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People & Events: How do You Rate a Miss America?

Miss America weigh-inWell the first thing you realize is it's serious. I mean're really going to change someone's life. The second thing you realize, which in fact the pageant cannot make anybody believe, is there's a huge amount of scholarship money. The girls for the most part -- I really believe this, no one wants to -- are down there for the money. ...they can make a lot of money, they can get their college, they can get all kinds of stuff done. And no one wants to know that. And the first thing you do is you...they give you a lesson on how to judge something, and that's when you realize, when I did for the first time, my god, this is important to these kids, and you've got to be at your best for them.
    -- William Goldman, on being a judge

Over the years, organizers of the Miss America Pageant have increasingly tried to prove that the pageant is more than a "girlie" show, more than a beauty contest. The addition of a talent category, the scholarship program, and later the addition of the social platform requirement have been a part of this effort. But the contest began by rating contestants only by their physical attributes.

In the 1920s, pageant judges used a literal breakdown of female features in calculating who should be the next Miss America. The young woman who was closest in adding up to 100 points would win. From head to foot, these categories were:

Construction of Head:15 points
Facial Expression:10
Legs: 10
Grace of Bearing:10

The early pageant was clearly focused on judging the body. Yet organizers wanted to add a layer of respectability and legitimacy to this task. The judges were all well-known artists and illustrators, such as Norman Rockwell, James Montgomery Flagg, and Howard Chandler Christy. These judges were brought in to assess a woman's form with an artist's eye, somewhat objectively and with training in the fine arts. However, adding to the already challenging job of being a judge was the directive from pageant officials that the previous year's reigning Miss America be used as an "ideal" standard against which judges should assess new contestants. In 1923, no-one seemed to be able to match the standard set by the previous year's Miss America, Mary Katherine Campbell. So she was awarded the crown a second time.

The system used in the 1920s is the ancestor to today's numerical scoring. Although there is now only one category for strictly physical evaluation -- the swimsuit competition -- the "Grace of Bearing" category of the 20s seems to be reflected in the evening gown and interview portions of today's competition. In 1923 judges admitted that there was more to judging than simply the eleven categories. In looking for a winner they looked at contestants' carriage, form, health, features, simplicity, character, personality, training, adaptability and distinctiveness.

By the 1940s, the categories for judging had been reduced to four, each with a maximum score of 25 points: talent, evening gown, swimsuit, and personality. The judging format remained basically untouched until 1986 when officials switched from comparative balloting to a modified Olympian scoring system. Today, judges score the individual contestants immediately following each phase of competition. Contestants are scored on a 1-to-10 point scale within each category. There are four nights of competition, with only the fourth night being televised. The scoring process narrows the contestants down to twenty, then ten, then five, and then on to the finalist.

The Miss America pageant uses two judging panels to compile scores. The first panel includes highly qualified but lesser known individuals, many of whom have judged other pageants. This panel evaluates contestants in private interviews and three evenings of preliminary competitions. Their overall scores determine the ten finalists. For the final night, when the pageant is broadcast, there is a second panel of celebrity judges. Over the decades, these have included people such as Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Merv Griffin, Elizabeth Arden, George Balanchine, Peggy Fleming, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Tia Carrere, Emme and many others.

In the preliminary scoring, all contestants are judged in four categories: Artistic Expression (talent), Presentation and Community Achievement (interview), Presence and Poise (evening gown), and Lifestyle and Fitness (swimsuit). The top twenty finalists are then judged in the same four categories plus a category called "Composite Attributes" where they are rated on a 1-10 basis by the judges.

At this point, judging becomes somewhat complicated. From the scoring of the top twenty, the preliminary judges select the top ten finalists. The finalists compete again in Lifestyle and Fitness. The 41 non-finalist contestants are then asked to tender a Peer Respect and Leadership score for each of the finalists. When scores are in and the top five are identified, an additional category is added -- Knowledge and Understanding. The final five finalists then are rated in the following categories:

Composite Attributes40%
Lifestyle and Fitness10%
Presence and Poise10%
Peer Respect and Leadership10%
Artistic Expression20%
Knowledge and Understanding10%

The tension in the pageant between having a swimsuit contest and vying for college scholarships is obvious to all. Pageant organizers and contestants, as well as feminists, have often questioned the swimsuit competition. During the 1994 pageant, the pageant commission asked viewers to call and vote on whether or not to keep the swimsuit segment. Seventy-three percent of the callers voted to keep it. Later, according to an online poll during the 2001 broadcast, fifty-one percent of viewers said they would not watch the pageant if the swimsuit competition was eliminated. So the swimsuit as a significant category -- and the judging of contestants based on their physical attributes -- persists.

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