization become the country’s leading provider of educational scholarships for women.
Over 2,500 Atlantic City civic leaders rallied to support the enormous Boardwalk Convention Hall as the Pageant’s permanent new home. Additional events included: a Baby Parade, Navy Maneuvers, Mardi Gras, Fireworks, and a dance in the Boardwalk Convention Hall Ballroom. The Miss America sorority, Mu-Alpha-Sigma, was organized to include every woman who competed for the Miss America title in Atlantic City. In a close vote which took several hours to decide, Miss Philadelphia Frances Marie Burke took home honors in being named Miss America 1940.
The by-laws were amended to change the name of the corporation from The Showman’s Variety Jubilee to The Miss America Pageant. The judging system used at the National finals was hereafter required at all local and state pageants as well. Although not the only returning titleholder to come back to the competition, the 1940 First Runner Up Rosemary La Planche (Miss California), successfully took the national crown as an overwhelming favorite. The rules were amended so that no woman could compete for the title of Miss America more than once. Lenora S. Slaughter was named Executive Director. When the country enters into World War II in December 1941, Rosemary La Planche initiated a service endeavor that endeared Miss America to the American public by traveling with the U.S.O. and selling War Bonds.
The Air Force took over Boardwalk Convention Hall. The Miss America Pageant was threatened with closure until Lenora S. Slaughter secured the Warner Theater on the Boardwalk, with the help of Rose Coyle (Miss America 1936) and her husband Leonard Schlessinger (an executive with Warner Studios). Jo-Carroll Dennison became the first Texan to take the title. She and her twenty-nine fellow titleholders carried hope across the nation as they served in camps, hospitals, defense factories, U.S.O. Clubs, and Red Cross Canteens. Some even donned the uniforms of women in the armed forces.
While on a successful war bond tour with Miss America 1943 (California’s Jean Bartel), her college Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters at the University of Minnesota suggested a scholarship be given to Miss America. This planted a seed within the mind of Lenora S. Slaughter that took Miss America in a new direction within two years.
Miss Bartel was awarded a citation from the United States Treasury Department for her part in selling more Series E War Bonds than any other person in the United States. She traveled to 53 key cities within three months.
Kentucky-born Venus Ramey entered the pageant representing the District of Columbia, and was the first red head to win the title. She entertained in service camps, sold war bonds and toured in Vaudeville. In addition to a citation from the United States Treasury Department for her work in the War Bond effort, Venus Ramey’s picture was painted on the side of fighter planes. These planes made sixty-eight raids over war torn Germany, and never lost a man. At a time when it seemed the country was losing the war, this story made the Associated Press and built a nation’s morale. Miss America was seen as a political activist for the first time, as Venus worked with Senator Kaper of Kansas and Congressman Somner of Missouri in publishing their bills to gain suffrage for the District of Columbia.
New York City’s Bess Myerson became the Miss America to receive the Pageant’s first $5000 college scholarship (original scholarship patrons were: Joseph Bancroft and Sons, Catalina Swimwear, F.W. Fitch Company and the Sandy Valley Grocery Co.). She was the first post-war Miss America, the first college graduate to win the title, and the first Jewish-American winner. While on a Victory Bond Tour, she became the target of anti-semitism and embarked on a school tour with the motto, “You Can’t Be Beautiful And Hate.”
The Miss America Pageant returned to Boardwalk Convention Hall. The scholarship fund increased to $25,000 to be shared by Miss America (California’s Marilyn Buferd) and the remaining fifteen finalists. The term “bathing suit” was officially replaced with “swimsuit.”
The contestants were judged in an “official” fourth category of Intellect and Personality based on judge’s interviews. Although always interviewed in previous years, this was the first time it was included on the official ballot. 1947 was the first time that the Miss America contestants wore two-piece swimsuits in competition. State and local competitions began to award scholarships to contestants and Miss Memphis, Barbara Jo Walker, became the last Miss America to win representing a city. At the pageant, she declared to the judges, “I’m only interested in one contract, the marriage contract.” True to her word, she married in June of her year as Miss America. Barbara Jo was the last Miss America to be crowned in a swimsuit.
