Remembering the troubling historical links between beauty queens and racial politics
FOR many people, the most interesting thing about last weekend’s winner of the Miss America Pageant, Mallory Hagan, is that she lives in Brooklyn. It seemed so incongruous: a beauty queen from the epicenter of all things ironic and progressive. Newspapers have hailed her as the city’s first winner since Bess Myerson took the crown in 1945.
But, in fact, Ms. Hagan, who won the state crown in June, is not the New Yorker reporters have made her out to be. Born in Tennessee and raised in Alabama, she moved to the borough only a few years ago, to attend school.
And that, for me at least, is the more interesting part — and not only because I am the daughter of the 1961 Soil Conservation Queen of Marion and Cass Counties, Tex. Next to winning college football titles, beauty contests seem to be something young Southerners do particularly well. “The modern Southern belle,” the sportswriter Frank Deford once said, has “long been the Pageant ideal.” But why?
From 1921, when the contest began in Atlantic City, through World War II, only one woman representing a former Confederate state won the competition. Then, beginning in 1947, when a woman from Memphis earned the top honor, the fortunes of Southern contestants rose precipitously. From 1950 to 1963, seven southerners were crowned (each served the following year), including back-to-back wins by Mississippians in 1958 and 1959 — though southerners made up only one-fifth of the possible winners.