Here She Comes: The New Miss America and Me
If the past can predict, Miss Massachusetts doesn’t stand a chance of being crowned Miss America this Saturday night. The historical odds she will take home the crown are precisely 0. In fact, except for the 1933 win by 15-year-old Marian Bergeron of West Haven, Connecticut (the pageant likes to point out she was 15 ½), you can write off the entire New England region. Ditto for Alaska.
I have been watching the Miss America pageant since I was 3 ½. That’s the year it was first televised, and for sure my mother had me propped up in front of our RCA because it was also the first year Bert Parks—the man my mother had once (really once) dated in college—was hosting. The fact that by some very long stretch of imagination this debonair man in evening wear could have fathered me added a personal element of fantasy to the pageant for the next 29 years—until Bert was given the boot in 1979 (after he stretched a little too far trying to change with the times). By then I was in my 30s.
If you don’t know who Bert Parks was, it’s a safe bet you don’t care who the next winner is going to be. That’s why the Miss America pageant has been bouncing around like a star on the skids, from the major networks to Country Music Television to TLC, and from the boardwalks of Atlantic City to Planet Hollywood in Vegas. Too many people of desirable demographic age are too young to care—unless, of course, like my girls (and me before them), they grew up with a mother who was addicted.
For decades after I was grown and out of the house, after Toni home perms stopped sponsoring the show (“Which twin had the Toni?”) and long after Catalina Swimwear pulled out in a snit when Miss America wouldn’t pose for publicity photos in her bathing suit (giving rise to the rival Miss USA competition), I had an annual Miss America date with my mother. Sometimes I actually flew home for the occasion, but most years it consisted of a series of phone calls, starting with a save-the-date reminder (“Don’t forget it’s this Saturday”). And it wasn’t just my mother; my sister was always involved, and for a while we were able to rope in my sister-in-law and her daughter. Once I had two girls of my own, Miss America night became a full-out extravaganza, complete with dress-up and dime store crowns.
Sometimes it was actually hard to follow the proceedings because the phone rang all the time. The talent competition had to be critiqued. “What made that girl think she can sing Verdi?” “Hula hooping—is that a talent?” Another flurry of opinions flew across time zones during the parade of states, which often involved costumes and one-liners about life ambitions, like “I’m Miss Indiana, and I want to be the first woman in space.” My personal favorite came sometime in the late 60s or early 1970s, when a contestant announced her ambition was “to combine ventriloquism and the national news.”
If it sounds like we were catty, we were. But mainly we were boosters. We always had our favorites, and if we didn’t agree on them, we tried to be generous to the preferences of our family members. If my mother or sister was absolutely smitten with Miss Alabama, I tried to feel the same. And deep down we were all rooting for the pageant itself, even though those of us who hadn’t dated Bert Parks were completely aware of its flaws.
The last call came the moment the interview question had been asked and answered. That was a famously treacherous moment for finalists. The crown was within reach, but nerves and brazen ambition had to be kept in check. Smart contestants deftly sidestepped—answering queries like, “Do you think women should be paid the same as men?” with a smile and whatever she thought America wanted to hear at the time. As soon as the last finalist had spoken, the phone would ring, and we’d start betting on who had clinched it.
My mother died in 2000. My sister and I couldn’t bring ourselves to watch Miss America that year, but we have been watching since then, following the pageant’s migration across the country, and from September to January. For everyone who will be watching this weekend, here are some probabilities to keep in mind. The historical odds have favored California, Ohio, and Oklahoma: the odds a winner is from that state are 1 in 13.67. Next most likely at 1 in 16.4are Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin are long shots at 1 in 82.
For some reason, Miss Louisiana has never won, nor has Miss Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia, or Wyoming. If you tune in, you might want to root for one of them.
As for me, I don’t know what I will be doing on this Saturday night. I am indebted to the pageant for a half century of memorable dates. But now that I can’t hear my mother’s voice, Miss America just isn’t the same.