The Miss America Pageant is a competition which awards scholarships for college and graduate school to American women between the ages of 17 to 25. Miss America travels about 20,000 miles a month, changing her location every 24 to 48 hours. She tours the nation promoting her particular platform of interest. Miss America also spends her year fundraising and working with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals around the country.
The Miss America Competition is run by the Miss America Organization, a non-profit corporation based in Linwood, New Jersey. According to the Miss America Organization, the Miss America Competition’s purpose is “to provide young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”
History of Miss America
The Miss America Competition has its origins in an event called The Fall Frolic held in Atlantic City, New Jersey on September 25, 1920. Three hundred and fifty young women participated, each pushed in a rolling wicker chair. The event gained so much attention that the following year, The Businessmen's League repeated it as a “bather's revenue.” At this time, newspaper beauty contests were popular. Competitors for the first Miss America competition were chosen based on newspaper submissions. The newspapers were asked to sponsor the winner's wardrobe and The Businessmen's League sponsored their travel expenses. Because the regional area consisted of cities from Pittsburgh to Washington DC to Atlantic City, the contest was at first called the Inter-City Beauty Contest. Newspaper writer Herb Test coined the term “Miss America” for the competition's winner.
On September 8, 1921, the Atlantic City Boardwalk hosted competitors from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Ocean City, Camden, Newark, New York and Philadelphia. Margaret Gordman from Washington DC was crowned the "Golden Mermaid" and won $100. She was 16. The Golden Mermaid trophy was awarded until 1927. When Margaret returned the following year, she was recognized as the first Miss America and received her crown. She is the only Miss America to be crowned at the end of her reign instead of the start.
The only Miss America to win more than once was Mary Catherine Campbell from Ohio who won in 1922 and 1923. She competed again in 1924 and placed 1st runner-up. The rules were then changed so that competitors can compete only once.
During the years 1928–1932, Miss America was not held due to financial problems during the Great Depression and criticisms that it promoted "loose morals." It was revived in 1933. Fifteen-year-old Marian Bergeron of Connecticut won. She is the only winner from New England. After her win, the age range was changed, requiring competitors to be between 18 and 26.
In 1935, Lenora Slaughter was hired to "re-invent" the competition. She served for 32 years as the Director.
One of the most infamous moments in Miss America history was in 1937, when Bette Cooper changed her mind about being Miss America. She fled Atlantic City before her press conference. No one else was crowned Miss America for her year, though some titleholders have tried to claim the title over the decades.
In 1938, the talent portion was added to the competition. Miss Ohio Marilyn Meseke, a tap dancer, was the first Miss America to be crowned with the added talent competition.
Miss America 1939, Patricia Donnelly was the last to be crowned on the Steel Pier of Atlantic City. She was also named the first president of Mu Alpha Sigma, the Miss America Sorority. The sorority still exists today.
In 1939, the Miss Congeniality Award began. The only Miss America to win both Miss Congeniality and Miss America was Vonda Kay Van Dyke, Miss America 1965. She was also the first Miss America to perform ventriloquism for her talent.
In 1940, the title officially became "The Miss America Pageant" and the competition was held in Atlantic City's Convention Hall. In 1941, Miss Oklahoma Mifauny Shunatona became the first Native American contestant.
Miss America 1943 Jean Bartel raised $2.5 million for Series E war bonds, more than any other American citizen. It was at this time that the prizes for Miss America switched from fur coats and movie contracts to college scholarships, an idea credited to Jean and her traveling companion.
The first Miss America to receive a scholarship was Miss America 1945 Bess Myerson who won $5,000. Bess was also the first and to-date only Jewish Miss America. She faced anti-semitism during her reign and was encouraged to change her last name to “Meredith” or “Merrick” by competition organizers, but she refused. She cut short her Miss America tour due to anti-semitism and instead toured with the Anti-Defamation League and gave talks titled, “You Can't Be Beautiful and Hate.”
In 1948, the competition had its first Latina contestant, the first Miss Puerto Rico Irma Bydia Vasquez and first Asian-American contestant, the first Miss Hawaii Yun Tau Chee. Bebe Shopp, Miss America 1948 was the first to be crowned in a gown rather than a bathing suit. This angered many reporters. She was also the first Miss America to travel overseas during her reign.
Miss America 1949 Jacque Mercer got married and divorced during her reign. After this, the rule requiring competitors to have never been married or pregnant was established.
Starting in 1950, the Miss America title changed to "post-dated," thus, that year's winner became Miss America 1951 and there was no Miss America 1950. In 1952, Marilyn Monroe served as Grand Marshall in the Miss America parade. Actress Grace Kelly served as a judge for Miss America 1954 pageant.