Minnesota’s Bebe Shopp became the first Miss America since 1935 to be crowned in an evening gown. She also became the first Miss America to tour Europe during her year as Miss America. Miss Hawaii, Yun Tau Zane, became the first Asian American to compete for the title and won the first college scholarship awarded to Miss Congeniality.
Animal acts were banned from the talent competition after Miss Montana Carol Fraser’s horse nearly fell into the orchestra pit. Arizona’s Jacque Mercer captured the title.
Decade in Review: 1950s
1950 marked the start of post-dating the title. In September 1950, Miss Alabama, Yolande Betbeze, was crowned “Miss America 1951.” Post-dating the title continued until September 2004 when Deidre Downs was crowned Miss America 2005. Jennifer Berry, Miss America 2006, was crowned in January of that year.
With television taking the country by storm, the advent of a pageant telecast caught the imagination of the American public. For the first time, The Miss America Pageant came into people’s homes. The annual program provided a kind of entertainment never before experienced nationally. It seemed that the women onstage embodied the dreams of every young girl.
The first broadcast in 1954 joined the program in progress at 10:30 p.m. and broke viewing records from coast to coast. Twenty-seven million Americans watched the crowning of their new Miss America. Television had discovered a new entertainment form and Miss America took her place alongside other media images that seemed to define America to the world. It has been one of the most highly rated television entertainment programs featuring women every year since then.
By the end of the 1950s, Miss America had become an international symbol of the ideal young woman. For many, their earliest memories of television are of Bert Parks surrounded by intelligent, talented and beautiful young women vying for the crown.
At the urging of past winners, the Miss America title became post-dated by three months thus eliminating a Miss America 1950. It promoted her marketability for her entire year of service. Yolande Betbeze was the first post-dated Miss America when, as Miss Alabama 1950, she became Miss America 1951. After winning the title, Miss Betbeze refused to pose in a swimsuit, which infuriated Catalina Swimwear, a major sponsor. Lenora Slaughter and the Board of Directors stood behind Yolande’s decision, and Catalina Swimwear withdrew their support of The Miss America Pageant and began plans to start “Miss Universe” in 1952.
The Board of Directors prohibited a current Miss America from marrying during her year of service. The number of semi-finalists announced during final competition dropped from fifteen to ten to accommodate early deadlines of newspapers recording the event for the next day’s editions. Scholarships were still awarded to contestants placing eleven to fifteen. Organizers decided to take those funds in later years to give more women educational rewards through the Miss America competition. Future film star Anita Ekberg, as Miss Sweden, was invited as a special guest and received Hollywood offers galore. Colleen Hutchins, Miss Utah, was crowned Miss America 1952.
The seed money from previous contestants placing eleven through fifteen enabled pageant organizers to build upon their goal of presenting every young woman competing in Atlantic City a college scholarship for the very first time. Neva Jane Langley became the first Georgia representative to win the title. During the last month of her tenure, she was asked to “break in” Mary Korey as Miss America’s first year-long traveling companion. Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe served as Parade Grand Marshall.
A large majority of local and state pageants were now being run by Junior and Senior Chambers of Commerce, civic and service clubs. State and Local Preliminary competitions awarded over $100,000 in scholarships in addition to the National Scholarship fund in Atlantic City, making The Miss America Pageant the largest scholarship foundation for women in the world. Pennsylvania’s Evelyn Ay, Miss America 1954, became the last Miss America not crowned on live television.
The Philco Corporation and the ABC network televised the first live Miss America broadcast on Saturday, September 11th. Twenty seven million viewers from coast to coast shared the thrills of the Boardwalk Hall audience as they watched from their own homes as California’s Lee Meriwether captured the title for 1955. Bob Russell was the emcee. For the first time, the pageant also featured it’s first “Illuminated Night Parade” down the Boardwalk.
Popular Miss America host Bert Parks made his debut. “There She Is, Miss America” (the pageant theme song) was first introduced by singer Johnny Desmond on a Philco Playhouse production, which starred Lee Meriwether. Long-time musical director Glenn Osser also made his debut. Representing Colorado, Miss America 1956 Sharon Kay Ritchie became the first Miss America to be crowned with the style of crown we are familiar with today. On it’s tenth anniversary, The Miss America Scholarship Foundation reached the one million dollar mark in scholarships awarded to young American women.
