Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America in 1983, the year I was born. She was stripped of her crown ten months later, when she resigned under pressure — nude pictures she’d previously taken surfaced and were published in Penthouse magazine, enveloping her in scandal. So: an organization that existed to judge women on the grace of their bodies felt it necessary to slut-shame Williams for exposing hers.
This weekend, the pageant issued a heartfelt mea culpa as Williams returned triumphantly to the Miss America stage, singing and serving as a judge of the competition. And the former champion graciously accepted the declaration from Sam Haskell, executive chairman of the pageant, who told her: “I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be.”
Contrast Haskell’s words last night with the statement made by a pageant representative in 1984, after Williams resigned: ”Vanessa is a lovely young woman,” he said. ”Nobody is going to crucify her for a mistake. But this put us in a position of having to act to protect 63 years of the Miss America pageant.” Protect?! The integrity of a beauty pageant, including a swimsuit competition, had to be preserved from the threat nudie pics; heaven defend us all.
The rise of a mainstream pop feminism, irritant though it sometimes is, has been useful in helping us to see several things more clearly: we understand that beauty pageants aren’t in any way wholesome, that publishing nude pictures without the subject’s consent is a violation, and that nudity, even of the explicitly sexual variety, isn’t inherently degrading or scandalous, particularly not in our age of selfies and sexting. In short, there’s no way Vanessa Williams would face the same punishment today.
These days, beauty pageants tend to make the news because of incoherent or strange responses from over-trained contestants who seem like dimwits. But in between the royal waves and ballgowns, last night’s Miss America showed something unusual for the genre: a small whiff of slow progress.
Even conservative Miss America contestants are apparently getting more political. This year, Miss Alabama, the delightfully named Meg McGuffin, got quite passionate when discussing Donald Trump during the question-and-answer session: “I think he says what’s on a lot of people’s minds, but I think that the Republican party should be absolutely terrified of all the attention that he is taking from incredible candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who could absolutely do the job of President of the United States,” she said. “And if I were a Republican, I would absolutely be terrified of that. Thank you.” Her response was forceful and opinionated, with none of the mincing and “such as” equivocations that make bad beauty pageant answers go viral. McGuffin spoke out against a notoriously aggressive bully (and pageant owner) on the pageant stage. It was impressive.
Yet as superficially nice as it felt to see these two surprisingly positive news items emerge from the pomp of the pageant, let’s not pretend the form is anything but deeply regressive. Beauty pageants are structurally irredeemable. And the irony should be lost on no one that this big lesson had to be learned at the expense of the first black Miss America. It also helped nudge things along (if 30 years can be described as “nudging”) that Williams reemerged from the scandal to have one of the most successful — if not the most successful — entertainment careers of any former beauty pageant winner ever, further embarrassing the people who stripped her of her crown. She recorded chart-topping anthems; she appeared on Broadway and later Ugly Betty, winning awards and staying culturally relevant. And throughout it all she kept her crown — she’d never given it back.
I remember solemnly discussing Vanessa Williams’ story with my fellow fourth graders as we listened to “Save the Best for Last” on cassette. We may have found the idea of naked pictures gross and giggle-worthy at the time, but we felt profoundly sorry for Williams. We didn’t really see how those pictures had anything to do with her crown. Essentially, by apologizing, the pageant has now caught up to our elementary-school sense of morality. That’s progress, but it’s not exactly worthy of a crown.