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January 29, 2013

From Pageants to Politics

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miss america

Photo Credit: Newscom

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Another big factor drawing talent: Pageants are having a major moment. Though Miss America bigwigs and contenders alike hold their noses up at reality shows like TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras and its spin-off Here Comes Honey Boo Boo ("I don't agree with those sorts of programs," Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler noted in an interview), it's hard to dismiss the renewed interest in pageants these shows have sparked. In late August, some 3 million viewers tuned in to watch Alana Thompson, aka Honey Boo Boo, the sass-talking, Go Go Juice — swilling 7-year-old pageant diva, do her thing — topping ratings of cable news coverage for Paul Ryan's highly anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention that same night. The Miss America Pageant has become so popular, in fact, that ABC, which dumped the event back in 2004, welcomed it back two years ago. Last year the broadcast garnered 8 million viewers, a coup considering it was up against an NFL play-off game.

For viewers, pageants are an oddly compelling glimpse into a dated world where women are scored on how effortlessly they glide across a stage in an evening gown. For hopefuls, they used to offer the prospect of stardom, though now it is exposure that's the real reward. In the clubby world of local politics, name recognition — even that secured on the pageant circuit — opens doors historically closed to young women.

Though the Miss America winner nets a $50,000 college scholarship, she must take a break from her studies during her reigning year to accommodate the grueling schedule of appearances. Much of that period is spent on the road, waving to crowds at parades and benefits, making pit stops at hospitals and fundraisers, and promoting her platform with speeches delivered pretty much anywhere that will have her — American Legion halls, USO receptions, megachurch gatherings, and the like. The scenario isn't all that different at the state level, where winners are expected to smile, schmooze, and sign autographs at car dealerships, hospitals, and public school gymnasiums. Ask a municipal mayor what his schedule looks like on any given day and you're likely to hear a similar itinerary.

"In practical terms, [being Miss Vermont] taught me how to be The Candidate," says Bright, who took a leave from her internship with Shap Smith, Vermont's speaker of the House, so she could compete in the Miss America pageant. "You learn how to be the face of an organization, deal with media, stick to talking points, how to dress yourself for different situations, how to accessorize effectively and appropriately."


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