At the age of 96, Sunday’s Miss America Pageant features at least one first that would have been unimaginable during its 1950s and 60s heyday, when the annual contest was a major national event on par with the Oscars film awards or football’s Super Bowl.
Decried by feminists for what some see as an outdated emphasis on physical beauty, but defended by proponents for awarding scholarships and promoting achievement in the arts and professions, the pageant has struggled to remain relevant.
As the yearly rite geared up over the past week, much of the attention has been on Missouri’s Erin O’Flaherty, 23, who in June became the first openly lesbian contestant in the history of the nearly century-old pageant.
O’Flaherty plans to complete on the platform of preventing suicide, which disproportionately affects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
“It’s really important for me just to exist in this capacity as completely who I am and be open and proud about it for the LGBT community,” she said this week.
In another unusual, if not unprecedented showing, Miss New Hampshire, 18-year-old Caroline Carter, walked the Boardwalk Hall runway at this week’s preliminary swimsuit competition sporting a glucose monitor for her type-1 diabetes.
Among the 52 representatives of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, contestants from Michigan, Washington D.C., Arkansas, Maryland, Ohio and Tennessee were all poised for advantage at Sunday’s finale, having prevailed at preliminary judging in categories such as talent and fitness.
More than a dozen past winners, dating back to 1948’s Miss America BeBe Shopp Waring and actress Lee Meriwether Borden, who won in 1955, will be on hand when the winner is crowned by outgoing Miss America Betty Cantrell.
Sunday’s pageant will be broadcast live on ABC from Atlantic City, N.J., where it returned a few years ago after nearly a decade in Las Vegas. It was dropped by ABC in 2004 following a steep ratings decline, but returned after years on cable.
Judges, who will include singer Ciara, score contestants ranging in age from 18 to the cut-off of 24, based on a talent competition, a personal interview, answers to an on-stage question and appearances in gowns and swimsuits.
Most all the contestant draw on music or dance for the talent portion, with just a handful opting for spoken word recitations, or the pageant staple of baton-twirling.