Who Killed Miss America?

miss-americaImage Credit: http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/dynamic/imgs/100126/miss-america_510.jpgIn 1991, when Katie Stam was just 5 years old, growing up in Seymour, Ind., you could spy the pint-size beauty cutting cereal boxes into princess crowns and fashioning sashes out of thick ribbons with her favorite cousin. You could also spy Stam, in mid-September of that year, watching her beloved Miss America pageant on NBC with 26.7 million other television viewers. “We would pretend we were Miss America,” she remembers fondly, noting that her family gathered around the television annually for the show. “We had the most amazing connection with the pageant. It was such a big deal to us.” And to the rest of the country. The Miss America pageant was a true television event, close to the Oscars and the Super Bowl.

No longer. When current Miss America Stam, now 23, traded in her homemade crown for the real deal last January on TLC, only 3.5 million viewers tuned in, a stunning drop of 87 percent from when she was a little girl. And now, tonight at 8 p.m. on TLC, Stam will relinquish her title as a new Miss America is crowned. The question is, will anyone notice? The pageant’s days of dominating watercooler conversations are long gone.

So who, or what, killed Miss America? Blame the decline of Western civilization, says Mario Lopez, who will be hosting the show for a third time. Decades ago, the Miss America pageant was a rare chance to see a little skin and sexuality on TV — but now that’s everywhere. “There are so many things these days, like Maxim, where you can check out beautiful women,” says Lopez. The bathing-suit competition sure seems a lot less risqué when compared with the half-naked ladies now cavorting in hot tubs on scores of reality TV shows. Even feminists have a hard time getting worked up about Miss America these days. “As a feminist, I want to rejoice in the fact that the Miss America pageant has less viewers,” says author Jessica Valenti, “but I find it kind of difficult to, because I have a feeling those millions of viewers are just watching The Bachelor.”

And indeed they are. While Miss America could easily be considered the original reality competition show, it has been completely eclipsed by its 21st-century offspring. Viewers used to argue the merits of Miss Montana versus Miss Rhode Island; now they’re on either Team Kris or Team Adam. Fans used to sit wondering whether Miss Arkansas would get the crown; now they can’t wait to find out which woman receives the final rose of the evening. Ericka Dunlap has seen both sides. She won Miss America in 2003 and came in third on the most recent edition of CBS’ The Amazing Race. “People have the option to not watch perfection personified,” says Dunlap of the gravitation away from pageants to reality TV. “They just want to watch entertaining television, so we enter into some trash, like the dating reality shows filled with these girls who are willing to bicker and fight.” She may have a point: The biggest notoriety Miss America has received in the past 30 years was in 1984, when nude photos surfaced of reigning queen (and now Ugly Betty star) Vanessa Williams, who was subsequently forced to abdicate her title.

How, then, can Miss America keep up with the times, and tastes, of TV audiences? Originally reluctant to change (which led to its break with ABC in 2004), the pageant has finally gotten a subtle but important makeover: In 2006, the show moved to Las Vegas from its longtime home of Atlantic City in a bid to dazzle younger viewers. And in 2008 and 2009, TLC (after grabbing the show from CMT) produced lead-up reality shows to gather interest in the contestants and build them as personalities viewers could grow attached to. “We recognized that the difficulty with our show was that people didn’t get to know these contestants,” says Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization. Additionally, TLC introduced American Idol-style “America’s Choice” voting, which allows some of the pageant’s top 15 finalists to be chosen by viewers. Stam and her runner-up both made the finals through this program.

The nipping and tucking continues in 2010. Producers tried a one-hour behind-the-curtain special (hosted by What Not to Wear‘s Clinton Kelly), which aired last night. Viewers saw the preliminary competitions, which have never been shown in the organization’s 89-year history. And then there’s the long-standing goal of keeping Miss America a pseudo-celebrity. This past year, Stam rode a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — the first Miss America to do so in nearly a decade. “I have said from the moment I started that Miss America needs to be on the cover of Elle magazine,” she says, “and she needs to make appearances on the hottest TV shows, like The Office or CSI.” (One well-known TV producer, however, told EW he “doesn’t care about Miss America unless there’s something juicy or scandalous about her.”)

Ultimately, the organizers behind the show know their treasured pageant will never again draw 30 million viewers. And they seem okay with that future. “As long as we can provide good ratings to our television partner and keep them happy, we feel like we can really showcase this pageant a lot better in years to come,” McMaster says. “This is one of the last great American icons. They may not have seen the pageant, but everybody knows that name, Miss America.” But for how long?

