Miss America 1926 Norma Smallwood was an accomplished musician, an avid tennis player and had a size seven ankle.
At the time, in addition to reporting about the new Miss America’s background, it was common to report on her body in detail. The Press’ Sept. 11, 1926, article about the new winner even featured a separate section titled “her measurements,” which covered everything from the neck to the ankle.
But coverage of the competition, which began in 1921, has changed over the years as the pageant and the news surrounding it changed with the times. The Press of Atlantic City has compiled an e-book, available at missamerica.pressofac.com, featuring front pages for each year the pageant was held in Atlantic City.
The Miss America Organization regularly refers to the event as a competition, though the term pageant is also still used, said Sam Haskell III, chairman and CEO of Miss America.
“In recent years, we’ve begun to refer to the television event as the Miss America Competition, which has become a more accurate description that includes three preliminary competition nights and, given our telecast and the extensive training, rehearsals and talent prep, it is all part of our show,” Haskell said. “We still use ‘pageant,’ however, ‘competition’ has become a more accurate and current title on what the Miss America television event is all about today.”
In the early days, The Press featured the story of the new Miss America on its front page and included details and pictures of just about everything the contestants did around town, even featuring shots of the winners eating their first breakfasts as Miss America.
In 1941, for instance, the front page featured a collection of posed photographs of the contestants in their bathing suits and poetic descriptions standard for the era.
The winner, Miss California Rosemary LaPlanche, was not simply crowned. Instead, she appeared “with the crown perched on her sunkist tresses.” That year, a photo caption called the scene at the pageant “The Garden of Beauty.” Later headlines heralded the new Miss America Mary A. Mobley as “America’s New Queen!”
By 1980, the measurements were mostly gone, though her height and weight were still mentioned, and the article on Miss America Cheryl Prewitt instead focused on the dramatic story of her life, noting that she was once told she would never walk again after a childhood car accident.
Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett said she has watched as the media attention the pageant has received has altered over the years.
“In the 20 years (since I was crowned), media coverage in general has changed,” she said. “Now, we’ve got TMZ and 24-hour news.”
Cornett, who represented Florida, said she felt as if she got a lot of media coverage, particularly because of her platform, which was promoting AIDS awareness.
“Here I was going around the country, talking about condoms and abstinence,” she said. “But I think just in general the coverage has dwindled. The press has changed. The media has changed. Celebrity has changed.”
Cornett said the pageant’s move to Las Vegas made for confusion between the Miss America and Miss USA pageants.
“I think going back to Atlantic City is a really good move. It’s where its heart is,” she said.
Cornett also said she thinks the Miss America brand suffered from loss of sponsorships and changes in leadership.
“But I’m hoping for a resurgence. It would be great to get the kind of coverage we got in the ’90s, ’80s and ’70s,” Cornett said. “We rely on the media to sort of paint our picture.”
Alice Cranston, a former features editor of The Press, said covering the parade was simply “a lot of fun.” She wrote stories about the pageant between 1975 and 1983.
“The coverage did change. It’s much more sophisticated now, rather than neighborly,” she said, adding that the coverage remained in the style of the 1930s and 1940s for decades.
That neighborly coverage made sense, given the role of newspapers at the pageant’s start. The pageant’s 25th anniversary program guide notes that the idea of using the name Miss America was that of a reporter at the Atlantic City Gazette-Review. His suggestion followed plans by East Coast circulation managers who decided to have a series of “popularity contests,” the forerunner of today’s pageant.
Atlantic City historian Allen “Boo” Pergament said the pageant era can be divided into two periods, pre-1940-41 and post-1940-41.
The pageant before 1940-41, he said, was totally different from what it would become.
Pergament’s collection of Atlantic City memorabilia includes a 1921 program book. The pageant at the time was accompanied by a host of other activities, from model-airplane building to archery.
“That was a part of the program,” he said. “They were feeling their way. They wanted to attract everybody.”
The pageant got its start when a group of East Coast newspapers was looking for ways to increase circulation through a photographic popularity contest. The winners took part in an Inter-City Beauty contest.
In 1922, The New York Times said of the first winner, Margaret Gorman, “She represents the type of womanhood America needs; strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of home-making and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country resides.”
Pergament said that as tastes and style changed, so did the pageant.
“They kept changing to make it better,” he said. The addition of the talent portion, for instance, came in 1935.
The popular parade, a Boardwalk staple, once included a portion in which the contestants walked on the beach in a line from Garden Pier to Steel Pier, and the various events were held in different venues versus the single locale of Convention Hall.
Miss America Mallory Hytes Hagan said today’s news coverage is primarily positive, focusing on educational and scholarship aspects of the program. For example, contestants in the recent Miss New Jersey Pageant represented a range of career fields, from nurses to engineers to future lawyers.
The Miss America Organization awards scholarships for state pageants and the contestants at Miss America. According to the organization, in 2012 it made available more than $45 million in cash and scholarship assistance.
“That’s what more of the media focus is, the scholarship, their personal platforms and what the contestants are doing,” Hagan said.
Haskell said television played a large role in how the pageant is seen today.
“Media has dramatically changed over the recent years, and so much of the media attention has been driven as the result of our network partnership with ABC, Miss America’s network partner, who continues to support Miss America and integrates Miss America into their programming,” Haskell said.
The Miss America Organization, citing significant financial troubles because of labor and production costs, moved to Las Vegas in 2006 but opted to return to its home base in Atlantic City this year.
Welcome news, Pergament said.
“I think that it’s a wonderful thing. You have people who never saw it and the old timers who want to see it return,” he said.
His only hope is that the return can meet the high expectations of the fans.
“But times have changed, Atlantic City has changed and the pageant has changed,” he said.
The competition, he added, is back where it belongs.
“It’s where it was born and raised and grew up,” he said.
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