POSTED ON AUGUST 11, 2010:
Miss Not-So-Perfect USA
Although rocked by lasting scandal and controversy, pageants have continued to stay the course
Mignon Merchant Ball, a former pageant contestant turned judge and mom, recognizes that pageants have changed since her involvement more than 20 years ago but believes they have the same overall purpose.
With the Aug. 23 Miss Universe pageant quickly approaching, contestants from all over the world are packing their gowns, swimsuits, makeup and dreams in anticipation of making the trip to Las Vegas to compete for the title. But the road to the top of the pageant world isn't always a straight one.
For instance, when Mignon Merchant decided to come out of "retirement" in 1985 and re-enter the competitive world of scholarship pageants, it wasn't the easiest decision she would ever face.
A 1983 University of Oklahoma graduate with a degree in print journalism, Merchant had landed a job as a production assistant at KWTV Channel 9 in her hometown of Oklahoma City, then quickly moved to the other side of the camera, becoming the station's morning and noon anchor. Just as quickly, Merchant found herself on the outs at KWTV when she got into a dispute with station management over, of all things, her hair.
After being taken off the air, she asked to be let out of her contract, and Merchant found herself facing a career crossroads at the ripe old age of 23.
"Hair today, gone tomorrow," she said, joking about the episode.
Trying to decide what to do with her life, Merchant decided on law school. But she had something else she wanted to do first.
Active in pageants throughout her time in college (supporters of the system call them scholarship pageants, bristling at the term beauty pageant, which they consider outdated), Merchant -- a sports writer for the school paper -- had capped her career at OU by winning the Miss Oklahoma USA title during her senior year. That ended her long streak of futility on the pageant circuit as Merchant had spent countless hours during her undergraduate days driving around the state with her mother and competing in various local competitions, hoping to use a victory there as a launching pad to greater things. She never won so much as a local pageant.
Things finally fell in line for her in her last year at OU when she won the state title. And at the Miss USA pageant in Knoxville, Tenn., she finished sixth, missing the top five by less than 1/100th of a point. It had been a fun and exhilarating ride, but with a career in broadcast journalism beckoning, Merchant reluctantly realized it was time to "hang up the rhinestones," in pageant parlance.
Two years later, facing the unemployment line, she realized she had not quite gotten the pageant bug out of her system. She had learned a great deal from her experience as a Miss USA state winner, and she yearned to put that knowledge to use by competing in the better-known and more highly regarded Miss America system.
"I realized I had one year of eligibility left, and I did not want to wonder 'What if?'" she said. "I couldn't leave it on the table. I didn't want to go around later saying, 'I coulda been a contendah!' "
But first, she had to sell the idea to her two biggest supporters -- her mom and dad.
"My parents tried to talk me out of it," she said. "They did not want me to do it. They told me, 'We can't watch you lose again. It's so hard on us.'"
But Merchant held firm in her decision, eventually convincing her parents it was something she needed to do.
"By the end, they were very, very supportive," she said. "I think it took me two years to find out who I was."
This time, a more confident and better prepared Merchant would find success more quickly. She claimed the Miss Lake Hudson title to qualify for the state pageant, then added a second state title to her résumé by claiming the Miss Oklahoma crown. Next up, Atlantic City and the Miss America pageant.
If she was really going to give it her all, Merchant decided, this was no time to play it safe. She had always gone the conventional route when it came to the talent portion of the competitions she entered, belting out a Broadway show tune like dozens of other contestants.
"I was not a great singer, but I was a decent singer," she said.
Still, she had come to the realization that just being adequate wasn't good enough, especially considering the number of vocal music majors she knew she would encounter in the Miss America system. Merchant had always tried to make up for her talent shortcoming in the past by excelling in other areas -- she particularly shined in the interview portion with judges -- but if she was going to give this her best shot, she needed to come up with something different.
While judging a pageant in Arkansas, Merchant was discussing her dilemma with a friend.
"You know, why don't you do stand-up comedy?" the woman suggested.
