The Austin Chronicle

Sparkle and Shine

'Miss America' documents the coiffure and the controversy

By Anne S. Lewis, March 8, 2002, Screens

When was the last time you thought about Miss America? Or watched the pageant? You'd probably be surprised to learn that every year, 10,000 young women enter the beauty contest pipeline -- at state and local levels -- with dreams of the joyful tears they'll shed as the crown is placed on their perfectly coiffed heads and they walk that celebrated walkway to that celebrated song, before a televised audience on the second Saturday after Labor Day. For those of us growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, this annual event was something -- on a par with the Academy Awards -- that you probably watched with keen, wide-eyed interest and varying motives at first but, as the years went by, so did the imperative. Actually, the last time I can remember tuning in was sometime in the early Seventies, a time when the pageant seemed the most at odds with the times, fixed as it was in the cross-hairs of an outraged feminist movement. Then, we watched Bert Parks soft-shoeing around all those Breck Girls strictly for the entertainment value, knocking ourselves out over the "the mystic moods of Miss [fill in the blank]" as she tickled the keyboard for the judges during the talent portion of the contest.

No matter what, if any, your level of interest in the real, live pageant, you're bound to be mesmerized by Lisa Ades' superb, fascinating, humorous, and lively film tracing the pageant's trajectory since its commercially motivated start in 1921 as a way to extend the Atlantic City tourist season beyond Labor Day. With wonderful archival footage, Ades takes us back to the early, little-known, pre-televised pageant years (the first TV broadcast was in 1954 and drew a record-breaking viewership) and then on an incredible, often bumpy 80-year ride that's been the pageant's history. By the end of the film, you'll view an event known mainly for its one-dimensionality with a new, multidimensional understanding.

Not surprisingly, 80 years of this annual cultural ritual -- picking the "ideal American woman" -- has stirred up some controversy along the way, particularly as the societal view of women has evolved. In the film, which showed on PBS in January as part of American Experience and also at Sundance this year, we hear from a savvy selection of commentators -- from various historians to Gloria Steinem (who admits that once, long ago, she entered a beauty contest to earn money in Toledo, Ohio), comedian Margaret Cho, designer Isaac Mizrahi, and several former Miss Americas, including the oldest living one, Marian Bergeron (1933). The commentary is open-minded and provocative, never vituperative, even coming from those you'd expect to have some attitude, like Steinem and Robin Morgan, the woman who organized the counter-pageant demonstration in '68.

A few of many milestones on Miss America's journey: Bess Myerson's reign as the only Jewish Miss America ever, who even with her unprecedented combination of brains, serious scholarship, talent, and beauty had to fight 1945's rampant anti-Semitism; the 1946 reign of Austin Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro's mom, Marilyn Buferd; 1960 winner Nancy Ann Fleming's comment that "a woman's place is in the home with her husband and her children"; another vintage clip of a contestant explaining why she didn't think a woman could have the right stuff to make a good president; Rebecca King (1974), who entered the competition for the scholarship money (she wanted to go to law school) and, to the outrage of many in the television audience, did not cry when the crown was placed on her head and went on to express her pro-choice views; Vanessa Williams, who in 1983 was the first black woman to win the crown and the first to be dethroned following the revelation that she posed for a nude photo spread that would appear in Penthouse; and 1998's Kate Shindle, the outspoken AIDS activist.

"There she is ..." end story

Miss America will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Saturday, March 9, 7:15pm, at the Austin Convention Center (Cesar Chavez & Red River). Filmmaker Lisa Ades will be in attendance. Individual tickets, space permitting, will go on sale to the general public 15 minutes prior to showtime; priority will be given to SXSW Film badge and pass holders. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, KLRU-TV, and SXSW Film.

Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.