Miss America: Auditioning for Center Stage

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH     

      

Tucked between the New Hampshire primary and Ground Hog Day, and directly competing against an NFL playoff game, is Saturday night’s annual Miss America pageant.

Although the headquarters is still near Atlantic City, where it originated in 1921, the pageant—don’t call it a beauty contest—has been a part of the Las Vegas entertainment scene for eight years. Apparently, the Las Vegas motto of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” wrapped itself around the pageant as well, with TV viewership dropping lower almost every year.

ABC-TV divorced Miss America in 2004, claiming irreconcilable differences. Viewership had fallen from a peak of 26.7 million in 1991 to an all-time low of 9.8 million, barely enough to keep a prime-time show on the air. The pageant’s CEO, trying to preserve what dignity was left, stated “We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values.”

Apparently better understanding Miss America’s values was Country Music Television (CMT). However, that marriage didn’t last, and Miss America then hooked up with the The Learning Channel (TLC). By 2007, only 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch who would be the next beauty queen to want world peace, save the whales, and “do her country proud.”

Treating its demotion to the minor leagues as a chance for rehabilitation, the pageant made a few cosmetic changes, began playing with new ways of scoring, including viewer participation, and slowly brought its ratings back to about 4.5 million in 2010.

That’s when ABC-TV and Miss America, after a six-year divorce, fell in love again. Apparently, CMT and TLC “values” (and money) weren’t as good as a major network’s. Promising eternal faithfulness—as long as the ratings increased—the two lovebirds were seen by about 7.8 million.

Now, it may seem that only TV executives and advertisers should care about ratings, viewer demographics, and selling fluff. But the contestants are well-trained actors in the made-for-TV show, complete with celebrity judges, most of whom are there solely because they are—well—celebrities.

About one-third of all contestants say they want to go into communications. As in almost every pageant for the past four decades, several want to go into television. Miss Delaware and Miss Nevada both want to be talk show hosts. Miss Louisiana wants to anchor the “Today” show; to get to that lofty goal, she plans to first get a master’s in health communication. None of the contestants wanting to go into journalism have expressed any interest in first covering city council meetings, the courts, police, or Little League games. They plan to take their beauty and pageant poise, make up their hair and face, and stand in front of a camera to emphasize the reality that broadcast journalism has diminished to the point of style over substance.

Miss New York wants to be the editor of a fashion magazine. Miss Idaho wants to write for a health and fitness magazine. Miss Hawaii wants to be a film director; to do that, she plans to first get an MBA. There is no evidence she plans first to be an actor, set designer, writer, cinematographer, or in any of several dozen crafts.

Miss Utah says she wants to be an interpersonal communications presenter (whatever that is) and also a college dance team coach. Miss New Hampshire, who probably dressed Barbie dolls in corporate suits, says she wants to “own a large and prestigious advertising firm.” It’s doubtful she’ll want to modify the gibberish of the organization that, with all seriousness, says it “provides young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”

A few contestants say they want to be “event planners,” as if there already aren’t enough people wasting their own lives by planning the lives of others.

Not planning to go into communications is Miss California who is earning a degree in something called “social enterprise.” That could be anything from learning how to use Facebook to mixing the drinks at upscale parties. Miss West Virginia says she wants to go into the military, and then become secretary of state. Perhaps one day she might work for the 2011 Miss America, whose goal is to become president.

Several contestants plan to get MBAs, but almost everyone wants to use that degree to go into—prepare yourself!—a non-profit social service agency.  It sounds good, and maybe they all mean it. But, dangle a six-figure salary, stock options, extensive perks, and a “golden parachute,” and most of them will run over the Red Cross so fast it’ll need blood transfusions.

Mixed into the career goals are some contestants who plan to be physicians, pharmacists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and others in the caring professions.  

Miss America doesn’t have to worry about a job or college for a year. Along with a paid chaperone, she will tour the country to sign autographs and give inspirational speeches about whatever her platform is—and, of course, to promote the Miss America Organization.

From the “toddlers and tiaras” stage to the stage at the Planet Hollywood Casino, beauty contestants are told how to look, act, and talk, even what to say or not say. The Miss America Organization—which makes the Mafia look like a second rate fraternity—doesn’t tell contestants they must attend college. But, every one of the state winners plans to be a college graduate.

There is a definite bias against those who don’t think attending college is important at this stage of their lives. And so, we don’t see talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who are bypassing college to attend specialized non-degree-granting schools and enter their professions. We don’t see contestants who, although beautiful and talented, are planning to be plumbers, electricians, or firefighter/paramedics. We don’t see contestants who want to be gardeners, floral arrangers, or chefs. And, we most assuredly don’t see women who are bypassing college to be part of major social movements.

[Walter Brasch, who attended several beauty pageants, although as a reporter and not as a contestant, is a social issues columnist and book author. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, available at www.amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com]

 

 

Down for the Count: America's Fascination With Royalty

 

 

By Walter Brasch

 

           In case you're in a funk because you think the reason you didn't receive an invitation to the royal wedding is because the Brits are still ticked off about that silly little skirmish back in 1776, the American media have a solution for you.