It was an idea completely out of left field, but it appealed to Merchant all the same. Stand-up comedy was very big on The Tonight Show and other programs at the time, and she had always had a good time cracking jokes at the expense of her mother, her loyal companion on all those long, lonely drives to small towns throughout Oklahoma. So Merchant wasn't lacking for material.
On the other hand, the Miss America pageant -- a deeply conservative institution based on decades of tradition -- was not the safest arena for experimentation.
Doing a stand-up routine would be a bold but very risky move, since viewers weren't exactly expecting to tune in and see a contestant stroll around the stage, microphone in hand, eyeing an audience member and asking, "Didja ever wonder why airline food tastes so bad?"
Merchant seized on the gambit. If it worked, it worked. If it didn't, she figured, there was always law school.
"Well, it did," she said. "I had the personality for it, and the judges saw there is a talent and a skill to it. I did not happen to finish in the top 10, but I received the non-finalist talent award."
Merchant had impressed everyone with her verve, eschewing the singing, tap dancing or juggling routine for something a little more edgy.
"It was different," she said. "I'm not sure they knew what to think about it. I think they thought I was kind of a loose cannon, and they were worried, since it was live TV. But my bit was safe -- very, very Disney."
While she ultimately fell short of claiming the Miss America crown, Merchant had done things on her own terms, proving there was more than one way to skin a cat when it came to making the most of the pageant system. She retired feeling much more fulfilled than she had three years earlier and was able to turn her full attention to law school the next fall.
Merchant realizes her experience is hardly typical. But that doesn't stop her from impressing one thing on contestants who seek her counsel these days, advice that cuts right to the heart of the common criticism that pageants encourage and promote only a narrow, outdated view of -- there's that word again -- beauty.
"If you go in there and you're anybody but yourself and you win, you're going to have a miserable year," Merchant said. "You can't maintain it."
Still a Pageant Junkie
Merchant hasn't exactly walked away from the pageant life throughout the past 25 years, remaining active in the Miss Oklahoma event in various capacities while judging two other state Miss America pageants a year. Earlier this year, she served as a judge in the Miss Maine pageant alongside famed defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, and in July, she found herself in St. Petersburg, Fla., judging the Miss Florida event.
During a prolonged poolside telephone conversation from St. Pete, Merchant -- now Mignon Merchant Ball, the married mother of two boys and a resident of Topeka, Kan. -- explained why the pageant system has remained such an important part of her life, even as many critics regard it as a relic of the past and its popularity appears to be fading in many respects.
Merchant is not defensive about those who view pageants as shallow and sexist. In fact, during an hour-long conversation, she reserved her biggest complaint for the Miss Florida organizers who wouldn't allow her to skip the judges orientation so she could catch that night's Boston Red Sox-Tampa Bay Rays game from Tropicana Field.
Her sports writer roots run deep, with many of her observations about the pageant world couched in sports terms. In fact, she jokes, there are so many similarities between the two she collectively calls them "spageants." And she jokes that her own on-again, off-again career made her the Brett Favre of the pageant world.
"It's changed a lot, and it's stayed the same," she said of the evolution of scholarship pageants throughout the past 25 years. The purpose behind the Miss America pageant remains the same -- it is still the largest provider of scholarship money for young women in the world, with its system offering more than $45 million in cash and scholarship assistance, she said. The ideal of the pageant hasn't changed either, she said -- Miss America is intended to encourage young women to be achievement-oriented, smart and set goals for themselves.
The pageant's website (missamerica.org) goes even further, employing a quote from Frederick Hickman, president of the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce when the Miss America competition was established in 1921, to set the tone.
"Miss America represents the highest ideals," he said. "She is a real combination of beauty, grace and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American Girl might well emulate."
Those ideals apparently served the pageant well through its first 50 years -- though, according to pageantcenter.com ("Your leading pageant resource," as it bills itself), even the Miss America competition was not immune to controversy. In 1948, for instance, pageant director Lenora Slaughter announced that year's winner would be crowned while wearing a gown instead of the traditional swimsuit.
