by WALTER BRASCH
Tucked between the New Hampshire primary and Ground Hog Day, and directly competing against an NFL playoff game, is Saturday night’s annual Miss America pageant.
Although the headquarters is still near Atlantic City, where it originated in 1921, the pageant—don’t call it a beauty contest—has been a part of the Las Vegas entertainment scene for eight years. Apparently, the Las Vegas motto of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” wrapped itself around the pageant as well, with TV viewership dropping lower almost every year.
ABC-TV divorced Miss America in 2004, claiming irreconcilable differences. Viewership had fallen from a peak of 26.7 million in 1991 to an all-time low of 9.8 million, barely enough to keep a prime-time show on the air. The pageant’s CEO, trying to preserve what dignity was left, stated “We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values.”
Apparently better understanding Miss America’s values was Country Music Television (CMT). However, that marriage didn’t last, and Miss America then hooked up with the The Learning Channel (TLC). By 2007, only 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch who would be the next beauty queen to want world peace, save the whales, and “do her country proud.”
Treating its demotion to the minor leagues as a chance for rehabilitation, the pageant made a few cosmetic changes, began playing with new ways of scoring, including viewer participation, and slowly brought its ratings back to about 4.5 million in 2010.
That’s when ABC-TV and Miss America, after a six-year divorce, fell in love again. Apparently, CMT and TLC “values” (and money) weren’t as good as a major network’s. Promising eternal faithfulness—as long as the ratings increased—the two lovebirds were seen by about 7.8 million.
Now, it may seem that only TV executives and advertisers should care about ratings, viewer demographics, and selling fluff. But the contestants are well-trained actors in the made-for-TV show, complete with celebrity judges, most of whom are there solely because they are—well—celebrities.
About one-third of all contestants say they want to go into communications. As in almost every pageant for the past four decades, several want to go into television. Miss Delaware and Miss Nevada both want to be talk show hosts. Miss Louisiana wants to anchor the “Today” show; to get to that lofty goal, she plans to first get a master’s in health communication. None of the contestants wanting to go into journalism have expressed any interest in first covering city council meetings, the courts, police, or Little League games. They plan to take their beauty and pageant poise, make up their hair and face, and stand in front of a camera to emphasize the reality that broadcast journalism has diminished to the point of style over substance.
Miss New York wants to be the editor of a fashion magazine. Miss Idaho wants to write for a health and fitness magazine. Miss Hawaii wants to be a film director; to do that, she plans to first get an MBA. There is no evidence she plans first to be an actor, set designer, writer, cinematographer, or in any of several dozen crafts.
Miss Utah says she wants to be an interpersonal communications presenter (whatever that is) and also a college dance team coach. Miss New Hampshire, who probably dressed Barbie dolls in corporate suits, says she wants to “own a large and prestigious advertising firm.” It’s doubtful she’ll want to modify the gibberish of the organization that, with all seriousness, says it “provides young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”
A few contestants say they want to be “event planners,” as if there already aren’t enough people wasting their own lives by planning the lives of others.
Not planning to go into communications is Miss Colorado who is earning a degree in something called “social enterprise.” That could be anything from learning how to use Facebook to mixing the drinks at upscale parties. Miss West Virginia says she wants to go into the military, and then become secretary of state. Perhaps one day she might work for the 2011 Miss America, whose goal is to become president.
Several contestants plan to get MBAs, but almost everyone wants to use that degree to go into—prepare yourself!—a non-profit social service agency. It sounds good, and maybe they all mean it. But, dangle a six-figure salary, stock options, extensive perks, and a “golden parachute,” and most of them will run over the Red Cross so fast it’ll need blood transfusions.
Mixed into the career goals are some contestants who plan to be physicians, pharmacists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and others in the caring professions.
Miss America doesn’t have to worry about a job or college for a year. Along with a paid chaperone, she will tour the country to sign autographs and give inspirational speeches about whatever her platform is—and, of course, to promote the Miss America Organization.
From the “toddlers and tiaras” stage to the stage at the Planet Hollywood Casino, beauty contestants are told how to look, act, and talk, even what to say or not say. The Miss America Organization—which makes the Mafia look like a second rate fraternity—doesn’t tell contestants they must attend college. But, every one of the state winners plans to be a college graduate.
There is a definite bias against those who don’t think attending college is important at this stage of their lives. And so, we don’t see talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who are bypassing college to attend specialized non-degree-granting schools and enter their professions. We don’t see contestants who, although beautiful and talented, are planning to be plumbers, electricians, or firefighter/paramedics. We don’t see contestants who want to be gardeners, floral arrangers, or chefs. And, we most assuredly don’t see women who are bypassing college to be part of major social movements.
[Walter Brasch, who attended several beauty pageants, although as a reporter and not as a contestant, is a social issues columnist and book author. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, available at www.amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com]