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People & Events: Miss Americas With Minds of Their Own

Bess MeyersonFrom the beginning, Miss Americas have shaped the pageant through their personalities and individual acts of self-expression. In a group of women thought to be beautiful, but stereotyped as not too bright, there have been many who have challenged the image. Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926, set the precedent when she independently and shrewdly parlayed her year into a lucrative $100,000 salary, establishing that Miss America would be paid for her labor. Miss America 1998, Kate Shindle, used her reign as a platform to champion HIV/AIDS prevention.

Over the years, the pageant has crowned some other independent thinkers:

Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945, was different from other contestants. Most were Christians from small, conservative towns. Myerson was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, New York, the daughter of struggling Russian immigrants. In 1945, attempting to improve the pageant's image, Lenora Slaughter created the Miss America scholarship program. Myerson, who was not only beautiful, but impressed judges with her talent at the piano, had entered the pageant in hopes of money for graduate school. She had paid her way through college by teaching piano lessons. She won the pageant and became the first Jewish Miss America. Myerson planned to use the scholarship to pursue her music studies, after a year of public appearances and promotions for the pageant. But after an obligatory four-week performance tour, Myerson discovered the pageant's sponsors had no intention of posing a Jewish woman with their products -- so Myerson let the pageant know her time was not available to them anymore. Her reign challenged the anti-semitism of the times; Myerson went on a national lecture tour against intolerance, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

Yolanda BetbezeAfter winning the 1951 title, Alabaman Yolande Betbeze shocked pageant organizers and sponsors when she refused to wear a bathing suit in public. Catalina Swimwear withdrew its support as a major sponsor, and founded two rival beauty pageants, Miss USA and Miss Universe. "To...go into Milwaukee in the middle of the winter and walk around a department store in a bathing suit is not my idea of Miss America," said Betbeze. Yet despite the lost sponsor, Slaughter soon supported Betbeze's choice. After her reign, Betbeze continued to be outspoken. She marched in civil rights demonstrations, took part in sit-ins in Woolworth's in New York, and later marched in a feminist demonstration against the pageant in Atlantic City.

By the 1970s, the pageant judges were ready to embrace the idea of an aspiring lawyer as Miss America. The times were changing, and so were women's roles. Yet, when Bert Parks announced that Rebecca King of Colorado had won the title in 1974, she received it with a distanced poise and business-like reserve, as if she had been told she had just landed a job. Audiences wrote in complaining about a Miss America who did not cry and fall to pieces upon hearing the news. Then King truly surprised people when she came out as pro-choice on the issue of abortion. The National Organization of Women invited her to speak that year at their convention.

Rebecca King went on to lobby successfully for change within the pageant, establishing the interview portion of the contest as counting towards final scores for the first time. A decade later, Miss America 1988, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, would further transform the pageant during her interview, when she used her moment in the national spotlight to talk about the cause of hospice care. Leonard Horn, director of the pageant, and others were at first surprised that someone would use the stage to promote a social issue -- and then they realized the idea was a chance to update Miss America.

In 1988 Horn quickly established the social platform as a formal requirement for a contestant's participation. Since 1988, contestants have donated countless hours of community work and promoted social causes. Miss Americas have adopted platforms from raising public awareness of diseases such as breast cancer, AIDS and diabetes to championing multi-cultural education and other educational reforms, to advocating for physically challenged Americans. As part of their platforms, Miss Americas have made a tremendous impact as they speak and work for worthy causes across the country.

The young women who have come to Atlantic City over the years have encountered an organization that has been used to shaping contestants to fit its mold. Contestants, in turn, have tended to shape themselves to the pageant's reigning ideal. However, when Miss Americas have challenged that ideal through their own thoughts and actions, they have surprised sponsors, protected their own interests, and, in some cases, even changed the nature of the pageant, using it as a platform for admirable ideals and causes.

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