The competition was first nationally televised in 1954 and is the longest running event in television history. It broke records, as 27 million people tuned in, 39% of the viewership audience. Lee Meriwether was crowned Miss America 1955 and went on to have a long, successful television acting career. Bert Parks was hired in 1955 and had a 25-year reign as master of ceremonies. He introduced the competition's theme song, “There She Is” by Bernie Wayne, as 1956 Miss America Sharon Ritchie was crowned.
1959 marked the first year that competitors from all 50 states were represented. It also marked the first year that the entire Miss America parade was televised.
The Miss America Organization passed the $250,000 scholarship mark in the 1950s. During the early 1960s, the Miss America competition was the highest-rated program on American television. Maria Beale Fletcher, Miss America 1962 performed as a Radio City Rockette prior to becoming Miss America. Miss America 1964, Donna Axum once rescued her unconscious chaperone in a hotel fire by dragging her to safety. The first color broadcast of the Miss America competition was in 1966.
In 1967, the pageant launched the Miss America USO Troupe to Vietnam. It was heavily criticized, but Miss America continues to support US Armed Forces. Miss America 1967 Jane Jayroe conducted the Miss America orchestra for her talent performance.
In 1968, group of feminists staged a protest outside of Boardwalk Hall, which caused a second wave of feminism. Michigan’s Pamela Eldred was the first ballerina to be crown in 1969 while feminist protestors nearly interrupted the telecast.
Miss America celebrated its Golden Anniversary in 1970. Cheryl Adrienne Browne, Miss Iowa, became the first African-American woman to compete for the Miss America title in Atlantic City. In August 1971, Miss America USO Show performed a 22-day tour of Vietnam. In 1972, the Miss America USO toured Asia and Europe.
Miss America 1974 Rebecca King shocked the nation when she admitted she entered for the scholarship money. She became the first Miss America to use her scholarship funds to attend and graduate from law school. NOW, also known as National Organization of Women, held its annual convention in Atlantic City and invited King to speak.
In 1974, the “Miss America” robe and “Miss America” sash were abandoned at end of the Saturday night finals.
Deborah Lipford, Miss Delaware, was recognized for becoming the first African-American to make into the top ten in 1976. Also in 1976, Miss America had the opportunity to travel to the Mediterranean area on land as well as aboard aircraft carriers.
Miss America telecast celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1978. The 15th Miss America USO troupe was also given the opportunity to perform at U.S. bases in Italy, Crete, Turkey and Greece.
In 1980, popular host Bert Parks did not come back on this year due to an renewed contract. A "Bring Back Bert" campaign took place on The Tonight Show as a public outcry for his missed presence. Bert was replaced by actor Ron Ely. The first African-American women to win preliminary awards were Doris Janell Hayes and Lencola Sullivan.
Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman to win the title of Miss America in 1983. However, on July 23, 1984, Vanessa Williams resigned her Miss America title before questionable photos appeared in print. Suzette Charles from New Jersey became the second African-American woman to hold a Miss America title.
The 1984 competition also brought new records as Sharlene Wells, born in Paraguay but representing Utah, was the first Miss America to not be born in American Soil. The District of Colombia sent a representative for the first time since the Miss America 1963 competition.
In 1985, the Miss America Organization stopped publishing competitors’ bust, waist and hip measurements in the program book.
In 1989, the term “reign” was replaced with “Year of Service” in Miss America's vernacular. This was also the first year of Miss America’s “official” platform requirements. Miss Pennsylvania 1989, Michelle Kline from Pennsylvania became the first winner of the Quality of Life Award for her community work for Organ Donation.
In 1990, Debbye Turner became the first Miss America with an “official” platform. Debbye was known for “Motivating Youth to Excellence” as her platform. At this time the District of Columbia franchise was no longer a part of Miss America.
In 1992, Leanza Cornett took the title home and continued to be an AIDS activist during her year of service. She was even given the opportunity to speak at The White House, to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S Senate.
The Bernie Wayne Scholarship for the Performing Arts was awarded for the first time in 1993.
Heather Whitestone became the first woman with a disability to be crowned Miss America for the year of 1995. On September 16, 1995, 41 Miss Americas returned to the big event for the 75th anniversary of the competition.
In 1996, a new scholarship program was granted to those seeking careers in education and thirty-one states qualified for the MAO matching grant funds.
District of Columbia came back to being representing in the 1997 Miss America competition. The competitors were given the option of wearing a one or two-piece swimsuit for the first time since 1947.
