On Sunday, the first openly gay Miss America contestant will vie for the crown on national TV. She’s Miss Missouri, Erin O’Flaherty, and her platform centers on suicide prevention—a particularly prescient topic, since LGBTQ-identified teens are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. I’m excited for O’Flaherty and hopeful her presence will increase awareness of the abysmal suicide rates among our community. On the other hand, I take issue with O’Flaherty’s declaration that “the Miss America Organization has always been open and accepting of women of all backgrounds.” This, as I learned during my reading this week, is simply not true. Black women were prohibited from competing until 1950. Women who had abortions or were divorced could not compete until 1999. Until recently, the “swimwear” modeling portion accounted for 15 percent of each contestant’s overall score; this year, it’s 10 percent. These are just the facts.
Miss America isn’t the only pageant out there, of course, and this week, I learned about Miss Rodeo America and Miss Gay America, too. In this list, you’ll find stories about drag royalty, the price of the perfect Western wardrobe, the perils of butt glue, and more.
1. “Through the Looking Glass.” (Kathleen Hale, Mary Review, September 2016)
I can’t wait to read everything from Mary Review, a newish publication dedicated to spotlighting the work of women. Kathleen Hale catalogues the week she spent in Atlantic City in 2015, watching the Miss America contestants compete, eating $6 pretzels, bonding with her fellow catty audience members and wrestling with her own self-image.
2. “Drag Queens of the Bible Belt.” (Tyler Gillespie, BuzzFeed LGBT, August 2015)
The first Miss Gay America winner was from Arkansas, and Tyler Gillespie travels to Arkansas to observe the 44th annual Miss Gay Arkansas pageant. It’s collaborative, historical, and beautiful:
When [Jonathan] Neighbors performs as Blaze, she puts on makeup for a pageant by taking pieces from her drag family’s styles — the way they paint or dress — and mixes them to tell their family story. Her drag sisters have shared secrets like different ways to apply makeup and how to dress for her body. She paints a family portrait on her own face. In most cases, drag mothers choose their drag daughters, and this relationship is not only an extension of family but one similar to classical apprenticeship. A daughter learns techniques from a skilled artist as would any fledgling painter.
3. “A Night in Atlantic City for Miss America’s 95th Birthday.” (Kate Dries, Jezebel, September 2015)
Katie Dries’ piece for Jezebel is the perfect complement to Kathleen Hale’s essay at Mary Review. In particular, Dries delves into the finances of Miss America’s scholarship program and its small-town, insular vibe.
4. “Bess Myerson, the First Jewish Miss America.” (EJ Dickson, The Hairpin, June 2015)
Last week, during a late-night Pinterest bender, I searched “big nose” and “wide nose.” The result? Contouring tutorials, when all I wanted was to see someone who looked kinda like me: half-Jewish, with a nose not long but wide, out of proportion to the rest of my face, in a way I’ve come to accept and appreciate (mostly). Apparently, I should be contouring. I proceeded to ramble on my private blog about hotness and desirability. Alas. Even though our circumstances are different, I can appreciate EJ Dickson’s essay on wanting to see Jewish women represented in beauty pageantry—a.k.a. sexually desirable—and her joy upon discovering the first Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson. Sometimes you just want to world to tell you you’re pretty. It’s not very feminist, but I know that feeling well. I commend Dickson for her honesty.
5. “Queens of the West.” (Gabriela Herman, Matter, October 2014)
Welcome to Miss Rodeo America. Unless you win, you’re done queening–forever.
Whoever walks away with the crown — a Black Hills gold, pearl, and Alexandrite band that sits atop a cowboy hat — will travel the world. She’ll get $20,000 in scholarship money, plus cowboy hats worth $10,000 from her sponsors. She’ll get custom boots, buckles with her name engraved in silver, and more. She’ll meet and shake hands with thousands, including agribusiness CEOs, senators, and a wide swath of America’s conservative, rural elite.
“Every second — every second — you have to be perfect and look perfect while you’re doing it,” Nicole [Schrock] said. “People that don’t know anything about the rodeo will come up to you and say something offensive and you just have to smile and keep on going… sometimes, people have meltdowns.”