           The media had been pumping out news, features, and gossip about the wedding for more than three months. Almost every radio, TV, and cable network, except for maybe the Cartoon Channel, will be covering the wedding on Friday. All. Day. Long.

           Coverage begins at 3 a.m. EDT (8 a.m., British Standard Time) and finally ends before the bars close. In addition to extensive live coverage of the procession and wedding itself, ABC, CBS, and NBC are devoting five hours in evening prime time to reviews of the wedding.

           WE TV has four one-hour documentaries: "Prince William," "Kate: The New Diana?", "Will + Kate Forever," and "William & Kate: Wedding of the Century." Apparently, the cable network that brands itself as "the women’s network devoted to the wild ride of relationships during life’s defining moments," believes there won't be a royal divorce, and that the marriages of Charles and Diana (which did end in divorce), Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, Elizabeth II and Philip, and Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in the 20th century were only preliminaries. Lifetime, which bills itself as the cable network that "celebrates, entertains and supports women," has several one-hour documentaries, including "A Tale of Two Princesses," "William and Kate: A Love Story," and "Kate's Gown of Renown." The network is also cablecasting two two-hour docudramas, "Prince William" and "William & Kate."

           If you don't have access to a TV set, You Tube is transmitting the events live to computers and every handheld device known to technology. Add in all the newspaper and magazine coverage—look for multi-page photo spreads in all major entertainment magazines in the next week—plus a million or so blogs, and there's no reason why anyone shouldn't know important details, including how many canapés were ordered for the after-wedding reception.

           Americans have always had a fascination with royalty. Although we organized a revolution to overthrow a monarchy, and created a president not a king as head of State, we have spent more than two centuries trying to regain a royal image.

          Our fast food restaurants are called Burger King and Dairy Queen.

           Somewhere at any moment during the year, American girls (infants through senior citizens) are practicing their wave so they can become a beauty queen. Schools have prom queens and homecoming queens, each with their court of princesses. Every college football bowl game parade has a Miss Something and her Court. And, every winner wears a tiara.

           The media and the public dub almost every new celebrity singer a "pop princess." Just about any young ice skating star is known as an "ice princess," but the media in 1989 derogatorily dubbed Deborah Norville an "ice princess" when she took over for popular Jane Pauley on NBC-TV's "Today Show."

           Princess Cruises has the "Love Boat," but there was no love lost when Donald Trump sold his 282-foot Trump Princess for about $40 million in 1991 after he, mistress Marla, and wife Ivana had formed a Ménage a Tabloid.

           Among googobs of literary and movie princesses have been Cinderella, Snow White, and Leia who helped Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and that giant furry thing make the world safe for high-tech special effects. And, of course, there's the Lion King that made the Disney company rich enough to devour all other media companies, and take on the corporate shape of Jabba the Hut.

           The greatest baron, pursued by ace aviator Snoopy, was the Red Baron. However, for some reason the media prefer to use the title "baron" to refer to evil "kingpins"--as in "drug baron," "robber baron" and, understandably, "media baron."

           The music industry abounds with royalty. Bessie Smith was the Empress of the Blues; Roger Miller was King of the Road. Among other kings are those of Ragtime (Scott Joplin), Blues (W.C. Handy), Swing (Benny Goodman), Waltz (composer Richard Strauss or bandleader Wayne King), Pop (Michael Jackson), and, of course, Elvis, the king of rock and roll. One of the best singers was Nat "King" Cole. 

           Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. Rap singer Queen Latifah may think she's royalty, but British rock group Queen truly has a better shot at sitting in Buckingham Palace than she does.

           Among singing princes are the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, who doesn't do much singing or rapping any more, and Prince Rogers Nelson, who became known simply as Prince, and then the singer-with-the-unpronounceable symbol, who later regained a pronounceable moniker, and has the ability to predict purple rain.

           The most famous duke is the "Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl, Earl, Earl, Duke of Earl" who proved in the late 1950s that anyone can grow up and write song lyrics.

           Other less royal dukes have been baseball great Duke Snider and musical genius Duke Ellington who, had he gone to baseball games, would have had to sit in segregated seating in most ball parks. Sitting with him would be the Dukes of Dixieland. Upset there are no more segregated "colored" seats, drinking fountains, and rest rooms is David Duke who once cornered the market on pointy white hats and dull-witted Whites.

           Babe Ruth was the Sultan of Swat. But no royal monikers were attached to Roger Maris who broke Ruth's single season record or to Hank Aaron, who broke Ruth's lifetime record, and had to put up with numerous racist comments. So far, no one has given royal titles to Barry Bonds, the current leader in single season homeruns, lifetime homeruns, and steroid usage accusations.

           Nevertheless, the only royalty that matters are the Counts--Tolstoy, Dracula, and Basie.

 

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist. His next book is Before the First Snow, a look at America’s counter-culture and the nation’s conflicts between oil-based and "clean" nuclear energy. The book is available at amazon.com]

 

 

 

 

 

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