In 1998, Miss Virginia Nicole Johnson became the first Miss America to have a life-threatening illness, diabetes. She was also the very first competitor to open up to the public by using her insulin pump with no intention of hiding her reality. During her year of service, she achieved to raise nearly $13 million for research purposes.
Robert Beck was appointed as the Miss America Organization CEO in 1999 due to Leonard Horn's resignation. David Frisch, Chairman of the Board, was then appointed to be acting CEO. Heather Renee French from Kentucky was crowned with a gold millennium crown covered with glistening ruby rhinestones.
For the 80th anniversary of Miss America in 2000, the competition was held in October for the first time, rather than September. Heather Renee French became the first to win the organization's "Woman of Achievement" award for her service dedicated to the nation's homeless veterans. Angela Perez Baraquio, Miss Hawaii, became the first Asian-American and first teacher to be crowned Miss America for the year of 2001. She dedicated her year of service for promoting the importance of Character Education in schools.
The 9/11 attacks took place at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. in 2001. The nation was in great pain, but the competitors voted to continue with this year’s Miss America competition in demonstration of the nation's resilience.
Over the years, the Miss America pageant has continued to grow from its roots, first developing into a beauty pageant and then into the world-renowned scholarship competition it is today. Miss America competitors compete in 4 areas of competition. For the preliminary competition, Miss America competitors participate in interview, talent, evening gown and on-stage question.
In previous years, the final competition, the top 16 move on to compete in swimsuit again.
From there, the competition is narrowed down to a top 10, who compete again in evening gown competition. The competitors are narrowed down once more to 8, who compete in talent and on-stage question. From there, judges rank the top 5 competitors in the order they believe they should finish.
States That Have Not Won Miss America
Miss New Hampshire
Miss New Mexico
Miss Puerto Rico
Miss Rhode Island
Miss South Dakota
Miss Virgin Island
Miss West Virginia
Miss America Prize Package
The Miss America Organization does not list a complete prize package anywhere on the official website. However, it does list a breakdown of the scholarships given out at the national pageant. In addition, the organization has announced different elements of the prize package on social media as well as on the national stage.
A prize that has drawn many to the Miss America Organization for years is the promise of hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential scholarship money. Miss America is the largest provider of women's scholarships in the world and with good reason. The top prize for capturing the coveted title of Miss America is a $50,000 scholarship. Yes, that is four zeros.
The rest of the Top 5 at Miss America does not do too shabby either. The first runner-up walks away with a $25,000 scholarship, the second runner-up $20,000, the third runner-up $15,000 and the fourth runner-up $10,000. Competitors also have the chance to compete for additional scholarships on top of these already massive numbers.
According to the foundation, scholarships for the organization are classified into two categories: cash awards and in-kind tuition waivers.
Cash awards are scholarships given to a contestant in the form of cash that can be used at any academic institution to cover tuition, textbooks, housing, student debt and other expenses. These funds are paid directly to the intuition or a certified third-party lender. Since funds are physically exchanged, the dollar amount of cash awards are reflected on the bank statements and annual tax return for the organization.
In-kind tuition waivers are scholarships given to a contestant in the form of waived tuition fees that the contestant would have otherwise had to pay out of pocket. The waivers are considered to be "gifts" offered by an academic institution to the contestant. Although the state or national organizations facilitate the in-kind tuition waiver, no money is ever actually exchanged. Essentially, it acts as a credit toward your expenses should you choose to accept it from the institution.
Since there is no physical money exchanged, the dollar amount of in-kind tuition waivers are not reflected on the bank statements and annual tax return for the organization. However, while deceptive, the organization can still claim the dollar amount offered in all in-kind tuition waivers in combination with the amount given out in cash scholarships for advertising purposes. This is why the organization can claim to give away millions in scholarships while their tax returns reflect much less.
It is important to note the Miss America Organization has recently become more transparent in its advertising. In multiple places on the Miss America website, it now states:
"The Miss America Organization, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization, is the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States, awarding millions of dollars annually in cash awards and in-kind tuition waivers."
Along with this hefty scholarship, it was announced at the 2017 Miss America competition that the winner would also receive a six-figure salary and accommodations during her reign. This prize was awarded to Miss America 2018, Cara Mund.
The prize package keeps going. The winner of Miss America also receives tons of prizes from sponsors. For example, Joseph Ribkoff serves as the official wardrobe sponsor for Miss America during her reign as well as the sponsor for the opening number outfits.
Miss America also travels upwards of 20,000 miles each month making appearances. In 2017, Miss America partnered with an app called DOSH for Mund to use during her travels. She gets cash back for each night she books with the app and planned to donate the money to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals at the end of her reign.
Miss America Titleholders
Check out the winners of the Miss America pageants in the past: