For nearly a century, the Miss America Pageant has been trying to stop time. Founded in 1921, a year after women won the vote, it channeled a wave of resistance to change by crowning winners who were demure and unambitious—everything the boisterous flappers and fiery feminists of the Twenties were not. In 1968—the year of the King and Kennedy assassinations, The Tet Offensive, and Hair on Broadway—the pageant chose Cinderella as its theme.
Miss America, like much of America, has come a long way. Today, it’s the self-proclaimed largest source of scholarship money for women in the country and has made attempts to move past its history. And yet, for a deeply reactionary spectacle that still involves baton twirling and tap dancing, the pageant has also produced a surprising number of renegades who bent or broke the rules with righteous flamboyance. From refusing to wear a swimsuit in public to breaking the race barrier, these women proved that a contest committed to retrograde fantasies of American womanhood sometimes creates beautiful mutineers. Here are nine winners Miss America 2018 can look to for inspiration when she takes the crown in Atlantic City this Sunday.
Photo via Getty Images/Bettmann
Norma Smallwood (1926)
A lone early winner of color who pre-dated pageant rule number seven, introduced in the 30s to require that contestants “must be of good health and of the white race,” Smallwood was part Cherokee. She was also the first college student to win, and the first to go out on a full sponsorship year as a spokesperson. She shrewdly parlayed her banquet appearances and product endorsements into $100,000—almost twice what Babe Ruth made that year, then demanded a $600 fee for crowning her successor. When the pageant committee refused to pay, she refused to go.
Bette Cooper (1937)
She entered on a dare at 17 and ran off with her handsome pageant-assigned escort the night she won, galled by the year of mindless obligations that came with her title when she just wanted to finish high school. That night, the couple climbed down her hotel fire escape and took off in a motorboat, leaving gobsmacked pageant officials in their wake. Cooper later went to college, took a job in PR, and declined to publicly discuss “the incident” ever again.
Bess Myerson (1945)
A concert pianist from the Bronx, she was the first and only Jewish Miss America. She was also the first to receive a scholarship with her crown. When the pageant director suggested she Anglicize her name because it would be good for her career, she called her bluff and refused, saying, “I live in a building with 250 Jewish families. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I’m the daughter of Louis and Bella Myerson.” During the contest week in Atlantic City, Myerson later recalled, Jewish women showed her the numbers on their arms and told her, “You have to win. You have to show the world that we are not ugly.” But despite her highly publicized victory, some sponsors refused to support a Jewish Miss America and dropped out of the pageant. So she quit her tour and accepted an offer from the Jewish Defamation League to travel the country doing an anti-Semitism lecture called “You Can’t Hate and Be Beautiful.”
Yolande Betbeze (1951)
According to a PBS American Experience documentary on Miss America, then pageant director Lenora Slaughter called this singer from Alabama “the sexiest, most glamorous thing I had ever laid eyes on.” But she refused to wear a swimsuit for public endorsements (“I’m an opera singer, not a pinup!” she declared), prompting the pageant’s key sponsor, Catalina Swimwear, to pull out and found the new Miss Universe Pageant (purchased by one Donald J. Trump in 1996). “There was nothing but trouble from the minute that crown touched my head,” Betbeze (later Betbeze Fox) said. She used her pageant scholarship money to study philosophy at the New School for Social Research and volunteered for the NAACP. An outspoken activist, she lambasted the pageant for its racism in the 60s and its sexism in the 70s, but softened in the 80s when it became more racially inclusive (a change she partly—and rightly—claimed credit for initiating).
Rebecca King (1974)
First, instead of crying with gratitude, she calmly received the crown she believed she deserved, which raised eyebrows. “I think my mother received maybe a hundred letters because I didn’t cry,” she said on American Experience. Then she revealed herself to be a pro-choice feminist, scandalizing the fossilized pageant committee members. Feminists who’d protested outside the pageant for years did a double take and invited King to speak at the National Organization for Women’s annual convention. An attorney today, King (now King Dreman) entered the pageant for the scholarship she needed to attend law school. “I think it shocked the pageant when I said I was in it for the money,” she said on American Experience. “And I didn’t think it was strange at all. I said what is it? It’s a scholarship program, right? Isn’t that what we’re here for?”
Vanessa Williams (1984)
The first black Miss America made history first for winning the crown after decades of racial discrimination, then again for being asked to rescind it after Penthouse published nude photos she’d posed for at 17. As documented in Dawn Perlmutter’s 2000 book Beauty Matters, pageant critics rightly questioned the difference between appearing nude in Penthouse and strutting around in stilettos and a butt-glued swimsuit on national television. Williams went on to enjoy a successful singing and acting career, and made a historic return to the pageant as a judge in 2015, where, perfectly unimpressed, she received an apology for her de-crowning. She’s the most famous Miss America of all time, and the impact of her win on black women—even those who weren’t pageant fans—can’t be underestimated. It “gave girls like me ideas,” Roxane Gay wrote almost 30 years later. “That moment made us believe we too could be beautiful.”
Kaye Lani Rae Rafko (1988)
Rafko came across as a ditzy bubblehead in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, Roger and Me, where she was interviewed alongside country club elites unconcerned about Detroit’s cratered economy in the wake of General Motors’ plant closings. But she was no debutante. A registered nurse whose dad ran a junkyard, she was typical of many low-income women who entered beauty pageants to pay for college. As documented in Kate Shindle’s 2014 memoir, Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain, when Rafko crowned her successor, she announced that she would return to school for a master’s degree in oncology, then open a hospice center for cancer and AIDS patients. And she did. The very mention of AIDS on the Miss America stage—or on television, period, at that time—was radical. The following year, the pageant committee added a new rule requiring contestants to pick a cause and spend their service year promoting it, as Rafko had.
Kate Shindle (1998)
With her memoir, Shindle herself unpacked the calcified policies and gender politics that have made the contest a national laughingstock. Though she was a proud virgin when she won, her platform was quite explicit: HIV education and prevention. She promoted condoms in schools and needle exchanges on the streets, and her Miss America title got her invited to events, she said, that AIDS activists had been trying to get into for years. “The biggest problem Miss America faces,” Shindle wrote, “… [is] that the public is smart enough to see that [it] is not selling what it says it is.” What they need to grasp is that “little girls who used to aspire to wear the crown are dreaming of becoming CEOs instead. Or Ph.D.s. Or sitting behind their very own desk in the Oval Office.”
Nina Davuluri (2014)
When Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to take the crown in 2014—she, too, competed to pay for college and graduate school—she was hit with a blizzard of racist tweets. For years, women of color had been denied the right to grace the Miss America stage and be seen as the models of American beauty they are. Now, Davuluri’s very citizenship was being challenged; viewers claimed she was an Arab, a Muslim, and a terrorist (a depressing index of the cultural illiteracy of the fans who took the trouble to tweet these charges). She dropped her plan to become a doctor in favor of a business degree and now advocates for cultural competency and women’s rights. This fall, she’ll host a reality TV show on Zee TV, showcasing six second-generation South Asian millennial women.
Margot Mifflin is a professor at The City University of New York writing a cultural history of the Miss America pageant.