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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.
The downward trend for The Big Crown seems to be having a trickle-down effect on grass-roots pageantry as well. In Arkansas, there are 45 smaller pageants whose winners are eligible to go on to the Miss Arkansas competition. Even though the Miss Arkansas Pageant awards over $70,000 a year in scholarship funds, officials at Miss Arkansas said that in 2007 up to one-third of the preliminary pageants didn't attract the minimum number of contestants — three, to be exact — to hold a contest.
Kelly Bale has been the executive director of the Miss Arkansas Pageant for the past five years. Bale defends the Miss America Organization and the Miss America Pageant as a positive influence on the lives of thousands of young women. She said that while the quality and passion of contestants is still there, many factors have contributed to the downturn of interest in pageants, both from at home viewers and young women who might compete.
On the up side, Bale said that pageants appeal to the natural gifts of women, and can help them develop those gifts. “Men are naturally given talents like strength, and they can pursue scholarships in football and basketball and other sports — as women can too,” Bale said. “But women also naturally like to take care of themselves, to dress up, be pretty, talk — you know how women live to talk. This (participating in pageants) is an avenue that takes the natural abilities and gifts of women and helps them fine tune it.”
Though a chance at a scholarship might be the first thing that attracts a young woman to pageant competition, Bale said the benefits go beyond dollars and cents. “It may not be that you win the crown,” she said. “It may be that you attend some function at a country club in a small town and you meet the man of your dreams, or you meet someone who will be your future boss. It's not necessarily about winning, it's about the opportunities that this organization provides along the way.”
Some of the problems the Miss America broadcast has had in connecting with viewers in recent years, Bale said, may be the result of organizers having lost sight of where Miss America came from, and failing to “monitor and adjust” to trends in popular culture. As an example, Bale said that at a time when the success of reality programs like “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” stands as proof that viewers enjoy watching talent shows, the televised Miss America program actually cut back on the amount of the broadcast devoted to talent in the past few years, showing only the routines of the top five winners in the category.
“When we took talent off the national show, we missed the boat,” Bale said. “As far as television and as far as what people see on TV, we've gotten away from that and I wish we'd go back.”
Bale said she supports the move toward adding more “reality show” content to pageants like Miss America and Miss Arkansas, as long as organizers are careful to keep the goal of modern pageants — promoting the careers and education of young women — in mind. Still, she admits that change can come slow. That's especially so in conservative Arkansas. A few years back, Bale said, she took fire from traditionalists after she opened the door to what some called a reality show-like twist, allowing an undercover reporter from a Little Rock television station to compete in the Miss Arkansas pageant.
“We really tried to show the audience a little bit of how the selection process occurred,” Bale said. “We got a lot of criticism for that, and I took a lot of criticism for that… But I was like, what do we have to hide? Let's just get it out there and show everybody.”
Jill Cady is a former Miss Arkansas contestant, and was crowned Mrs. Arkansas USA in 2005. Now a consultant and coach for young women preparing for pageants, Cady said that while Miss America, Miss Arkansas and other pageants must evolve to meet the times, she isn't sure that adding more “reality show moments” is the way to bring back the glory days.
“I think that traditional pageant people want tradition,” she said. “They're in it to develop all of the skills they can, like interview, talent, stage presence, being able to speak in front of groups… When you shift to reality-TV-based competition, it's less about the development of qualities and more about shock value.”
Cady said that when she competed in the Miss Arkansas Pageant in 1992 as Miss North Central Arkansas, there were 20 contestants in every preliminary pageant across the state. She said there are several factors that could account for the waning interest from young women who might have once competed for those preliminary titles, but adds that the thing that has changed most in the last 15 years is the number of options open to young women who want to be in the spotlight. “There are a lot of vocal competitions locally — dance competitions,” she said. “So the people who in previous years might have participated in pageants because they could develop their talent there, they're now able to do so in other, less costly venues.”
Cady said that the expense of pageants can also be a deterrent to newbie contestants. While girls can cut their expenses drastically by smart shopping, calling in favors, and securing sponsorships, Cady said the cost to put a girl onstage at Miss Arkansas — including custom gowns, shoes, swimwear, a week of professional hair dressing and makeup, interview suit, talent costume, and what can be a months-long regimen of interview and vocal coaching — can easily run in excess of $10,000.
Katie Bailey is the current Miss Arkansas. Reached via e-mail in California, where she was about to begin filming a reality show companion to the Miss America competition, Bailey said that from an early age, she idolized Miss America and what she stood for.
“Today, we have a lot more options for entertainment, and children have several celebrities to serve as role models, whether good or bad,” she said. “We need to work to restore Miss America to the status she once was… an intelligent and passionate young lady representing our nation with class and dignity.”
Bailey agrees that pageants as a whole have to adapt to changing tastes. She said that while they can't be all things to all people, organizers have to find a happy medium — a way to cater to those who love the tradition and those who want the reality show feel. When it comes to the Miss America broadcast, she suggests a change that might seem like a no-brainer to your average television viewer: stop holding the final round on Saturday night.
“Saturday night is where you place a TV show to die,” she said. “Americans aren't at home sitting around the dinner table at 7 p.m. on a Saturday anymore.”