The outraged reporters covering the event -- presumably, a male-dominated lot -- responded by threatening a boycott, though their attempt at throwing their weight around backfired shortly thereafter when they were ordered to get back to work by their editors. Anarchy was avoided when a compromise was struck: The winner was crowned in a gown, while the runners-up wore swimsuits. Journalistic integrity, or what passed for it in those days, had been preserved.
Other controversies followed periodically. The pageant did not welcome its first African-American contestants until the 1970s, and in 1968, a feminist protest on the boardwalk outside the pageant hall drew the attention of the FBI's anti-riot squad, according to pageantcenter.com.
Still, none of that seemed to affect the popularity of the pageant itself, which annually ranked as the highest-rated television program of the year throughout much of the 1960s. Those were heady days for the pageant, as it achieved a prominence in American culture it would never recapture, once attitudes began to change in the 1980s.
Merchant acknowledged that shift.
"The days when it was on all three networks and everyone sat around their TV on Saturday night and watched Miss America are over," she said.
But Merchant argues that pageants are not necessarily less popular than they used to be. Rather, she said, television producers have, in many ways, simply co-opted the pageant template and slightly modified it into programs such as American Idol. Others, like The Learning Channel's Toddlers and Tiaras, are reality-based series that document the world of children's pageants.
"There are all kinds of reality shows that serve as other venues for talented young women to compete in," she said. "So the market's been divided quite a bit. But Miss America will be back on network TV next year, and that's a huge thing."
Merchant takes criticisms of the pageant system in stride, acknowledging that the Miss America competition, in particular, doesn't carry the cultural weight it once did.
"It's not a big deal anymore," she said. "But it is a little slice of Americana, and it surprises some people it's still there."
The Perfect Teen
While teenagers are often busy rebelling against parents and being apathetic toward anything and everything that does not have texting capabilities, Amanda Vavra was busy making sure she appeared to be on her best behavior.
Having set a goal for herself of becoming Miss Dance of America, Vavra made it her priority to become the perfect teen during her days at Sapulpa High School, even if that meant being extra friendly while ordering a cheeseburger at McDonald's.
"Lots of time and effort goes into making sure you look the part," she said. "(You need) hair and makeup appropriate for all stages of the competition, but also when you were in public around competition time. You never know when the judges are in the restroom stall next to you or behind you in line at the drive-thru."
After entering her first dance pageant at the age of 14, Vavra was judged in tap, ballet, jazz and acrobatics classes, along with a professional interview and a dance solo performance. When Vavra walked on stage in her evening gown along with the other contestants to hear who had won the Teen Miss Dance of Oklahoma title, she was ecstatic to find herself being crowned. For four more years, Vavra continued to compete, hoping to one day be titled Miss Dance of America.
"Growing up, I admired the girls walking around at competitions with crowns and banners, but also wanted the validation that a panel of people who I didn't know thought that I was admirable and talented," she said. "I wanted to participate in pageants to gain access to all of the social connections made by holding a title."
With her eyes on a future goal of teaching dance, Vavra tried to network and get to know as many people in the pageant and dance scene as possible.
"We were all competing for the title of Miss Dance of America, all wanting the chance to jump start a career, but the dance world is small," she said. "As a woman, if you cross the wrong person -- one with connections -- you can get blacklisted and never work."
As Vavra dedicated four years to pageants, she was able to advance to compete in both the Teen Miss Dance of America pageant, as well as the Miss Dance of America competition. At those events, Vavra joined a diverse group of contestants.
"At the state level, we all knew one another from competing for so many years," she said. "Everyone was generally kind and supportive. At the national level, the girls are much more intense because the stakes are much higher. You definitely get some divas -- people trying to shark extra rehearsal space and time or the best spot in the dressing room."
Vavra met divas in other areas of these pageants, too.
"I've certainly encountered some characters in coaches, teachers and moms," she said. "They are hungry for their contestant's success. They've also put in the money and sweat equity, and yet they will ultimately have no control over how their girl performs."
After investing considerable amounts of money and work into each competition, Vavra said now when she looks back on the pageants she participated in six years ago, she is grateful for the pageants she did not win.
