It doesn’t matter if you love or loathe beauty pageants—either way, you’ll find something interesting in Kate Shindle’s memoir, Being Miss America: Behind The Rhinestone Curtain.
Personally, I’ve never been a pageant person. Beauty pageants always always seemed retro and oppressive, and worst of all, hugely boring to watch. (Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are the root cause of The Bachelor.)
But I really like weird stuff. Give me a memoir about a cult and I’ll be happy for days. So, naturally, I had to read a memoir about a very visible cult of wholesome American womanhood: the Miss America pageant.
Now a broadway actress, Kate Shindle is the self-described “black sheep” Miss America, an outspoken Yankee in a sea of “genteel, Southernish women.” She won the crown in 1998 after running on a controversial AIDS-awareness platform, and spent her year of service encouraging high school students to practice safer sex.
Despite her unusual focus on controversial issues, Shindle grew up in a family of devoted pageant volunteers, in the pageant’s traditional hometown of Atlantic City. She’s simultaneously a black sheep and the ultimate insider—and that’s just the start of her complicated relationship with the pageant.
The responsibility of being Miss America sounds exhausting, and not just because of the long hours and frequent travel. Shindle points out an intense and constant cognitive dissonance that comes with being “a thinking person living within the mythology of Miss America.” Most people see you as an institution, not a person. And, as Shindle later makes clear, the meaning of this institution is not clear at all, even to the organizers who crown her each year.
If you’re not a pageant fan, most of this will be new to you, and it’s fascinating. The Miss America pageant started in 1921, as a way to extend the tourist season in Atlantic City for another week. It proceeded to crown a new winner each year. Any institution that tries to annually define the “ideal” American woman for more than 90 years is going to have some interesting chapters in its history.
Shindle is in her element when she writes about previous winners, like 1945’s Bess Myerson, an outspoken activist who used her platform to fight anti-semitism and bigotry. The pageant hung Myerson out to dry when pageant sponsors refused to use her as a spokesperson. Shindle flags this as an early sign of trouble to come: “…this episode was an early and obvious example of two of the pageant’s most consistent and self-destructive patterns: first, defaulting to a reactive position (rather than crafting a clear and firm identity and sticking with it), and second, sacrificing the young women it claims to celebrate in the name of the pageant’s survival.”
Shindle also tells us the history of the pageant’s organizers—and its history of financial mismanagement. Poorly-performing executives are rewarded with huge salaries, even in years where the Miss America organization has failed to turn a profit. This is especially galling when you learn that the pageant relies on thousands of volunteers.
She also focusses on how the pageant has lost control of its branding. (And what is Miss America if not an image?) The organization has struggled with how to depict its contestants in an era of sinking ratings, letting networks decide how to frame the pageant. One year, it’s a reality show, the next it’s not. While the pageant waffles, it becomes less relevant than ever.
Shindle is so polite about her accusations of mismanagement that it actually took me a while to get it. Even when she’s lobbing bombs, she does it with the utmost poise. Just as one would expect from Miss America.
- Have you ever watched the Miss America pageant?
- What do you think of pageants in general?
- Have you ever COMPETED in a pageant?