Thereafter, there doesn’t seem to be many records of what way beauty pageants went. Beauty was always appreciated, in every culture, in every country and continent, in every era. But formal, organized beauty pageants – maybe not.
The tradition came to America in 1921 when the hoteliers of Atlantic City decide to stage a “pageant” to entice summer tourists to stay in town past Labor Day. The fall festival included a “National Beauty Tournament” on the beach to select “the most beautiful bathing beauty in America”.
Local newsman, Herb Test, created history by offering to title of “Miss America” to the girl who wins. Out of the eight competitors for the title, Ms. Margaret Gorman, who represented the nation’s capital as Miss Washington D.C., was declared the beauty queen, winning the first Miss America title. It became an annual event after that. All sorts of landmarks started appearing. For instance, in 1923, Mary Katherine Campbell became the only woman to win the Miss America title two years in a row. By 1923, the number of contestants swelled to 70, and they would converge in Atlantic City to compete for the crown. The contest was discontinued between 1929 and 1932, because the great Depression had started eating into the US economy during this period. In 1932, it was held, but without much fanfare, as Dorothy Hann, a diminutive 5’2″ woman won the Miss America title.
But thereafter the contest was dogged by controversies. First, the contest, even after it was revived, came under a new management as The Variety Showman’s Jubilee. Then the winner, 15-year-old Marian Bergeron won the crown. Later, when her age was discovered, she was disqualified but the crown had already been stolen from the Queen’s hotel where she was staying. The event was a financial failure, but the one good thing that happened that for the first time, the beauty queen was crowned in an evening gown rather than in a swimsuit.
It was only in 1935 that the pageant was revived under Lenora Slaughter, who felt, that the event could be made profitable. By this time, the nation was in the grips of Hollywood fever and it was thought appropriate that the winners should be offered Hollywood screen tests. Some ladies actually did make it through that road, one of them being Dorothy Lamour (1935), who went on to co-star in Road. (Just how do women qualify to be good actress because they are beautiful, is anybody’s guess). It was only in 1938 that a talent competition became mandatory for the pageant. Another attempt at intellectualizing the whole show was a brilliant move on the part of Slaughter, when she decided to offer a college scholarship to the winner, a whopping sum of US $ 5000. Given that this was the period in American history when the returning GIs were uppermost on everyone’s mind, and providing opportunity to them, the national goal, the task was daunting, but Slaughter did not give up. As a result, in 1945, Miss New York, Bess Myerson won the first of these scholarships. She also made history of another sort, to be the first Jewish woman to be named Miss America. Ironically, this was about the time Hitler surrendered and millions of Jews around the globe got respite.
In 1948, another piece of history was made, when the Miss America director, Lenora Slaughter announced that henceforth the winners will be crowned in evening gowns only. The media was very upset but she went ahead anyway, and finally, the winner, Miss Minnesota, was crowned in a gown with a lineup of swimsuits behind her. The runner-up was crowned in a swimsuit, nonetheless.
By now, it was time to take the contest out of America, or at least, allow others to participate. So the Miss World Pageant took birth in 1951 with the slogan, Beauty with a Purpose. This pageant was held as a part of the Festival of Britain. The contest was allied to a number of charities, across the globe and soon, beauty pageants were not only about beauty, but also about brains, business, finance and even show business. This time around, the winner was Miss Sweden, Kiki Hakonson. The very next year saw the birth of the Miss Universe-Miss USA contest, together held in Long Beach, California. Among the twenty-nine international contestants this time, the first winner was Finland’s Armi Kussela.
In Great Britain, the concept of a beauty pageant started only in 1945, as a “Bathing Beauty Queen” contest held in Morecambe, organized by the local Council in partnership with the Sunday Dispatch. It later went on to become Miss Great Britain. The award money was 7 guineas and a basket of fruit, and of course, the ego trip was a perk. In 1946, the prize money increased to Pound Sterling 100 and then to 1000 in the sixties. The contests got increasingly popular and by 1949, almost 165,000 people were watching it. The formats were the same, the judges looked for a happy, friendly, healthy British beauty. Mothers would enter their daughter’s names without telling them, and about 20 such innocent young ladies were paraded every year.
Very soon it ceased to be a holiday entertainment, largely because the British tradition of seaside holidays was changing, and also the whole meaning of parading the girls was being questioned. By the eighties most of these contest were closing down, at least from their swimming pool sites.
Then came the golden age of media events, sponsorships, event management companies and of course, enhanced beauties. Women were still being paraded, men were still watching with voyeuristic delight, marking each of them for the size of their hips, breasts and waist (sometimes giving a stray thought to that unnecessary appendage called a talent contest), and grading women in the eyes of the world. Women were happily judging themselves by these very yardsticks.
Last known, when man was successful in sending machines to the moon, women were still worrying whether their bust size is right by international (men’s) standards, or their bottom resembled a pear or apple. No amount of striding, over the last 90 years has changed the face of beauty pageants, as they are still flesh markets, exhibiting willing bodies, the only difference between then and now is that there used to be small sums of money involved earlier, now it is millions of dollars, corporate identities and brand strategies, but still the bust size is what matters!!!!