"I think competition is ... great for older teens because you learn to find a balance between believing that you deserve to win and recognizing that there will always be someone better than you are," she said. "You learn to accept compliments and critique."
However, Vavra acknowledged that not all pageants are created equal. The pageants in which she competed as a teen motivated her to push toward her future plans and later helped her land a job. But not all contestants get the same result.
"I think that as a whole, pageants are trying to move away from it, but when I was growing up, I didn't want to do regular pageants because I felt that there was a certain mold that the girls were trying to fit into," she said. "They were promoting this unattainable perfection that all women feel the need to live up to. I was lucky enough to not encounter this, but we see it in coverage even today. They ask the contestants to share their views and convictions about controversial topics and then punish them for being honest.
"Although, I think most people can realize that it's all part of a corporation -- it's a business. They are looking for a specific type of woman to be the sparkling face of the things they want to promote," Vavra said.
Once her pageant days were over, Vavra graduated from high school and moved to Pittsburgh to attend Point Park University to study dance. She now teaches dance classes at various studios in that city and uses her experiences in pageants to judge dance competitions. Even as a judge, Vavra tries to remind contestants that losing a competition is not the end of the world.
"My mom used to tell me, 'It's just one person's opinion of one performance on one specific day,' " she said. "As I am now able to judge for events, I encourage contestants to remember that. Judges are just people, too. They only know what they know."
However, the feeling a contestant gets after winning a pageant is a feeling that Vavra will never forget.
"I'm not going to lie to you -- it's an amazing feeling to parade around town with a crown and banner," she said. "It's validating. I felt invincible. But ... the experiences I had traveling the U.S.A. and life lessons I learned from doing these dance pageants made transition into adulthood a little less bumpy."
Sitting in Judgment
When that sparkly crown is placed atop the winner's head, the job of the pageant judges is complete. But how well the judges have chosen will only become evident throughout time, for there is much more at stake than simply picking a woman who looks good sitting in the back of an open convertible, performing the patented smile-and-wave for a parade crowd. Choosing a winner who represents the organization well is crucial for a pageant's image, as history has demonstrated.
Michael San Giovanni has watched hundreds maybe thousands of women glide across the stage in his capacity as a pageant judge in seven pageants. And San Giovanni has worked with his fair share of beautiful and well-spoken women after acting in multiple Broadway shows and making several television appearances. While taking a break from judging this year's Miss Oklahoma America pageant, San Giovanni explained the appearance of a contestant is only a portion of what he looks for in a winner.
"You're looking for someone who is capable of speaking in public, extremely intelligent and healthy looking," he said. "This is a job interview. Yes, this is a beauty pageant, but it's also a full-time job for a year."
This full-time job is filled with appearances throughout the state leading up to the national competition. That means the winner needs to be comfortable speaking in front of large crowds.
Casey Preslar Erwin, Miss Oklahoma America 2002, said that aspect of the job isn't to be underestimated. During her reign, she said, she put 30,000 miles on her car driving to communities across the state and meeting the people she represented.
"On an average day, I would go to two or three (school) assemblies," she said, while perhaps attending a corporate event that night. "The variety in your schedule is incredible. You have to be able to relate to so many different crowds."
Not everyone is able to do that, as evidenced by the response Miss South Carolina gave in the Miss Teen USA pageant in 2007. During her on-stage question, when asked why so many of her fellow Americans couldn't locate their home country on a map, she responded with a rambling, disjointed answer about "U.S. Americans" not having maps, while also somehow tying South Africa, Iraq and a variety of Asian countries into her response. That uncomfortable moment not only aired on national television, it drew tens of millions of YouTube hits when it was posted online.
Alison Renee Lee understands the importance of being well spoken better than most people. As the first African-American woman to be named a circuit court judge, Lee was asked to judge in a completely different atmosphere in 2008 at the Miss South Carolina America pageant. In June, she also sat with the panel of judges at Tulsa's Mabee Center to select Oklahoma's representative for this year's Miss America pageant.
"Because she's going to be a spokesperson, you ... look at if a lot of people will be able to relate to her," she said. "Will she be a personal representative to the state?"
