There She Was…..

There She Was…..

Photo credit: Courtesy of the author

The Miss America Pageant has survived many generations of viewers. Growing up, we all had our own experience watching Bert Parks, who hosted the annual Miss America telecast from 1955 to 1979, serenade the newly crowned Miss America with “There She Is, Miss America.”

“I watched it like everyone did,” author Amy Argetsinger told Hollywood on the Potomac of her childhood experience with The Miss America Pageant.  “I don’t think I started watching it though until I was in middle school. This was probably, in hindsight, a fatal error on the part of the producers because back then it came on TV so late. It would start at about nine or 10 o’clock at night which was really off limits for a lot of children. They probably would have done better if it was earlier to hook a really young generation of kids on it by airing it at seven o’clock or eight o’clock at night. I don’t remember being aware of it for many years before I was old enough to stay up that late. Once I started watching it was fascinating to me. I did not watch it through college because it was always on a weekend night when I had, you know, something more mature to do, but I started watching it in a big way after I got out of college.”

Amy Argetsinger, author

“Part of what hooked me,” she added, “was the fact that I was living and working in Iowa. In Iowa, pageant royalty was everywhere. My first two years there, there was a local woman who was in the top five of Miss America. And then one of my colleagues at the newspaper, one of our interns, competed at the local pageant and it suddenly was a little bit fascinating, but also demystifying. I started watching with a little more interest then. After I moved back to Washington in the mid nineties, my friend from Iowa who had competed was also in Washington.  I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we drive to Atlantic City and see the thing in real life?’  I don’t know if you’ve been but if you go there all of a sudden it opens your eyes to this big, crazy subculture that’s just devoted to the pageant and so much of it you never see on TV. It’s kind of an enchanting, charming, crazy culture of volunteers and coaches and hairstylists and little girls and princess dresses and sashes.”

About the book: “A Washington Post Style editor’s fascinating and irresistible look back on the Miss America pageant as it approaches its 100th anniversary. The sash. The tears. The glittering crown. And of course, that soaring song. For all of its pomp and kitsch, the Miss America pageant is indelibly written into the American story of the past century. From its giddy origins as a summer’s-end tourist draw in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, it blossomed into a televised extravaganza that drew tens of millions of viewers in its heyday and was once considered the highest honor that a young woman could achieve. There She Was spotlights how the pageant survived decades of social and cultural change, collided with a women’s liberation movement that sought to abolish it, and redefined itself alongside evolving ideas about feminism. Argetsinger dissects the scandals and financial turmoil that have repeatedly threatened to kill the pageant—and highlights the unexpected sisterhood of Miss Americas fighting to keep it alive.” Atria/One Signal Publisher

Did you ever want to be Miss America?  No.

“The brand name was so potent though. I was born on an army base in Seoul, South Korea, but there were Korean cleaning ladies who worked at our apartment complex and they would pick me up when I was tiny little baby and say, ‘Oh, she will be Miss America someday.’ It just tells you how big the brand of Miss America was back then all over the world. People knew what that meant.”

Respond to some names: Bert Parks

“People in the pageant world, former Miss Americas, they loved him by the time he had been MC for a long time. It was kind of a joke. He was so hammy. He was so goofy, but the energy he brought was exactly what you needed to command a great big auditorium. He came from a vaudeville type tradition. He got his start in the early days of radio, so he had this booming voice and this cheesy grin and this self-deprecating sense of humor, a kind of fake pompousness that he then make fun of. People loved him and he got very involved in the pageant and was known for just being incredibly gracious and saying just the right thing to these young women backstage so that they wouldn’t feel nervous when they went on the air.”

Bert Parks statue in Atlantic City  Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia

“And then it didn’t really work out. They ended up hiring a guy named Ron Ely who had played Tarzan in a 1960s TV show. So here’s like a really good looking young guy, a real kind of, you know, Malibu man. He was only on for two years. Basically I think the pageant wanted someone a little sexier, but he was too sexy. And then he was replaced by Gary Collins who was a long time veteran TV host and he was married to a former Miss America, Marianne Mobley. He had 10 years in that job and then Regis Philbin had about 10 years. As for Bert Parks, I often feel like if he had lasted a few more years, people would have begun to love him because he had that kind of like ironic humor. It was just this classic old school ham and there was a great charm about it.”