More Miss America:
Miss America 2010: Already loving Miss Kentucky
Miss America: Does anyone care? (2009)

Comments (88 total) Add your comment
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  • Morgan

    Maybe some of the gravitation away is because of comments like calling the women “perfection personified.” That’s kind of offensive to other women. I do wonder if the surprisingly popular “Miss Congeniality” movie from a several years ago helped get more people interested or not.

    • tori

      Go Seymour, IN!!

  • Patricia

    I still watch every year. People forget that this pageant is one of the top providers of scholarship money for women. While looks count, interview and talent are worth a high percentage of preliminary score so you have to be the total package!

    • Other Mel

      I think it’s comments like this that have people drifting away from the pageant. The reason defenders are constantly harping on talent and interview is because no one believes it. Anytime girls feel compelled to get plastic surgery to stay competitive, it’s not about talent and interview.

      • JC

        I really don’t think the on stage interview portion means anything anymore. I have seen girls totally bomb it and then win. This may of been Miss USA but the one girl didn’t even answer the question and she won the title one year. During last years Miss USA, Carrie Prejean supporters say she lost the crown because of her answer but the results showed the girl that won was in first.

    • Lauren

      “Top providers of scholarship money”? God, I love made up statistics.

      • thin

        No kidding. How many contestants get scholarships? Out of how many students going to college in the United States?

      • tsc

        Each person who competes in the state competition gets at least 800, state winners get at least 5,000, and miss america gets 50,000. then their runner-ups get a good shake also.
        I don’t know what other organization is putting that much money into college women’s education

    • bamabunny

      Fine…then complete the transition. End the beauty pageant, the televised show, and just hand out the scholarships to the most deserving. Change the criteria so these girls are judged on paper alone. Then maybe an overweight, plain girl with a lot of talent, personality, civic participation and smarts can get one of those scholarships.

      • steph

        agreed.

      • Ashley G.

        finally a decent comment, I totally agree, get rid of the show and judge people on paper not looks

      • nat

        I agree. The competition is shallow, and a stubborn holdover from the old days when all women had were their looks (no careers to speak of). Women have come a long way since those days…its time that pageants go away.

      • Caselina

        this may come as a surprise, but it’s not just the overweight plain girls aren’t the only ones with talent, personality, civic participation and smarts. If they decide to end the pageant and base it on paper, someone like Katie Stam could win anyways

      • Ken

        I think McDonalds and Burger King should sponsor scholarships for the fat girls..

      • Mo’nique

        Or do you mean… “Phat Girlz”…?

    • Preston

      I’ve always watch Miss America, even through the changes in networks. They’ve always been a high class pageant and the women have their own platforms and goals to help people in the community. It’s an excellent way for the young women to get scholarship money to pay for their education and future studies in their career directions.

  • Steven

    That is so true. Unfortunately, you can find women taking off of their clothes both inside and outside of the pageant world.

    Pageantry is supposed to be classy and I believe that is what sets it apart from magazines like Maximum etc. But, when girls inside of the pageant world show skin to get attention then it kills the flavor of the event.

    I completely believe in the power of pageantry to change the confidence of a woman that is why I started The Pageant Planet.com.

    • marisa

      pageantry to change the confidence of a woman? maybe to make us all feel like crap. all it does is reward women who tape themselves up and suck it in and try to look a very specific way. not sure how that helps anyone be more confident.

    • Happy Go Lucky

      Classy? Please, the whole exercise is just barely two or three steps above a wet T-shirt contest at your local bar.

  • Josh

    Interesting article, but the best part of it is the picture at the top. The winner is so happy and all the other girls are just glaring at her as if they want her to choke and die!

    • Ceballos

      You’re right! Jada Pinkett-Smith looks especially p!ssed on the right.

      • marisa

        HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! i thought the exact same thing!

      • sidmore

        THAT IS NOT JADA

      • Ceballos

        …and you DO NOT understand the concept of a joke, sidmore. :)

    • kelsey

      HEE!

  • Joel

    I haven’t been interested in Miss America for a very long time… With women now in all segments of society (no it isn’t close to being equal), I would prefer that beauty pageants go away completely. What pageants suggest is that women need to be “hot” before they can get opportunities. I don’t buy it!

    • Sarah

      Agreed! Beauty pageants are an anachronism, plain and simple. It amazes me that they even still exist in 2010 considering the strides women have made in other areas (though, as you said, it is still not yet equal). I would like to see pageants go the way of the dinosaur, and the scholarship money moved to a fund that awards the most deserving candidate- regardless of looks and gender.

  • Aimee

    JonBennet Ramsey. People saw how warped the whole pageant thing could become and it soured all pageants. Plus I think women aspire to be more than beautiful, cookie-cutter, perfect products. I have no problem if you go this route for scholarship money, but I don’t find the process entertaining.

