I see Alex posted the excerpt from the Miss America book in yesterday’s comments, about the year Vanessa Williams won. It’s very good; if you haven’t used up your WashPost clicks this month, I recommend you spend one on it.
I attended, and covered, the Miss A pageant the year before that. I always have had abysmal timing, but 1982 was the year Miss Ohio was a local girl, and that’s the year the paper decided to send me. I flew to Philadelphia and then took a puddle-jumper to A.C., and there I was, at Miss America.
And yes, you can hum those last six words in the tune of the famous song. But that year, and I believe Vanessa’s year as well, it was not sung as the newly crowned Miss A took her first walk. It had something to do with firing Bert Parks and maybe he had copyright? Can’t recall. But the song that year was called “Miss America, You’re Beautiful,” sung by Gary Collins, Parks’ replacement. It didn’t go over well, and a deal was struck with Parks and “There She Is” came back.
I’m sure I’ve told all these stories before, so I won’t bore you. But as far as Amy Argetsinger’s excellent history goes, she notes an old Texas pageant coach told his own charge, well before they arrived in Atlantic City, the following:
“Miss New York is going to win,” he said. “She will be the first Black Miss America.”
I don’t doubt it, because even I had heard that. It wasn’t that the fix was in, but rather, that the timing was right. Various parties had been pestering the pageant for years for its lily-whiteness and retro ideas about femininity, etc., and they were under the gun to show nuh-uh, they were so not racist, and along came Vanessa Williams, and she was…perfect. Black, unmistakably so, but light-skinned, blue-eyed, fine-featured, tawny hair. She was Black, but entirely in the Miss America mold. And she could sing, god, she could sing. Looked great in a swimsuit. The whole package.
After my year at the pageant, I would read anything I could find about it, and I saw an interview before the ’83 pageant with Debra Maffett, who had won the year I was there. Miss California, wore the famous Lucky Swimsuit, another one you could tell was going to be in the top five just by looking at her. And even she said, in that interview, that “the time was right for a black Miss America.” My point being: Vanessa Williams was someone everyone saw coming.
That was such a weird week, hanging backstage at the pageant, doing interviews with any Miss who would consent to one, and they all consented, knowing the worth of a little press. I was the same age they were, and yet, they were…so. So polished, so sparkly, so…not charismatic, more like packaged. No other woman my age wore her hair the way they did, unless she was a TV news anchor or something, curled and teased and sprayed into a helmet. None of my friends wore that much makeup. And none of my friends read Time magazine like Talmudic scholars read scripture, so they could drop an opinion on Israeli foreign policy on cue. They were weird. I am an outgoing person, but couldn’t imagine being friends with any of those creatures, except maybe Miss Florida, who came in a bad girl (DUI) and left one, too. You could see the real person inside, trying to escape. The rest held their own actual personalities in with shellack – polish, nail and otherwise, foundation, sequins.
It was an old trick, the day of the swimsuit photo shoots for the wire services, for one of the Misses to jump into the pool they were all posing around, knowing that picture would lead the photo package (and ruining one’s hairdo, so you were effectively excused from doing any more). Miss California did that. I looked her up today: She’s a Trumper, and I see hints of QAnon lurking around there.
Anyway, that would have been roughly 39 years ago, and Miss A is so different now…wait, didn’t the pageant go bankrupt? I can’t remember. But when I saw Miss Michigan at the auto show a few years back, she had a couple of visible tattoos. In her introduction, she was quite the little spark plug. And a women’s studies major. What a hoot.
Another 90 degree day. Considered going out in it? And thought better. Happy Wednesday.