Anita Byrant

“Bryant was a top 10 finalist in 19 58, 59, 60? She was a really good looking young woman. And, you know, back then Miss America was a real launching pad to fame and not just for the women who won Miss America, but for the finalists. She launched a career as a pop singer and had a number of songs on the charts.  But she was, very anti-gay and was campaigning for very homophobic legislation in Florida. There was a huge backlash and her career never, never survived, never recovered after that.”

Phyllis George

“Phyllis was really a dynamo and she’s very responsible in a way for setting a new pace, a new benchmark for Miss Americas. She was just a regular girl from Denton, Texas who became Miss Texas and then became Miss America. She had an absolutely buoyant personality, incredibly good looking, but she wasn’t a performer. She wasn’t an actress. She wasn’t a singer. Miss America really unlocked ambitions for her. She went from being a small town girl to someone who saw something of the world and wanted to make something of it, whereas a lot of Miss Americas from the 1960s, they finished their year and they went back to college or they got married right away to a high school sweetheart. Phyllis wanted more. And in a way, she was very emblematic of a new generation of ambitious young women across America who are coming along, who wanted a career, wanted adventure and who were willing to postpone having a family to do that.”

“She was trying for a couple of years to find some kind of career break. Like I said, she was a piano player, but she wasn’t going to be professional caliber. She kept trying to get on sitcoms or commercials, but you know, she wasn’t really an actress. And then she met the head of CBS Sports and at that point CBS was looking to get ahead in the ratings. They were getting whipped by ABC and they realized that they needed to broaden their appeal and that women were the key to broadening the audience. And then the head of CBS Sports, a man named Bob Wussler met Phyllis. They had about 30 minutes of chit-chat. They talked a little bit about sports. He asked her what she you knew about sports? And she said, ‘Well, I’ve dated some athletes.’ But she was so charming and such a good talker they hired her.”

Phyllis George, 21-year-old Miss Texas, who became Miss America, pauses in sipping orange juices at her first breakfast as the nation’s new beauty queen, in Atlantic City, N.J., Sept. 13, 1970. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

“He hired her right on the spot and gave her a job which turned into a big thing within a year. She was one of the co-hosts of The NFL Today. It was a huge success with Brent Musburger. It was a sensation – all the stuff that we’re used to now where you have, you know, the up close and personal profiles of athletes that was entirely new. Phyllis really brought that about. She was looking for her lane trying to figure out what she could do best. She wasn’t going to be the best play by play person, but she could do interviews with athletes and she was an absolute natural. She could just connect with them and her career really took off. She became a huge sensation It was just this roller coaster decade and a half for her. She became a huge TV star. She was on all the magazine covers. And this is when women were barely in TV news, let alone TV sports. It opened a lot of doors and you started to see more and more TV stations hiring women, putting them in anchor spots and not infrequently. They were looking to The Miss America Pageant to try to find who they were going to hire into these jobs because the Miss America’s had this ineffable skillset that’s turned out to be really appropriate for broadcast. They were photogenic. They knew how to talk. They had an essential like-ability and warmth and that’s what they wanted their news personalities {to be}.”

Photo by Tony Powell. Pamela Brown and Amy Argetsinger “There She Was” Book Party. Conrad Hotel. September 14, 2021

“Her story became very complicated. She married John Y. Brown who was the Kentucky fried chicken entrepreneur. He ran for Governor right after their honeymoon and he won. She became First Lady of Kentucky. She was doing that and juggling her sports job, but she was very ambitious and then she went for the next job which was to become one of the anchors of CBS Morning News. And arguably, they promoted her into that job before she was ready for it. It was a very hard news culture that was not very welcoming of her particular skillset. The job only lasted about eight months and it was a real let down and she never really got the next big TV job. Phyllis’s daughter Pamela took a different path into TV news. She did the hard work, small jobs and now she’s got her own show that she anchors on CNN.  She learned a lot of lessons, I think, from her mother’s experience.”