Like Cady, Bailey said that pageants need to put the talent competition back on the front burner in order to capitalize on the success of shows like “American Idol.” Asked about the cost of competing, Bailey admits that pageants can be an “expensive hobby.” (Bailey knows first-hand. She competed six years running for the Miss Arkansas crown, coming in second runner up three frustrating times before finally winning in her last year of eligibility, at age 24.) Still, she said that success really depends more on attitude than how much money you spend. While she had a “full preparation team” that helped her compete for Miss Arkansas last year, she said that contestants don't have to go that far. “It's all about how you carry yourself and the delivery,” Bailey said. “Judges don't care if you spent the big bucks or if you bought it on sale at Dillard's.”
Eudora Mosby-Evans, who won the title of Miss Arkansas in 2005, becoming only the second black woman ever to hold the crown, agrees. A native of Hazen, she said that when she competed, she relied heavily on donations from local churches, paying them back with appearances and fundraisers there after she became Miss Arkansas. While she competed in mostly off-the-rack or used gowns and cut costs wherever she could, she said it's totally up to the girl if she feels more comfortable competing in a $2,000 gown instead of a $50 gown.
“How does that dress make you feel?” she said, “If a dress makes you feel your best, then buy the dress, because that's going to show through on stage. But by the same token, if we're bringing up a generation of young women who can only feel valued and feel their self-worth by the amount of money they've spent on their clothing, we've got more problems wrong than just with pageants.”
Mosby-Evans said that during her year as Miss Arkansas, she made a point of visiting minority churches and urging congregations to help young black women enter and pay for pageants, both as a way of strengthening the community and helping the girls win money to pay for college. It is, she said, an investment, because that young woman is going to come back and inspire other young women.
“One of the main things I told them is, if you want to see more minorities involved in pageants, sponsor a girl from your church,” she said. “You've got girls in your church who love to get dressed up. You've got women and men who know how to put an outfit together. You've got some people who are all about current events; you've got some people who are all about fitness. Those people could be helping a young woman get ready for a pageant.”
Kelly Bale of the Miss Arkansas Pageant still holds Mosby-Evans up as an example to young women who might be deterred by the cost of competing. “That was why she was so refreshing for the system,” Bale said. “She proved that you don't have to spend all the money in the world to win, because what really comes out (on stage) and what really comes out to the judges is what's inside of you.”
Whitney Kirk was crowned Miss Arkansas in 2003, after competing in the Miss Arkansas system for four years. Now an actress who lives in New York City, Kirk recently returned to Little Rock to star in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre production of Neil Simon's “Barefoot in the Park.” Kirk said Arkansas is “tough” when it comes to competing in pageants.
“It's kind of surprising. One of the statistics that I like to talk about is that the Dallas/Fort Worth area's population is greater than the entire population of Arkansas. However, the Miss Texas pageant has roughly 52 to 54 contestants each year, and Miss Arkansas has like 26 to 48 each year. It's just that big a deal here, and that many young women get actively involved.”
Though the scholarship money she won helped her on her way to becoming an actress, Kirk said that the benefits she remembers most were often intangible. “It seems glamorous, and to a certain extent, it is,” she said. “But I would stress that the rewards that I cherish most are not the ones that you would immediately think of — the connections that I made on a one-on-one basis, the interpersonal skills, being able to talk to people, being able to think on your feet. I especially value those skills as an actor. I don't go to work and do one job for years, I continually got through the audition and interview process, so those skills are very valuable to me.”
Beyond that, Kirk said she holds dear the little moments from her reign. “How many times am I going to get to judge a peach cobbler contest?” she said. “Of course, it's a public speaking job and it was a great job, but the rewards — besides the monetary rewards and the scholarships — were talking to the people; the little girls that looked at you with big, glowing eyes. Those were the big kickbacks.”
Kirk's recollections might be exactly the kind of object lesson that's needed if pageant organizers ever hope to halt the decline of public interest in pageants in general and in the preliminary pageants that feed into Miss Arkansas in particular. Kelly Bale said that the Miss Arkansas Pageant has stepped up its efforts at recruiting high school juniors and seniors in recent years, sending out representatives to tell young women about the scholarship and career opportunities to be had through the Miss Arkansas system. These days, she said, it's about selling young women on the rewards beyond the crown.
“What we're trying to do is re-market ourselves to high schools so that young women know about this opportunity,” she said. “I think we kind of dropped the ball on that, and now we're having to pick it back up and get back out there, to let people know what we have available… You don't have to be the prettiest, you don't have to be the smartest. But if you need money to go to college, this is the perfect opportunity to get involved. You'll only make yourself better.” Bale said that reaching more high-school-age women is a goal the Miss America pageant has also taken up in recent years.
“The new Miss America Organization, the new top gurus, are really, really working hard to re-establish the grass roots of the organization,” she said. “That comes from local girls that start in Hot Springs and Little Rock and Carlile and Benton and all the little towns, and all the volunteers in the little towns. You've got tons of support right there. I think (the Miss America Pageant) realized that ratings shouldn't garner our attention as much as our roots.”