Former Miss Oklahoma Merchant said she enjoys getting contestants in the interview room during the preliminary pageant competitions.
"That's where you see the obvious differences (between contestants), see their confidence and learn about things that are important to them," she said.
When they are quizzed publicly, Merchant said, many pageant contestants take the safe route, issuing bland and predictable answers to even the most provocative questions. But when they face just the judges in a more private setting, Merchant said, that approach does not necessarily work.
"In a safe setting like that, you can tell who's genuine," she said. "A lot of them still think they need to tell the panel what they want to hear. But I don't care what their opinion is, as long as its hers and she validates it. Tell me why you believe it. A lot of time, the answer I'm looking for can be as simple as, 'That's the way I was raised,' or 'That's based on the experiences I've had.' Just validate and support your answer. That's what I'm looking for."
Then again, that's not what everyone is looking for. Having judged multiple competitions, San Giovanni said not all pageant organizations are focused on the same ideals as the Miss America pageant.
"At the Miss USA competition, one of the things they say is, 'This is a beauty pageant, and we are looking for a very beautiful woman,' " he said. "Miss America is so different."
Judge Lee said her experience in Miss America-based competitions has reinforced the idea that the pageant winner is intended to be a well-rounded woman, not just a beautiful face.
"Now, one category is called physical fitness rather than the swimsuit competition," Lee said. "We look to see if you are too thin, if you are able to do this extensive work and how comfortable you are in your own skin."
If too many pageant contestants seem reluctant to stray beyond boilerplate pronouncements when they find themselves before the public, it isn't hard to imagine why. A number of scandals have been associated with pageant contestants or winners throughout the past quarter-century or so, and the pageant system itself is often ridiculed in popular culture.
Perhaps the best instance of the latter is the 1999 comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, a mockumentary that did for pageants -- and pageant moms -- what This Is Spinal Tap did for heavy metal. Kirsten Dunst stars as a poor, small-town Minnesota girl with a heart of gold who is competing in the Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant. The competition soon takes on a sinister nature when some of the contestants begin suffering gruesome, "accidental" deaths -- one is blown up while riding a tractor, while another is shot dead in a hunting accident.
Nearly stealing the show is Ellen Barkin as Dunst's chain-smoking, beer-swilling, trailer-trash mother. Barging into her daughter's bedroom one afternoon, she appears only mildly surprised to find the cameras rolling and her daughter being interviewed by the documentary crew covering the pageant.
Rather than being alarmed, she backs out the door, wearily advising her daughter, "Well, if they want you to take your shirt off, get the money first."
But it was no Hollywood satire when Vanessa Williams found herself the centerpiece in the biggest pageant scandal of all time in 1983.
As the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America in 1984, the future appeared limitless for Williams -- that is, until word surfaced nearly a year into her reign that sexually explicit photos of her with another woman existed. Reportedly under pressure from pageant officials, she resigned her title in July 1984, while the photos -- most decidedly of a not-very-Miss America nature -- were published in the Sept. 1984 issue of Penthouse magazine.
Since then, a variety of lesser scandals has erupted on a regular basis, many of those instances featuring pageant contestants or winners participating in some risqué photo shoot or racy video. The arrival of the Information Age appears to have made it almost impossible to keep those youthful indiscretions locked away.
"I don't think there is any way to control (the media)," San Giovanni said. "Someone can always find something."
At no time in history has that been more true than today, Merchant said, adding that even a seemingly innocent party picture can be misconstrued.
"I think social media has had a big impact on finding things out," she said. "I've seen a difference the last couple of years in that contestants seem to be more aware of that. At the state pageant every year, I'm always saying, 'Be mindful of things, even if you have things out there that show the appearance of impropriety. It's all about the power of accusation."
Merchant tries to impress upon contestants that nothing is private anymore.
"I tell them, 'Don't put it up there (on Facebook), don't be in that picture or don't send that text message if you don't want people to know about it,' she said. "Just look at Tiger Woods."
The pageant might often find itself the target of ridicule, but San Giovanni said pageants continually polish women to be successful in other parts of their lives.
