I'm going to put it out there: I've been mildly obsessed with Miss America since I was about 5 months old. When I was a kid -- and we only had network TV -- my entire family used to gather 'round the 'set every year to watch America's best young women duke it out for the world's most coveted rhinestones. Even my brother and my dad -- the testosteronies of the family -- couldn't resist the 120 minutes of sequins and Aqua Net. It would start with the opening number, we'd all be on high alert to catch Miss New Mexico in her 7 and half second spot touting her her home state as The Land of Enchantment. We'd then try to convince ourselves that this year she had it in her to win and spend the next 10 minutes trying to spot her in a flurry sashes and upbeat music -- this always proved difficult, because, well, they always put Miss New Mexico in the back. We were then given a break from all that pizazz with an eternal 4 minutes of well placed advertisements for suntan lotion and lipstick until we were swept back into the magic and immediately ushered into the elimination of all but 16 contestants. Trust me, I'd hold out until the last semifinalist called for the 47th state -- of course I was momentarily devastated when we weren't called but I soon busied myself with trying to predict who was going to win: Texas, California, Hawaii, New York, Tennessee, Alabama -- the show would go on and eventually one of these states would win. Although I was always a little disappointed that our own little estrella didn't win, I would go to bed happy and dream of red roses and high heels.
I loved the pageant so much that I even decided that I might look good in a tiara and tried my hand at a few pageants of my own -- these were horrible failures. Although I was a darn cute kid, I was not incredibly poised. At one rehearsal I fell off the runway, at another I packed socks that were too big for me and so bulky that I couldn't pull my cowgirl boots over them during a costume change -- I went out on the runway in with just the droopy, floppy socks and had to drag my feet just to keep them on (why I didn't go sans socks just wear the boots is beyond me). There is much documentation of me standing in a row of primly made-up little girls all smiling daintily at the camera and I'm swaying back and forth in a daydream or picking at my tights. When I started getting becoming a little chunker it was time to give up on the pageants for good. However, I was still entranced by Miss America, and even as a Woodstock loving - homemade peace sign necklace wearing - would've burned my bra if my mom would've let me -8th grader I still made time for the pageant. In high school my interest in the pageant began to dwindle and my awareness of the rest of the world increased and eventually I pretty much forgot all about the pageant.
In college I almost had a revival of pageant fever when Marta Strzyzweski, a Polish beauty from Los Alamos was selected as Miss New Mexico in 2001. I found her incredibly admirable -- as did many others in our state (she worked at the Labs and played classical piano for Christ's sake!) -- and we all held out hope that Marta would be our ticket to finally winning Miss America. Of course the night of the pageant came and Marta followed the path of so many Miss New Mexicos before her -- in the back row only to be eliminated after the first commercial break. It was then that I completely lost interest in the pageant. It became evident that the same blonde opera singers and baton twirlers competed every year and unless you were from the one 12 select states that always won, there was nobody to truly root for.
In all my pageant watching years, Miss New Mexico has never been Miss America. Note in 1984 (when I was 2 by the way) Mia Shanley from from Alamogordo won Miss USA, so maybe that sort of counts. For those of you who are not pageant savvy, Miss USA is the Donald Trump owned beauty pageant whereas Miss America is a scholarship program. As a point of reference, Shanely's biggest accomplishment during her reign as Miss USA was to bring the pageant industry to Taiwan, whereas Miss America is teamed with The Children's Miracle Network.
Apparently the rest of America started to become just as disenchanted with the pageant as I had become. Eventually it was deemed too lame for primetime network television and found its way over the Country Music Television channel -- where I wasn't even aware that the pageant was still being televised. Eventually even CMT had to give up on Miss America (what does it say when you're not even relevant to CMT viewers?) and this year TLC (The LEARNING Channel, mind you) picked up on the pageant.
This is where I started to become interested in the pageant again. One, because if it's on TLC then it has to be educational, right? And, two, because TLC started airing a program entitled Miss America Reality Check on Friday nights that aimed to reinvent Miss America and bring it out of the dark ages of hoop skirts and and foot-long earrings and make it relevant to a modern audience. I was hooked from episode one, and I forced my boyfriend to watch every last darn episode with me the month before the pageant. I really believed that TLC was going to do something miraculous with the pageant. They challenged the contestants to wear more modern and elegant clothing and to address questions with personality and originality -- unlike their Stepfordy contemporaries of the past.
Mostly, though, they highlighted many of the contestants that normally would have been otherwise lost in the crowd. I totally became enchanted with the oftentimes "out there" Miss Alaska, and I thought Miss Washington was spunky and entertaining. My boyfriend had a thing for Miss Wisconsin (because "all girls from Wisconsin are hot.") Of course, I was delighted to see our very own Miss New Mexico, Jenny Marlowe, get some airtime. She was spontaneous and clever and completely captured me and my boyfriend's hearts. I watched her chop off all her hair and wow the audience with a black hat on the red carpet. I was more than delighted when I googled Marlowe and made the connection that I had seen her on stage in the UNM Theater production of Urinetown. Although I felt like Urinetown itself was a horrible production probably written by guys who never get laid or change their socks (think a live production of a D level Southpark) and that the next time UNM puts on a musical they should probabally cast people who know how to sing, Marlowe left quite an impression on me. She and the guy who played dad to her character completely stole the show and were its only saving grace. When Marlowe won the final award on Reality Check for being exemplary of the changed that needed take place in Miss America, I was ecstatic. I thought we were in. This was going to be our year!!! At least we'd make it to the top 16.
The night of the pageant I invited some friends over for a grand viewing (and some grand cocktails) and we sat in front of the high-def in high-def anticipation. I was excited to see the New Miss America pageant and was confident it would be fresh and entertaining. When Jenny came on during the opening number and told us to "Get your kicks on Route 66," I squealed with glee. However, things took a turn for the worse after that fateful first commercial break. Spunky Miss New Mexico was eliminated along with just about everyone else I thought was worthy of the title. In fact the top 16 seemed to consist of the usual suspects. Usual big hair. Usual lacquered on makeup. Usual horrific dresses. I was completely disappointed. Not just for Miss New Mexico, but for everyone else that wasn't from Texas or California.
Horribly, they made all the losers sit on the stage and be present for the rest of the pageant -- offering them a plate of cookies and saying "here, eat some carbs."
For the swimsuit competition (thinly veiled as a component to show health and fitness) was totally sexed up this year, with cleavage bouncing all over the stage. Ok, so it may have been a bit bolder, but ahem, it is a swimsuit competition, so I don't know how much farther they would've taken it. What's next year going to bring? Thongs? Complete nudity?
The new an improved question and answer was completely disgusting. Instead of the contestants commenting on relevant world events, (say I don't know, the war in Iraq?) it became a giant Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Lynne Spears bash fest. US Weekly in evening wear. Yes, that empowers women, give them a tiara for talking shit about each other.
Eventually the crown was placed upon another head of pouffy blonde hair.
TLC taught me that even on reality TV, Miss America simply cannot be made over. Even when they sexed it up and dumbed it down it equated to nothing more than a parade of skinny blondes and badly sung opera. It's not even that Miss New Mexico didn't win -- it's that she didn't have a chance against her competitors -- who I'm sure all came out of the womb wearing a sash and vaseline on their gums. It's that first and foremost, pageantry is an industry and I forgot that. It's that I was given a glimmer of hope that my childhood fascination could be revived and I was gravely disappointed. Nothing changed, there she is, Miss America.