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January 29, 2013

From Pageants to Politics

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Photo Credit: Alan Schein/Corbis

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Perhaps it should. Each year, 12,000 contestants funnel through the Miss America Organization — the Linwood, New Jersey — based governing body of the iconic pageant — vying for local and state titles in hopes of landing one of the coveted 53 slots in the national Miss America Pageant. The system has turned out more than a few highfliers over the decades — actress Delta Burke, NFL broadcaster Phyllis George, Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson, and, most notably, former Miss Wasilla turned vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, among them — but it's also churned out a fair share of vapid alums who've done little to dispel the impression that the annual event, which moved from Atlantic City to Las Vegas seven years ago, is a glorified showcase of T&A. (Clips of attractive but hilariously clueless Miss America hopefuls are as ubiquitous on YouTube as videos of baby pandas.)

Challenging the long-held stereotype of the teased-and-tousled beauty queen ditz is a cadre of informed and articulate contestants whose arsenal of pageant prep now includes The Wall Street Journal and Charlie Rose, in addition to Preparation H (for thigh dimples) and Magic Grip (the tennis racket spray that keeps bikini bottoms from riding up). Among them: Miss Vermont 2010, Caroline Bright, who at age 16 worked on a commission responsible for devising a $12 million scholarship bill that was ultimately signed into law. Last year Bright threw her hat into the ring for Vermont State Senate and, though she lost, was described by a local paper as "well-grounded in the complex world of politics and public policy." While in college, Miss Hawaii 2011, Lauren Cheape, produced and directed a documentary on the plight of her state's struggling farmers, which contributed to the passage of a feed subsidy bill. This year, Cheape, now 25 and an on-the-rise Republican, won a congressional seat in Oahu's 45th District. Miss Nebraska 2010, Teresa Scanlan, was just 17 when she stunned audiences with her assured answer to a question about Wikileaks. ("We have to focus on security first, and then people's right to know.") She went on to nab the 2011 Miss America title. Now an under-graduate at the evangelical Patrick Henry College, she says she's bucking for a Harvard Law degree and wants to become a Supreme Court justice, maybe even president. And competing at this year's pageant: Miss Alabama 2012, Anna Laura Bryan, who at age 23 has already authored legislation allowing autistic children to bring service dogs to school.

How to explain the bumper crop of political wannabes? For starters, Millennials, the latest generation of Miss America hopefuls, aren't hung up on the pageant's controversial history — the feminist protests of the late '60s, the decades of segregation (black women were barred from competing until the 1970s), the Vanessa Williams debacle. (In 1983, Williams became the first African-American to win the pageant but surrendered her crown months later, following revelations that she'd once posed nude.) And besides, in this age of sexting, Snooki, and network-broadcast Victoria's Secret fashion shows, the tired argument that the pageant, with its well-proportioned bikinis and sunny smiles, somehow demeans women is harder to swallow. "In my experience, not many people actually know of the Vanessa Williams scandal," says Scanlan. "My generation is focused on embracing the new, modern, and forward-thinking aspects of the program."

Miss America has smartly cultivated a do-gooder reputation that appeals to civic-minded young women. In 1989, the pageant began requiring that contestants choose a "platform" — homelessness, AIDS awareness, education — to promote during public appearances. That, coupled with the pageant's emphasis on the $45 million in scholarships it makes available annually ("to combat the 'dumb blonde' stereotype," says Scanlan), has helped differentiate it from tawdrier rivals also doling out crowns and titles, like the Donald Trump — owned Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which boast no talent competition and award scholarships only to the New York Film Academy. (The prize is, essentially, publicity.) "Miss America contestants talk to me in complete sentences," jokes photographer Joe Whiteko, who's been documenting pageants for 30 years. "They are, as a group, never marginal students."

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