"A lot of women I know who do pageants have gone on to do politics and become lawyers," he said. "A lot of people go into the pageant world to come out of their shells and reach whatever goals they have for themselves."
Merchant is a prime example of that. She parlayed the scholarship money she won as Miss Oklahoma into a law degree from Oklahoma City University, then spent three years working in the public defender's office, representing indigent defendants accused of various crimes -- "Everything from misdemeanors to first-degree murder to arson, the whole range," she said.
That was a chapter in her life that couldn't have been farther removed from the pageant system, she acknowledged, though she said she'd jump at the chance to do it again.
"It's real stuff, it's everyday life, where you're dealing with major responsibilities and fairness," she said. "It is a burden, but you realize you're not alone in it. That's the reason the system works."
Merchant left her job to start a family. She credits her three years as a public defender with instilling in her a sense of compassion and fairness that she believes has made her a better mother to her sons.
Of course, not every pageant winner goes on to law school, though many of them certainly are in a financial position to do so if they wish.
Former Miss Oklahoma America Preslar Erwin estimated she won $120,000 in scholarships during her five-year pageant career. She opted to earn a communications degree from Oral Roberts University and is now working as a teacher and singer in Colorado Springs.
"For me, it was well worth all the hard work it took to go through," she said. "I graduated from college debt free."
A quick conversation with a handful of contestants at the Miss Oklahoma-America pageant at the Mabee Center on the ORU campus in June made it clear that scholarship money is what attracts so many women to the system.
Three-time contestant Ashley Baumgartner, Miss Tulsa State Fair, pointed out that the Miss Oklahoma winner would be awarded a $16,000 scholarship, but a variety of lesser awards were available for the winners of specific competitions such as swimsuit or talent. Those amounts far exceed the offerings in other states, where pageant winners only take home $2,000 or $3,000, she said.
Miss Langston University, Courtland Powers, said she planned to use the scholarship money she had won to go to law school. She hopes to someday establish her own practice focusing on child advocacy and civil rights.
Although Miss Broken Arrow Madeleine Pritner began competing in pageants to perform in the talent portion of the competition, she said the scholarship prizes are a nice bonus. After winning the Miss Broken Arrow title, for instance, the recent high school graduate walked away with something much more valuable than the rhinestones in her tiara -- a $4,000 scholarship she will use to help her further her education at Oklahoma State University.
And scholarship money isn't restricted just to winners, she noted.
"Every girl in that pageant walked away with money," she said.
Contestants are candid about their reasons for entering pageants during the interviews with judges, Lee said.
"Money is a big drive," she said. "But there is also a public service component to it. They are able to speak about their passions."
Those passions often are reflected in a contestant's platform, and they range from efforts to combat childhood obesity for Baumgartner, a UCO senior who will graduate in December with a degree in nutrition, to Miss Tulsa Talia Berning, who has chosen to focus on sexually transmitted diseases.
"In high school, my biology teacher taught me and my classmates all about sexually transmitted diseases," she said. "When I got to OU, I saw some of the activities going on, and I decided someone needed to talk about the consequences of risky behavior. I decided to start in pageants to be able to promote that platform."
That's what she has done through her role as Miss Tulsa. Berning estimated she has spoken to more than 4,000 students throughout the state on the dangers of STDs during the past year.
None of the four took home the top prize in June -- that went to five-time pageant contestant Emoly West, a University of Central Oklahoma senior who will represent the state at the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas in January -- but winning isn't always the point, Merchant said.
She said the atmosphere backstage at pageants is much more supportive than most people imagine, and she counts herself very fortunate to have been able to represent Oklahoma at two national pageants and soak up that experience more than once.
"There are lasting friendships that are made," she said, explaining that she has remained close to many of the women she competed against in the 1980s, though they now discuss family illnesses, deaths and births rather than pageant gossip.
"I suppose there are ones who come and don't take advantage of it. Even at Miss America, there are those who came and get so caught up in the competitive part of it and didn't take the time to meet a great group of women who all have this same goal, who all have this in common. If you don't take advantage of that, if you become so isolated and uptight, you really don't get the most of the experience."
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