A Governors’ Conference was held in Atlantic City in June. A beautiful program of Pageant entertainment was presented to the wives of the visiting politicians. This provided a splendid opportunity to enlighten our state-governing officials about the real purpose and vast educational program of the pageant. A more comprehensive as well as appreciative attitude resulted toward all State Pageant Committees. Forty million television viewers watched Marian McKnight of Manning, South Carolina become Miss America 1957. She imitated Marilyn Monroe in the talent competition. Upon her victory, her town of 2,775 people went into action. All entrances and exits to the town were blocked by the Fire Department. All travelers were stopped, served refreshments and invited to join in the celebration.
Six additional $1000 scholarships were awarded to non-finalists displaying exceptional talent. The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD accepted an invitation to send Midshipmen to Atlantic City to escort the contestants to the Coronation Ball. Marilyn Van Derber, Miss Colorado, became Miss America 1958 before a television audience of fifty million viewers.
The telecast increased from one and a half hours to two hours. Every state titleholder was assured of at least a $1000 scholarship at their respective state pageants before arriving in Atlantic City for the Miss America finals. Miss America’s scholarship was raised to $10,000. The television audience increased to sixty million viewers as Mississippi’s Mary Ann Mobley became Miss America 1959, a first for her state.
Two significant events occurred for the first time in Miss America history. First, the Parade was televised live in its entirety. And second, every state in the Union was represented at the National Finals. Seventy-five million viewers watched Mississippi’s Mary Ann Mobley crown Mississippi’s Lynda Lee Mead, Miss America 1960. A quarter of a million dollars in scholarships were awarded on the local and state levels alone.
Decade in Review: 1960s
The 1960s were once again a time of redefinition for The Miss America Organization, as well as for American society. Despite that, television ratings continued to soar and in 1966 the first color broadcast hit the airways.
But soon, the country’s attention began to focus on our involvement in the Vietnam War. As a result, American society experienced a major political upheaval. It became apparent that there was a need for Miss America’s role to expand even more. Although the pageant was heavily criticized for the 1967 launch of the ‘Miss America U.S.O. Troupes’ into Vietnam and around the world, The Miss America Organization to this day maintains its support of the US Armed Forces.
By 1968, Feminists stormed the boardwalk in Atlantic City in their crusade for equal rights. They used Miss America as a symbol for their fight which encouraged even more change for The Miss America Organization.
Fifteen hundred contestants (since the pageant was resurrected in 1935) were invited back to Atlantic City for the Fortieth Royal Reunion Pageant in September with its theme of “Cinderella.” The famed Jacque D’Amboise of the New York City Ballet portrayed Prince Charming. Talent scoring in the 1960 local, state, and national pageants doubled the amounts accorded for the evening wear and swimsuit competitions. Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921, was the Grand Marshall of the Parade as she rode in a float made of 30,000 roses. Eighty-five million viewers tuned in to see Michigan’s Nancy Fleming become Miss America 1961.
The Miss Atlantic City competition to select an Official Hostess for the National Finalists was discontinued. Absecon Island residents for the first time were eligible to compete in a local preliminary, which led to The Miss America Pageant finals. State winners no longer met with judges at breakfast conferences. Instead, one-third of the contestants met with them in groups of three in the afternoon prior to their appearance in the evening wear competition each night.
Cash scholarships for all non-finalists were raised from $100 to $200. The Coronation Ball staged annually on Saturday at midnight as the climax of Pageant week was discontinued. A magnificent awards luncheon was inaugurated and held on Sunday following the crowning of Miss America. A staging competition between Local and State Pageants was held with winners receiving cash prize incentives. As a result of the competition, a new staging manual was produced to aid all preliminary pageants in their productions for 1962. Asheville, North Carolina’s Maria Fletcher was crowned Miss America 1962. Her overseas tour included visits to 31 Army hospitals and Servicemen’s Clubs. In November, Al Marks Jr. was elected President of The Miss America Pageant.
For the first time, contestants received a wardrobe allowance from the national level prior to their appearance in Atlantic City. Miss Ohio Jacquelyn Jeanne Mayer was named Miss America 1963.