  • Rob Grizzly

    Fascinating. I think giving the entire pageant the ‘reality TV’ makeover is the best way to go. Stick those chicks in a house, let them fight, give them challenges, have weekly eliminations, and build up to a live finale. Hand the entire show over to FOX and see what they cook up- anything is better than what they’re doing now.

  • anonymous

    “Twenty-five years of bitching beauty queens and what do I get? Fired! They steal my life. They steal my beauty pageant!”
    “Hey! It is not a beauty pageant. It is a scholarship program.”
    “Yeah, yeah.”
    “YES!”

  • Erin

    I am honestly sick of people harping on “pageant girls”. Having competed in the Miss America system several times, I can honestly tell you that it is required that you be eloquent and talented more than you are “beautiful”. I am no stick figure, but I am healthy and have done extremely well within this system based on my interview skills and talent. I don’t know how to bring Miss America back to what it once was, but I know that I would have a lot of trouble paying my way through college right now without Miss America.

    • Keith

      Fine. And good for you. But the problem is the networks need ratings. And the system itself is out of step with mainstream America and the overall values and qualities most Americans prioritize in its young girls. And thank God for that.

      • marisa

        if you got money for college from miss america from things besides your beauty, then you could have gotten it without miss america, too.

    • Jon

      agreed!! erin, it looks like some people just dont get it at all i of course have been watching pageants since 2006- and i actually believe every part of it like you said.. the young ladies work so hard to do such a good job at everything with the pageants esp. at your local, divisional regionals (is what i call it for parts of your state)then regionals, state and lastly the national level which is Miss America…. so people are just too stupid to realize that Miss America is probably “THE BEST THING” that happened….because without it those ladies would probably be playing sports or something to get a scholarship n thats probably harder to do then competing in the miss america organization

  • latina

    To counter Mario Lopez’s argument that it’s a decline in values, one need look no further than Latin America, where pageantry still flourishes. Latin American values are no better than American values, so why are beauty contests so hot down there? I think it has more to do with education of women. In countries where women are more educated, they couldn’t give a crap about which stranger is prettier than this other stranger.

  • cameobrooch

    The problem is with the organizers’ attempts to make this relic seem more relevant. So much of the Pageant’s appeal comes from its being kitschy and campy. No one wants to see a reality show about the contestants’ behind the scenes hijinks and in-fighting. We want to see the top ten performing their sometimes questionable talents, parading in gowns and swimsuits, and answering questions about their platform (an attempt at relevance that actually worked, but has been strangely downplayed in recent years). Plus, the Pageant belongs in Atlantic City. Bring back the traditional elements, embrace the kitsch, and restore the platforms to prominence, and the Pageant could rebound.

    • Jen C

      I agree that it never should have left Atlantic City. I’m from the area, and I remember when the contestants had events in the area and in Philly leading up to the pageant and whatnot. They try to change things so much to attract younger viewers, and all they end up doing is alienating everybody.

      • Juli

        I say bring the pageant back to Atlantic City, return to one-piece suits, and bring back top 10 semifinalists competing in ALL areas.

        Also, make it the 50 states and District of Columbia only.

        Lest you forget, the very fist Miss America, Margaret Gorman, came from Washington, D.C.

    • leo

      the finalists who did talent were a prima balerina, one of the best hula dancers (true hula, not the hokey kind) I’ve ever seen with so much flexibility I gasped, two opera singers, a classical pianist, two gospel/broadway singers with excellent tone and range, and a jazz dancer. The latter three may not have taken years of practice, I’m not sure, but the rest probably worked towards that talent their entire life and the pride on their parents faces said it all.

    • kelsey

      “No one wants to see a reality show about the contestants’ behind the scenes hijinks and in-fighting.”

      I feel ashamed to say this, but I have to disagree with that statement. I think plenty of people would love to see something like that. Reality shows are littered with people who get into arguments and petty fights and manipulation. That’s why people watch them. Seeing the Miss America contestants like that would be a big attraction.

      (Not for me, though.)

  • Jan

    I grew up watching the Miss America pagent and loving it, esp. the “talent.” But I really hated the way they treated Vanessa Williams and then they stopped showing the girls talent. And I stopped watching!

  • Blinktx69

    Has anyone thought that it was A.C. Slater that killed Miss America?

  • Linda

    I grew up with watching the pagent. Having an opinion outside of politically correct is just not allowed. What a boring event. Example last year.

  • NT

    Anyone remember that horrific show several years ago..The Swan I think it was? Where all the women had plastic surgery to be beautiful? Now, I don’t think pageants are nearly as bad as that monstrosity, but both, as a woman, really p*** me off.

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