10 Notable Beauty Pageant Moments

By: the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

In 1921, Atlantic City businessmen created a two-day beauty contest to keep tourists in town past Labor Day. This wasn't the first beauty pageant the world had seen, but it was the one that spawned the Miss America contest. Hundreds of beauty contests have followed, but it hasn't been all roses and tiaras. Here are a few highlights (and lowlights) in the history of beauty pageants.


1. Sideshow/Freak Show

The first American beauty pageant was staged in 1854 by circus magnate P. T. Barnum. But even before women's suffrage changed the role of women in modern society, no one was terribly excited about their wives and sisters being part of a circus sideshow, and the competition didn't last long.


2. You're Never Too Young for Drama

Marian Bergeron won the Miss America crown in 1932. Trouble was, she was only 15 years old at the time. Pageant officials were duly upset, but another scandal kept them from setting things straight: Before they could reclaim the crown, someone stole it from Bergeron's dressing room.


3. Like Beauty Queens to the Slaughter

In 1935, beauty pageants needed a little boost. Enter Lenora Slaughter, a woman who would forever shape the world's concept of the beauty pageant. Slaughter was a savvy businesswoman who pandered to the nation's Hollywood fever, offering screen tests to Miss America winners -- Dorothy Lamour was "discovered" this way. Slaughter was also the brain behind adding the talent competition in 1938 and offering college scholarships to winners beginning in 1945. She ruled the pageant for more than 30 years.


4. Mazel Tov, Miss America!

In 1945, America crowned its first Jewish Miss America when New York's Bess Myerson won the title, even after being told that unless she changed her name to something "less Jewish," she would never win the competition. Myerson refused and won anyway, though her reign was not without controversy. Catalina swimsuits, the Miss America swimsuit supplier, did not ask Myerson to be a spokeswoman for their product, even though every queen before her had inked a deal. Myerson wasn't fazed and went on to serve in politics and won numerous awards for her philanthropic work.


5. Miss Black America Fights Back

Not until 1983 did an African-American woman win the Miss America crown. However, African-Americans didn't wait around to be recognized in the beauty pageant circuit; instead, they organized the first Miss Black America contest in 1968. The pageant started as a local contest in Philadelphia but went national a year later. In the 1969 contest, The Jackson 5 made their first television appearance, and an ambitious young woman named Oprah Winfrey competed as Miss Black Tennessee in 1971.

Who knew a beauty pageant helped put Mike Tyson behind bars? Read on to learn more.


6. So Long, Bert

The opening line of the Miss America theme song -- "There she is, Miss America" -- sparked thousands of girlhood dreams. The man who sang it was Bert Parks, host of the pageant from 1954 to 1980. Pageant producers thought a host change would boost ratings, but many Parks loyalists emerged, including Johnny Carson, who launched a letter-writing campaign to reinstate Parks. Despite their efforts, the "Bring Back Bert" campaign failed and Parks was replaced by various hosts over the years, including Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford in the early 1990s.


7. Say It Ain't So, Vanessa

Statuesque and articulate with a voice like an angel, Vanessa Williams was the darling of the 1983 competition and won the crown with ease, becoming the first black Miss America. But by July 1984, controversy had erupted. Penthouse magazine planned to publish nude photos of the beloved beauty queen without her consent, so she resigned. Williams was then replaced by runner-up Suzette Charles, also an African-American. The scandal didn't faze Williams for long; she went on to record several R&B albums and had a number one song in 1992 with "Save the Best for Last."


8. Heather Makes History

Although a childhood illness left Heather Whitestone profoundly deaf, the strikingly pretty girl excelled in a school for the hearing impaired and began competing in local beauty pageants during college. In 1994, she danced a ballet routine to music she couldn't hear and aced the interview with Regis Philbin by reading his lips. Whitestone was crowned the first Miss America with a disability.


9. Platforms: Not Just Shoes Anymore

In 1989, the Miss America organization officially required each contestant to choose a cause or charity to support. The idea was to not only give airtime to myriad issues affecting the nation, but to also have Miss America use her stature to "address community service organizations, business and civic leaders, the media and others about [her] platform issues." Since then, the role of Miss America has been strictly philanthropic. The beauty queen travels, speaking to community leaders, politicians, and school organizations about her cause, which might be STD prevention, homelessness, domestic violence, voter registration, or literacy.


10. Mike Tyson: Miss Black America Special Guest/Defendant

Heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson was asked to be a special guest at the Miss Black America pageant in 1991. As it turned out, this was not the best move on the part of pageant producers. Contestant Desiree Washington claimed that Tyson had raped her in the days before the contest, and numerous other contestants came forth to say that they too were groped and harassed by Tyson. The boxing star was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.


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