Miss America 1964 (Donna Axum representing Arkansas) and her first runner up both sang the same song. Rules were changed that a song may only be used once in the same performance genre at the national finals. Five state pageants were televised for the first time. For the first time, the Miss America telecast was broadcast live in all U.S. time zones instead of taped repeats in the Western most states. Non-finalist scholarships were raised from $200 to $300.
In an attempt to make Miss America solely an all-state event, key city representation was discontinued. Arizona’s Vonda Van Dyke won the 1965 Miss America title, and became the only Miss America to also be named Miss Congeniality. Scholarships awarded since 1945 surpass the $5 million mark.
The judges’ panel included Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford. Kansas acquired its first Miss America as Deborah Bryant won the title for 1966. State and local pageants reached the one-half million dollar mark in annual scholarship funds made available to contestants.
It was the first color telecast of The Miss America Pageant. Oklahoma’s Jane Jayroe conducted the Miss America orchestra as part of her talent presentation to take the 1967 title. National non-finalist scholarships were raised from $300 to $400.
Lenora S. Slaughter retired as Executive Director. The first Miss America USO troupe entertained our servicemen and women at the front lines and in camps and hospitals in Vietnam. Betty Buckley (Miss Fort Worth 1966) who later went on to become a film, television and Tony Award winning actress, as well as a recording artist, received her first national exposure on the telecast. Debra Barnes, of Kansas, becomes Miss America 1968.
Feminists staged a protest outside Boardwalk Hall, which drew national attention that “kicked off” the second wave of feminism. Scholarship awards at the national level were raised by over $10,000. A Junior National Trampoline Champion, Judith Ford, Miss Illinois, thrilled the audience and won the 1969 title.
Miss America 1970, Michigan’s Pamela Eldred, became the first ballerina to win the title. Feminist protests continued and the telecast was nearly interrupted. But as the decade came to a close, nearly $7 million dollars in scholarships for women had been awarded since 1945.
Decade in Review: 1970s
The 50th Anniversary in 1970 saw a rise in television ratings, but people were still questioning the relevance of Miss America. By 1974, a law student crowned a doctorate student. The groundwork for the modern Miss America – a sophisticated, eloquent, well-educated public figure – was sealed. Not only were contestants becoming more interested in gaining a good education, they also saw Miss America as a means to success. As the momentum of the women’s movement grew, the women of Miss America were increasingly turning their attention to professional goals.
Miss America celebrated its Golden Anniversary. Annual scholarships awarded through local, state and national competition reached $750,000. Cheryl Adrienne Browne of Iowa became the first African-American woman to compete for the Miss America title in Atlantic City. The Allman Medical Scholarship Foundation was initiated. Miss America 1970 Pamela Eldred crowned Phyllis George, Miss Texas, as Miss America 1971.
In August 1971, the fifth Miss America USO Show performed a 22-day tour of Vietnam. In September, Miss Ohio Laurel Schaefer was crowned Miss America 1972. Annual scholarship totals reached $850,000.
Two Miss America USO tours were formed: Asian and European. Total scholarships awarded since 1945 surpassed the $10 million dollar mark. Wisconsin’s own Terry Meeuwsen won the title of Miss America 1973, wearing a much-publicized American POW bracelet.
Colorado’s Rebecca King, Miss America 1974, shocked the nation when she admitted she entered for the scholarship money. Rebecca received nationwide publicity during her tenure for her pro-choice stance while a country was torn over the Roe vs. Wade issue. She became the first Miss America to use her scholarship funds to attend and graduate from law school.
NOW (National Organization of Women) held its annual convention in Atlantic City during pageant week. Rebecca King, Miss America 1974 was invited to speak. At the conclusion of pageant week, Rebecca crowned 21-year-old doctoral candidate Shirley Cothran of Texas as Miss America 1975.
Regarding the NOW convention, Shirley was quoted in The New York Times as saying “I respect what they are doing, and hope they can respect me for what I’m doing. Until I get married I prefer ‘Miss’ Cothran rather than ‘Ms’.” The “Miss America” robe and “Miss America” sash were abandoned at end of the Saturday night finals. Scholarships available at the local, state and national levels reached $1 million annually.
Playing her own piano composition, “Images in Pastels,” Miss New York Tawny Godin became Miss America 1976. She was majoring in linguistics at Skidmore College and was fluent in Spanish, and conversant in German, Latin, Greek and Russian.