Gretchen Carlson  Photo courtesy of Yahoo

Gretchen Carlson

“She is a very interesting personality in the Miss America trajectory. She was an undergraduate at Stanford when she decided to compete. She was a very competitive young woman – high school valedictorian from a small town, a prize winning violin prodigy. That was not really the Miss America type. She was a little brainy and a little more ambitious than most of them and gleaned accurately that Miss America was looking for something different. She took leave from Stanford, but also was too embarrassed to tell her friends where she was going. She set out on this one year quest to win Miss America and she did. She comes back into the Miss America history again decades later. As you know, there was a big email scandal three and a half, four years ago.  She emerged when there is a group of Miss America’s essentially who nudged Sam Haskell out of that job. They brought these emails to light and Gretchen became the new chair three years ago, it was December of 2017, a three to three and a half years ago.  Gretchen’s big move when she became Chairman was to get rid of the swimsuit competition, which was a very big move, very controversial.  I think she accurately knew that the Miss America brand was in trouble and that it needed a reboot to regain public attention and public credibility, but it was kind of too much too soon for the pageant community. A lot of people within the pageant world felt that they’d been misled about the reasons for it. Barely six months after Sam Haskell was ousted from that job, Gretchen herself was under fire from the pageant community. There were many disputes where she nudged out several of her board members. They filed suit to try to get her out. She ended up sticking around for another year, but she has since left the organization. So that’s been a very rocky road.”

Backstabbing behind the scenes and references to Christianity and God-fearing

“That has been the enduring criticism and tension within the pageant world whether they are trying to program themselves to win. I mean, it’s a judge competition and so you do have the phenomenon of young women or their pageant mentors looking to see what worked last time, trying to fit that mold. There was definitely a trend. I mean, I’d say since, since the 1950s anyway, it’s certainly been a very conservative culture. The local competitions were run for many years by the Jaycees and your Chamber of Commerce, so they tended to be looking for young godly women in 1979, A young woman named Cheryl Prewitt, who was just overtly evangelical, talked about how her leg had been healed at a faith healing service she won. And after that increasingly you did see a lot of more over-talk about Christianity and faith. There was a sense that either young women felt that this was how they had to talk if they wanted to win or that the state pageant people were picking their most godly girls to send to Atlantic City. I think maybe the latter.”

On the Atlantic City Boardwalk, demonstrators, many with posters, protest the Miss America beauty pageant, Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 7, 1968. Among the visible signs are ones that read ‘Welcome to the Miss America Cattle Auction’ and ‘All Women Beautiful.’ The protest, organized by the New York Radical Women group, was known as ‘No More Miss America,’ after a pamphlet written and distributed by the group. (Photo by Bev Grant/Getty Images)

So where in the world is this going? Should they maybe just rename it Miss America Beauty Pageant and go back to the swimsuit stuff and the dumb questions or do they want to keep on the track that’s going on now with STEM and all of the educational scholarships?

“You know, I think it’s a good question. I think it’s kind of a moot point. There are a lot of people in the pageant community who were very quick to blame Gretchen Carlson for the pageant’s tailspin. I don’t know if it’s going to be on television this year, however my close read of what has been going on is that the business model for Miss America has been in trouble for a long time. The ratings have been in decline for many, many years and it just does not have the hold on the culture that it used to. It was the first reality show. It used to be something incredibly special. There was this incredible emotional hook and momentum to seeing this young woman get picked from a crowd of 50 or 51. But you know, reality TV really stole all the most exciting things about Miss America and improved upon it. It’s very hard for me to see a way for it to continue. We know that whether you have a swimsuit competition or don’t have a swimsuit competition, at the end of the day there are other things for people to watch on TV.  And even though, as I discovered when I walked into convention hall in the mid nineties and saw this big, crazy teaming lively subculture, at the end of the day what kept it all going was television and sponsors and people who are willing to throw money at this because of what it meant to the world. When that begins to go away, when you lose the grip on the sponsors, you lose the scholarship funds and you lose the imaginations of young women who used to compete for this in the tens of thousands. It’s a very small number of women who compete for it anymore. It’s hard for me to see a long-term future.”