Miss Wisconsin pageant deals with criticism, celebrates its successes
One afternoon in 1968, passersby combing the boardwalk in front of the Atlantic City Convention Center stopped to watch a demonstration.
A group of about 150 feminists from six cities were crowning a sheep “Miss America.”Then, they proceeded to purge high heels, girdles, bras, fake eyelashes, curlers and other “objects of female oppression” into what they called a freedom trash can.“It was the first time the public became aware of the feminist take on pageants,” said Helen Bannan, director of the women’s studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “It was very much a media event to raise consciousness that women on parade are like cuts of meat,” she said. “You don’t see that level of resistance anymore, but many people still have similar attitudes toward the pageant.”The Miss America organization is one of many pageants whose roots date back to the early 1900s. With the 2007 Miss Wisconsin competition on the horizon, local representatives still find themselves fighting what they see as misperceptions about the purpose of their pageant.
Jeanne Schmal, co-chairwoman of the publicity committee for Miss Wisconsin, said strides have been made in educating the public about their organization’s track record in awarding scholarships to women to help further their education – for example, in 2006, the program made $45 million available in cash prizes and in-kind scholarships. But they still fight perceptions that Miss America is like every other “beauty pageant.”“It is a little frustrating,” Schmal said. “Certainly most of these contestants are beautiful young women, but they also have skills and the knowledge, and they have a desire to do something good for their community, for their state, for the country.”However, feminists and the pageant-wary see it differently; some posing the question, “If it’s a ‘scholarship pageant,’ why isn’t that the focus of the competition?” There’s a distrust of pageants among some. “Any time a woman’s parading in a bathing suit and high heels, it’s hard to take it seriously as a scholarship organization looking at leadership and talent … because no one in the real world wears high heels and a bathing suit,” Bannan said.Be it Donald Trump’s sensationalized Miss USA pageant or the Miss America competition, “I think they’re all at heart focused on women’s beauty and objectifying women that way. At least some of them have the scholarship angle to it,” Bannan said. “But if they want to take themselves seriously and have it be a scholarship pageant, they should emphasize that.”The Miss America competition began as a swimsuit contest in 1921, as a gimmick to keep tourists in Atlantic City past Labor Day, Schmal said. “It is a topic of criticism of the pageant, I know, but it was the whole basis of the Miss America pageant when it began,” she said. Organization representatives maintain that keeping the swimsuit part of the competition maintains tradition, and it is not meant to exploit physical beauty but rather promote physical fitness and confidence.“It’s apparently a favorite of the TV audience, so I don’t see it going by the wayside anytime soon,” Schmal said.
Upward of 1,400 pageant enthusiasts flood into Oshkosh each June to watch as the new Miss Wisconsin is crowned, and thousands of dollars in scholarships are awarded. Though the auditorium is typically full for the Saturday finale, the organization struggles to fill seats during preliminaries two days prior.“I think back to when we used to almost sell out every night,” said Mary Lou Lewis, volunteer for the organization for more than 40 years. “Many don’t realize, they’re not going to see their favorite girl Saturday if she’s not in the top 10. It’s Thursday and Friday when half the girls are doing swimsuit and evening wear, the other half talent, then Friday it flip-flops.”Lewis expects Saturday’s event, themed “Broadway Bound,” to sell out the night of. This year, Miss Wisconsin broke tradition by moving the pageant from the third week in June to the last, to avoid overlap with the Country USA festival. Hopes were to free up hotel rooms for incoming guests and avoid scheduling conflicts.
There were 32 local-level pageants in 2007 that yielded this year’s Miss Wisconsin contestants, which is back on par with numbers from the 1960s.“It started out very, very strong, with 30 to 40 local pageants, and then in probably the mid-’90s the number of local pageants declined … to about 24 to 25,” Schmal said.She said one reason for the increase has to do with young women’s renewed interest in participating in the competitions. “They are beginning to appreciate more – with the cost of higher education – how valuable these scholarships are from Miss Wisconsin.”But it takes more than contestants to keep a pageant afloat. Completely volunteer-run, local pageants demand manpower and time, typically for no pay. “It is a tremendous amount of work to put on a pageant, and it costs money,” Schmal said. “It’s difficult to find people willing to dedicate that much time and energy to anything, and starting up new local pageants is probably key to the success of our program.”This year, Miss Wisconsin will feature many familiar faces, like Miss Oshkosh 2006 and current Miss Lakeshore Janelle Larie.Larie could not be reached for comment by deadline, but told The Northwestern in 2006 that scholarship-based pageant competitions always have been something she’s supported and gravitated toward. “I hoped that I’d grow up to be someone little girls looked up to,” Larie, of Oshkosh, said last year. “A representative and role model girls emulated.”State pageants like Miss Oshkosh, sponsored by the Women’s Division, support contestants by doing local fundraisers throughout the year, Lewis said. They are known for giving out upward of $10,000 in scholarships. But, what are known as “open pageants” allow former title-holders and contestants from anywhere in the state to enter, and oftentimes don’t offer the level of scholarships that state programs do.“We do have 14 out of 32 (contestants) that are repeats and have competed in our pageants or another pageant,” Lewis said. Eight contestants are open-pageant title-holders.Having repeat contestants, though, does up the contestant number and thus draw in thicker crowds.“A girl from a city usually has a stronger backing (than those from open pageants),” Lewis said. “A prime example is Miss Arcadia; once again, I have more people coming as patrons from there than I even have from the Oshkosh area.