The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America

By: Hilary Levey Friedman

Published: August 25, 2020

Publisher: Beacon Press


I have always been interested in pageants. I remember sitting on the couch and watching them each year, trying to guess who would win and hoping Miss Iowa would make it into the finals. A friend of mine was Miss Teen Iowa and I was a participant in the Miss Teen of Iowa pageant. It was a big deal and even had my dress made, reminiscent of Cinderella’s dress, but in peach. Oh, the memories!

Hilary Levey Friedman is the daughter of Miss America 1970 and has done extensive research on the history of pageants and how the pageant culture has continued to influence many contests and shows today including “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”. Friedman covers the beginnings of pageants and how they were used to entice businessmen to stay in Atlantic City. She also shares the first beautiful baby contests and how they led to the “Toddlers and Tiaras” types of pageants that were part of the Jon-Benét Ramsey childhood. The controversy behind Miss America versus Miss USA and how they became two separate pageants as well as their eventual move to live TV to garner more excitement was an interesting part of the story as well.

I was surprised by the stereotypes that took place in the pageant world. Until 1994, contestants’ height and weight were displayed in the programs as well as just seven years prior, their waist, hip, and bust measurements. This was about the time that the pageants took on more of a talent competition and contestants had a platform, an issue close to their heart like juvenile diabetes or veteran’s affairs.

There were many controversies tied to the Miss America or Miss USA pageants including Vanessa Williams giving up her crown and Mike Tyson being accused of raping a contestant of the Miss Black America pageant. Of course, child pageants were under scrutiny after the murder of Jon-Benét Ramsey and then, these pageants exploded onto the TV screen and gained, it seemed, even more popularity. Friedman states:

“Some families went into debt and even bankruptcy because of their child beauty pageant addiction. One pageant mom told me, ‘There are parents down here that are losing their trailers over pageants.’ That the home was a trailer further highlighted the precarious financial position of the family.”

Hilary Levey Friedman

Even though the pageant I was a part of in 1990 was very small, I remember noticing right away when I arrived that I was likely out of my league. This was my first and only pageant and there were girls there that had done several, touring the pageant circuit to gain college scholarships. I learned a lot and appreciated the experience and have fond memories of the friendships I made. I remember my nervousness at the interviews and walking across the stage. My personal experience and reading this book have given me a new perspective on the hard work candidates take on to compete. I look forward to watching the next pageant aired on TV with new insights and knowledge. However, many have been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic, so it’s unsure when they will resume as states will also have to hold their individual pageants first. I did see on the news that the Miss Iowa pageant was held last weekend.

Photos of pageants past are included and show a historical evolution of gowns and crowns. Those readers who like historical narratives, beauty pageants, and feminist history will find this book interesting.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a sociologist at Brown University, where she has taught a popular course titled “Beauty Pageants in American Society.” She is a leading researcher in pageantry, merging her mother’s past experiences as Miss America 1970 with her interests as a glitz-and-glamour-loving sometime pageant judge, and a mentor to Miss America 2018. Friedman also serves as the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her first book, Playing to Win, focused on children’s competitive afterschool activities. For more information, check out her website, HERE.

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Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book for the purpose of this review. This review is my honest opinion. If you choose to make a purchase through the above links, I may receive a small commission without you having to pay a cent more for your purchase.
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