Deborah Lipford, Miss Delaware, became the first African-American to make the top ten semi-finalists. The Miss America troupe sponsored by the USO and the Department of Defense traveled to the Mediterranean area on land and aboard aircraft carriers. Minnesota’s Dorothy Benham won the 1977 Miss America title.
Singing a Billie Holiday standard, Susan Perkins (Miss Ohio), a speechwriter for the Ohio State Republican Caucus, won the title for 1978.
The 15th Miss America USO troupe performed at US bases in Italy, Crete, Turkey and Greece. Virginia’s first Miss America was crowned when Kylene Barker became Miss America 1979 wearing fashions she made herself. The Miss America telecast celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary.
Scholarships available at the local, state and national levels totaled $2 million dollars annually. Crowned by 1979’s Kylene Barker, Miss Mississippi Cheryl Prewitt was awarded the 1980 Miss America title. Eleven years prior to victory, after a near fatal car accident, Cheryl was told she’d never walk again. Her story made national headlines. Bert Parks celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as pageant emcee. It would be his last appearance at the pageant until September 1990.
Decade in Review: 1980s
In the 1980s, Miss America maintained its prominence and popularity in a world that was quickly finding the competition less relevant. The decade witnessed the crowning of the first African-American woman, Vanessa Williams, and later that year also witnessed her resignation. This decade became a turning point in the evolution of the pageant’s history.
The contract of popular host Bert Parks was not renewed. Public outcry for his return was even featured in a “Bring Back Bert” campaign on The Tonight Show. Ultimately, Bert was replaced by actor Ron Ely. Cheryl Prewitt, Miss America 1980, led the 18th annual USO tour to Korea and Navy ships stationed in the Indian Ocean. Doris Janell Hayes (Miss Washington) and Lencola Sullivan (Miss Arkansas) became the first African-American women to win preliminary awards in Atlantic City. Miss Sullivan became the first African-American to place among the Top Five. Susan Powell, Miss Oklahoma is named Miss America 1981. At the local, state and national competitions over $2 million in scholarship funding was awarded.
On the 40th anniversary of the USO, the Miss America troupe performed in the Mediterranean, Germany and Iceland. In a gown fashioned from her grandmother’s lace tablecloth, Elizabeth Ward, representing Arkansas, was crowned Miss America 1982.
Ron Ely was replaced by actor Gary Collins as pageant host. Debra Sue Maffett, representing California, was crowned Miss America 1983.
Vanessa Williams (Miss New York) became the first African-American woman to win the title when she was named Miss America 1984. Annual scholarship funds rose to $2.5 million dollars.
July 23: Vanessa Williams resigned the 1984 title before questionable photos of her appeared in print. She was replaced by New Jersey’s Suzette Charles (the first runner up) who became the second African-American woman to wear the crown.
Sharlene Wells, Miss Utah, won the 1985 title in September. Born in Paraguay, she was the first Miss America not born on American soil. Local, state, and national scholarship funds reached the $4 million dollar mark. The District of Columbia sent a representative for the first time since 1963.
Bust, waist, and hip measurements appeared for the last time in the pageant’s program book. Susan Diane Akin became Mississippi’s fourth Miss America (1986).
For the first time since 1982, Gillette sponsored a Miss America troupe featuring nine state titleholders. Representing Tennessee, Kellye Cash won the 1987 Miss America title. Annually, at least $5 million dollars in scholarships funds were awarded at the three levels of competition nationwide.
The first Registered Nurse won the Miss America title when Michigan’s Kaye Lani Rae Rafko was named Miss America 1988. She elected to spend much of her tenure promoting the nursing profession and hospice care, which drew national attention. Her example would spawn official platform requirements for all contestants two years later. Al Marks retired as CEO and was replaced by Leonard Horn.
Minnesota claimed the spotlight when Gretchen Carlson was named Miss America 1989. The first and only classical violinist to win the title, Gretchen promoted Arts in Education during her tenure.
In September, Debbye Turner, Miss Missouri 1989, became Miss America 1990. The familiar term “reign” was replaced with “Year of Service” in pageant vernacular. 1989 marked the first year of Miss America’s “official” platform. Miss Pennsylvania 1989, Michelle Kline, became the first winner of the Quality of Life Award for her volunteer community service efforts with Organ Donation.
