According to the ancient Greeks, the world's first pageant had just three contestants: the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Asked to judge who of them was the most beautiful, Zeus wisely passed the buck to a lowly mortal goatherd named Paris. Swayed by a bribe — the promised love of the most beautiful mortal woman in the world — Paris soon bestowed the title of Miss Olympus on Aphrodite. That might have been that, but it so happened that the most beautiful mortal woman in the world already had a husband, a rather prickly old fellow named Menelaus. Still, love won out (or maybe that should be: Hera and Athena got their revenge) and Helen ended up eloping with Paris to the city of Troy, sparking the Trojan War.
Though today's pageants rarely result in the launch of a thousand ships, those involved in the pageant culture can be about as serious as you can get without a formal declaration of war. While the Miss Arkansas Pageant features one of the largest pots of scholarship money available to young women anywhere in the state, it's not uncommon for girls to spend several times the amount they stand to gain — and months or even years of their lives — trying to win the title and a shot at the Miss America crown beyond. Even so, and though excitement is always high at the week-long Miss Arkansas Pageant held in Hot Springs in July, officials say that last year more than a dozen of the smaller pageants that supply contestants to Miss Arkansas couldn't attract enough warm bodies to hold a contest. Meanwhile, ratings for the televised Miss America Pageant have been in the basement for most of the last decade, resulting in three network changes in the last three years.
While the easy, knee-jerk reaction might be to dismiss these young women as Pageant Queens, — vain, shallow or both — even a quick survey of former holders of the Miss Arkansas crown finds they are anything but brainless show ponies, with a good number of them spinning their year in the spotlight into successful careers. While many of those involved in pageants behind the scenes say that the contests are going to have to evolve if they're going to survive, they also point to the thousands of dollars in scholarship money pageants around the state provide to deserving young women every year; and the thousands of hours of service contestants provide to their communities. Even more important, organizers say, are the rewards that can't be written on a check or a resume: poise, confidence, pride and the opportunity to make one-on-one contacts that can benefit a woman for the rest of her life.
For better or for worse, the world of pageants seems to rise and fall with the Miss America Pageant. Founded in 1921 in Atlantic City, N.J., Miss America started out as a pure beauty pageant — a swimsuit-draped scheme to extend the town's tourist season by creating a reason for tourists to stay past the Labor Day weekend. Nationally televised for the first time in 1954, by 1960 — long before the days of “American Idol” and 57-channel basic cable — the Miss America pageant was the most watched program in America, drawing an incredible two-thirds of the television audience.
Time and technology haven't been kind to the old girl. Even though beauty pageants are the grandmothers of reality shows like “American Idol” and “Survivor,” full of drama, beautiful people and cliffhanger endings, ratings for televised pageants have tumbled in recent years. While the Donald Trump-affiliated Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants have managed to keep their ratings high enough to hang on to a broadcast agreement with NBC, after fewer than 10 million total viewers tuned in for the Miss America broadcast in 2004, long-time host ABC dropped the show, forcing the once grand old lady of the pageant world to go slumming in the cable ghetto. In 2005, the Miss America telecast had a shotgun wedding, to the Country Music Television cable network, which tried to build interest in the show with a move to Las Vegas and a companion program called “Pageant School: Becoming Miss America.” That arrangement lasted less than two years, with CMT citing continuing poor ratings as the reason they refused to renew their option. In August 2007, the pageant announced a new partnership with the cable network TLC, which purchased rights to the show through 2010. Promising a “new twist on the pageant format” in press releases announcing the venture, TLC will broadcast the Miss America pageant from Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in January 2008.