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The History of the Miss America Pageant

VO: Rebecca Brayton
The first Miss America competition can be traced back to a beauty contest held in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1921. It evolved into a scholarship competition featuring women from all over the U.S.A. who are judged on several criteria, including looks, talent, and platform. Though it has faced scandals and its relevance has been challenged throughout the years, the Miss America pageant has become one of the country's most recognizable icons. In this video, we take a look at the history of Miss America.

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Beauty Contest

The competition that later became known as Miss America first started as a beauty contest held on September 7th-8th, 1921. The two-day pageant was an effort to keep visitors in Atlantic City, New Jersey past Labor Day weekend.

Miss America Title

Eight finalists representing cities from the north-eastern United States competed in the contest. They were judged on their appearance, personality and interaction with the judges and crowds. Miss Washington, DC Margaret Gorman was awarded the grand prize, and this was a Golden Mermaid trophy, as well as the title of “Miss America.”

Charges of Immorality

During the early years, the bathing suit event was one of the most popular aspects of the competition. However, conservative and religious groups protested and branded this baring of limbs as immoral. In response, the organizers attempted to depict the contestants as innocent and wholesome.

Addition of the Talent Segment

Regardless, the pageant was discontinued and only revived with secure monetary backing in 1935. In an attempt to raise the event’s public profile, the talent segment was added to the competition that same year.

American Symbol

During the next decade, Miss America came to be seen as a national symbol. With its support of traditional and patriotic values, her image became a morale booster for soldiers participating in the Second World War. Miss America also introduced its famous scholarship program in the 1940s.


The pageant’s popularity continued to grow after its first television broadcast in the mid 1950s. Miss America quickly became the ideal representation of a young woman in the States.

Decline in Popularity

It was in the 1960s that the pageant reached its peak. After that, the feminist and civil rights movements were changing people’s opinions of Miss America and its audience declined considerably.


Despite Bert Park’s almost iconic status as host from 1955 to 1979, he was replaced in an effort to cater to a younger audience. Since then, hosting duties have been carried out by a number of different people.

Changes in Contestants' Goals

Though Miss America’s relevance was being questioned, the pageant went on. The ‘70s brought contestants who were more interested in educational and professional goals than was the norm in the past.

African-American Contestants

Prior to 1970, African American women were not allowed to compete. The first black woman to be crowned Miss America was Vanessa Williams in 1984. Though a scandal involving nude photos forced her to resign, the title was given to the first runner-up, Suzette Charles, who was also an African American. Regardless, Vanessa Williams went on to become one of the most well-known winners of the crown thanks to a successful singing and acting career.


The 1990s marked a new era for the pageant, when it became known as The Miss America Organization. The not-for-profit was divided into the pageant, a scholarship fund and the Miss America Foundation. As well, each pageant winner was required to bring awareness to a particular platform issue on her subsequent speaking tour as part of her duties.


Throughout the years of its existence, the Miss America pageant has gone through many changes. It evolved from a beauty contest to become a competition that awards scholarships to the winners and runner-ups. And, while only eight contestants participated in the first pageant, now young women from all fifty American states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands take part.


Judging criteria have also transformed during the decades. While the pageant has always been interested in its contestants’ appearance and personality, the competition is now broken down into several specific portions. In addition to the categories covering talent, evening wear and lifestyle and fitness in a swimsuit, a prospective Miss America must impress the judges during an offstage personal interview and later respond to an onstage question without preparation.

American Icon

By continually representing the ideal of the American woman, the Miss America pageant has become an icon of the good ole U.S. of A.

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