Decade in Review: 1990s
For The Miss America Organization, the 1990s marked a new era. Young women increasingly began to see the Miss America program as an opportunity to pursue higher education, professional opportunities and social causes. Winners of the title started becoming internationally recognized spokeswomen on issues ranging from literacy to AIDS awareness. Each Miss America was now required to have a platform issue which they brought public awareness to on a national speaking tour.
The platform issue once again helped change the image and mission of Miss America. She was being seen as a dynamic, articulate speaker and the champion of a cause; but was still approachable and real. The women who entered the program began to reflect a new standard of professionalism, fitness and intelligence. As winners of the title, they were sought-after speakers and advocates. Their appearances ranged from addressing Congress to visiting local schools.
Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990, was the first Miss America with an “official” platform. Debbye focused her year on “Motivating Youth to Excellence.” The District of Columbia franchise was no longer participating, making Miss America an all-state event. Bert Parks was invited back to sing “There She Is” as the pageant celebrated its 70th anniversary. In September, Marjorie Judith Vincent, Miss Illinois, was crowned Miss America 1991. She used the title to promote awareness of Domestic Violence.
Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford replaced Gary Collins as co-emcees. The State of Hawaii was in the spotlight when Carolyn Suzanne Sapp became that state’s first Miss America (1992). Carolyn’s campaign was “Education is Everyone’s Business”, but this became over-shadowed by national publicity, which focused on Carolyn’s escape from a former abusive relationship. The media attention given to Carolyn resulted in a dramatic numbers increase in telephone hotline usage established for abused women, and even a television movie.
The Charles and Teresa Brown Scholarships awarded to Miss America and several other state representatives was established. Leanza Cornett (Miss America 1993) became Florida’s first Miss America. An AIDS activist, she was quoted as saying, “I compare Miss America to being a politician on the campaign trail.” During her year of service she spoke at The White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate among many others.
At eighteen, Kimberly Clarice Aiken of South Carolina became Miss America 1994. Her year of service was dedicated to America’s Homeless. The Bernie Wayne Scholarship for the Performing Arts was established. Contestants were now required to be between the ages of 17 and 24 by the national finals. Total scholarships available on the local, state and national levels of competition surpassed $10 million dollars.
Available scholarships nearly doubled as $18 million dollars was now available nationwide. With a profound hearing loss, Alabama’s Heather Whitestone was named Miss America 1995 and became the first woman with a disability to win the title.
September 16: The 75th anniversary pageant. Forty-one Miss Americas returned to the scene of their triumph. Available scholarships totaled $24 million dollars. An Oklahoma native, Shawntel Smith, became Miss America 1996 on her 24th birthday. Her platform emphasized “School to Work” programs.
$29 million dollars was made available through local, state and national competitions. A new scholarship program was initiated to benefit those seeking careers in education. Thirty-one states qualified for the first Miss America Organization matching grants fund. The state money saved is redirected to each state’s scholarship funds. The Miss America Web site made its debut. Representing Kansas, Tara Dawn Holland was named Miss America 1997.
Scholarships awarded total $32 million dollars nationwide. The District of Columbia franchise returned as part of the Miss America competition. Actors Eva LaRue Callahan and husband John serve as pageant emcees. Representing Illinois, Katherine (Kate) Shindle won the 1998 Miss America title. For the first time since 1947, Miss America contestants had the option of wearing two-piece swimsuits.
With a platform of “Diabetes Awareness”, Miss Virginia Nicole Johnson became the first Miss America (1999) with a life-threatening illness. During her year of service, she raised nearly $13 million dollars for research. “Community Hall,” the interactive portion of the Miss America Web site, made its debut. State Community Service awards of $1,000 scholarships were awarded to 40 local contestants from as many states. $1000 Scholarships were also awarded to the 51 Miss State Scholars.
Leonard Horn resigned as CEO. Robert Beck was appointed to take his place. After his tenure, David Frisch, Chairman of the Board, was appointed as acting CEO. Nicole Johnson crowned Miss Kentucky, Heather Renee French as Miss America 2000 with the gold millennium crown featuring glistening ruby rhinestones.
Decade in Review: 2000s
The new millennium brought many exciting challenges and fresh changes to The Miss America Organization. The scholarship foundation continued to grow, and more and more individuals began to recognize the importance of the countless community service hours the contestants offered their communities. The departure of network television’s control enabled the pageant to reassess itself, and gain strength to chart its own course and on its own terms. In conjunction with CMT and ultimately, TLC, the Organization was fortunate to align itself with new network partners who understood the intrinsic value of this institution while making it more relatable to young women across America.
The 80th anniversary pageant. For the first time, the pageant was held in October rather than September. Heather Renee French, Miss America 2000, became the first Miss America to win The Miss America Organization’s “Woman of Achievement” award for her outstanding contributions to our nation’s homeless veterans.
Angela Perez Baraquio, Miss Hawaii, was crowned Miss America 2001. She was the first Asian-American and the first teacher to win the title. She dedicated her reign to the importance of Character Education in our nation’s schools.
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. sent the nation into mourning. A decision had to be made on whether or not the pageant should be postponed. The vote was given to the contestants who were already assembled for the national finals, and they voted to continue onward in order to demonstrate our nation’s resilience. With actor Tony Danza serving as the Host, Katie Marie Harman, Miss Oregon, became the Northwest’s first Miss America (2002), dedicating her year to Breast Cancer Awareness. National scholarship awards increase to over 40 million dollars.
Erika Harold, Miss Illinois, is crowned Miss America 2003. She dedicates her year to Empowering Youth Against Violence. George F. Bauer serves the first of his two year term as Interim President/CEO of The Miss America Organization. Popular television star Wayne Brady serves as the first African-American Host of The Miss America telecast.
Ericka Yolanda Dunlap, Miss Florida, captures the crown of Miss America 2004 and kicks-off her platform of Celebrating Cultural Diversity and Inclusiveness at the Statue of Liberty. The scholarship foundation on the local, state and national levels is raised to over $45 million dollars annually.
Casual Wear Competition is added to the judging criteria and lasts two years. Dancing with the Stars host, Tom Bergeron, serves as the Host, while popular American Idol contestant, Clay Aiken, makes a special appearance.
The pageant celebrates 50 years on television. Chris Harrison serves as Host. Aspiring medical doctor Deidre Downs, Miss Alabama, wins the Miss America 2005 title. Art McMaster is named President/CEO of The Miss America Organization. Donna Axum-Whitworth (Miss America 1964) becomes the first Miss America elected into The Miss America Organization’s Board of Directors; she is soon followed by Phyllis George, Miss America 1971. Kinila Callendar becomes the first Miss U.S. Virgin Islands to compete for the national crown.
A sister company to The Miss America Organization, Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, makes its debut in August at the Linda Chapin Theatre at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. It makes an official partnership with the U.S. Dream Academy to promote scholastic achievement, creative accomplishment, community involvement, and healthy living for our nation’s youth. The winner was Meghan Miller, Miss Texas’ Outstanding Teen, who won a $30,000 college scholarship.
The pageant is held in January for the very first time, and makes its new home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Broadcast by CMT, the Host is television actor James Denton. Oklahoma’s Jennifer Berry is crowned Miss America 2006, and begins her exciting year promoting her platform of Building Intolerance to Drunk Driving and Underage Drinking. In a return to tradition, Malika Dudley, Miss Hawaii, becomes the first young woman to be awarded the Miss Congeniality title in over 30 years.
Sam Haskell III begins his first year as Chairman of the Board of Directors. The Miss America Organization chooses one national platform – Children’s Miracle Network. Lauren Nelson becomes the second consecutive Miss Oklahoma to wear the crown of Miss America (2007). She dedicates her year to Protecting Children on the Internet. Popular television star Mario Lopez serves as Host. Rebecca King Dreman (Miss America 1974) becomes the third Miss America to join the MAO Board of Directors.
The Miss America Pageant makes its debut on the TLC network and broadcasts the pageant live from the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. “Miss America: Reality Check” makes its debut in January. Representing Michigan, Kirsten Haglund becomes the first teenager to wear the Miss America (2008) crown in fourteen years and dedicates her year to raising awareness of eating disorders.