Being Miss America

Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, on the rise and fall of an iconic American institution.

Kate Shindle was born to write a history of the Miss America pageant. Growing up in Brigantine, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from Atlantic City, she worked as a pageant volunteer—along with her entire family and most of the local community—helping to make the big show come together each and every year. Later, while in college at Northwestern University, she competed in the pageant as Miss Illinois—and won!—becoming Miss America 1998, which afforded her the opportunity to travel the country for a year, raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, her platform issue.

Those experiences—coupled with her participation in the 2002 PBS special, Miss America—set the stage for her to pen  “Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain” (University of Texas Press), which answers the question she is repeatedly asked: What was it like to be Miss America? More importantly, Shindle also explores how the pageant has evolved over its nearly hundred-year history, “as this tradition has white-knuckled its way down the cultural ladder, rung by rung by painful rung.” In other words, the book is a critical yet affectionate profile of what has long been an iconic event, staged every year by one the country’s oldest not-for-profit institutions.

In the following Failure Interview, Shindle talks about the history of the Miss America pageant and speaks to common criticisms before offering what she would change to help ensure the pageant’s future.

Growing up 15 minutes north of Atlantic City, what impact did that have on your perspective?
It had tremendous impact, because not only did I grow up nearby but my family was involved with Miss America, as were many of the people my family knew. It’s hard to express to someone who didn’t grow up in that culture what happened in August every year when it was time for the pageant to come to town. People used their vacation days to transform Convention Hall, working for free—and joyously. It was something that everybody in my universe wanted to be a part of, a positive thing that made people feel good.

So I always held the pageant in high regard. And when I competed, I started to understand the bully pulpit—for lack of a better term—that the job of Miss America provided for a young woman. I don’t know of any other organization at that time that would take a 20-year-old college student and say: Tell the world what you care about. That’s what I did for a year, and it was incredibly exciting.

How did the pageant become such an iconic and popular event?
The quick answer would be television. I think it was popular in its own universe from its inception. And certainly the newsreel exposure helped in its early years as well. But suddenly in 1954 it was in everyone’s living room and you saw this perfectly-aligned 1950s ideal of femininity on the stage, and it made a lot of sense. It became something that parents were proud to have their children watch, and [happy] to have them pay attention to the contestants as potential role models. It wasn’t until a few years later when young Americans started going in a different direction—wanting more substance and less Apple pie, I suppose—that the pageant’s identity was called into question. But in the beginning, when it first aired, it was almost universally seen as a positive thing.

Is there a particular year when the pageant peaked?
The highest ratings were in 1970 and they had another spike in 1977, but even up to the late 1990s it was still drawing 20 to 25 million viewers per year. It’s always been popular with some people and will continue to be popular despite the leadership’s foibles, but what happened in the early 1990s is that the pageant’s leadership needed to have a message beyond “There she is!” That’s when the platform issue was introduced. And even though the ratings declined fairly steadily, the identity that was being built for Miss America in the minds of the media and pop culture was actually changing. The reason I know is I was on the ground doing the job and noting the public reaction and media response to the fact that Miss America was an aggressive activist.

The platform issue started to sputter out a few years later—a time when there were a lot of leadership changes at Miss America. But if they had stayed that course I think they would have had far fewer difficulties in the ensuing years, because it made a lot of sense, not to mention that it was tremendously rewarding. It’s nice to make people happy and bring a little satisfaction or variety to someone’s life by signing an autograph, but if you’ve done one autograph signing, you’ve pretty much done them all. It’s much more rewarding to stand in front of 700 high school kids and know that in 45 minutes they will have learned something that might possibly save their life.

What is the most common criticism of the Miss America pageant?
That it’s outdated and irrelevant. That’s usually the first question people ask: Why does it still exist? Why should anyone care? Part of that is because the Miss America organization itself has not done the best job with its messaging. Could they eliminate the swimsuit competition? Sure. Will they? Probably not.  When the competition starts, on the final night of the telecast, the first thing you see after the women are whittled down to 10 or 20 is the swimsuit competition. People look at the first thing they see and think: This is what it’s about.

In the past several years they have had the opportunity to do the 20/20 show immediately preceding the pageant—this year it was called Countdown to Miss America—and to me that is prime real estate to tell people what you are all about. When I wrote a piece for The Daily Beast after this year’s pageant one of the things I discussed is that when they had the chance to show clips of the interviews—which no one ever sees, except for the judges, though the interviews are often the deciding factor when it comes to who becomes Miss America—most of the clips that they used were silly. That’s what makes people think the pageant is silly, because the pageant—I’m sure with input from the network—is presenting itself that way. I know it can be a challenge to make sexy television out of young women in college talking about world issues, but they are well versed and smart. The pageant does them a disservice by essentially holding them up as a joke, [like] showing a contestant doing a goat impression, as opposed to that same contestant talking about, say, Syria.

If you had your druthers what would you change?
There are a lot of things that could be better and one of them is to be a much more transparent organization. The leadership and management is the biggest thing that troubles me. There is one individual who is Chairman of the Board and CEO and usually if the CEO is not doing a great job, the Board decides to hire another CEO. But they can’t do that. It’s something that most watchdog groups would see as a problem.

I also think they need a lot better supervision over the state organizations and a clear and effective system for people to air grievances or concerns or make suggestions. Right now they have a ‘my way or the highway’ approach where if someone stands up and says, “The situation in this state is dysfunctional,” those criticisms not only aren’t heard for the most part, but those people are looked at as troublemakers. That’s not good. There are too many things that can go wrong in an organization of Miss America’s size.

Third, I would say that substance, substance, substance is the order of the day. These are really impressive young women, and in many cases they have spent years developing the platform issues that they are going to work on. But you don’t hear much about that on the telecast, and that is valuable currency.  I know it because I lived it.  When you can point to a body of work that is about something other than yourself, people stop caring that you competed in a swimsuit.

Are you optimistic about the future of the pageant?
I don’t know. What’s been interesting is watching the aftermath of the book’s release. The Miss America people, from what I understand, have been telling their state and local organizations that the book is derogatory. I don’t think it’s derogatory. What I wrote, while critical, is grounded in a deep affection for the pageant and a belief in what it could be and has been.

But I am also hearing from volunteers who have read it, and they are telling me that many of the things that I wrote about are things that they have been concerned about too. So the best possibility for Miss America’s future is for all of those people who do the grunt work—who make sure that 53 young women show up every year—start to stand up and ask questions, regardless of what the national organization wants them to think. Mobilizing the silent majority is not something that is unique to Miss America, but it’s incredibly useful and powerful when those people feel like they have a voice.