Miss America PBS Special -- 2002

2002 Miss America Experience
Excerpt from PBS History of “Miss America” broadcast:

NARRATOR: The Miss America Pageant started out as a promotional gimmick -- dreamed up by Atlantic City businessmen in 1921, as a way to keep tourists in town after Labor Day. Over the next eight decades, it would become a national tradition dedicated to defining the ideal American woman. Year after year, the Miss America Pageant would struggle to pull off a delicate balancing act -- objectifying women while providing them with real opportunities; promoting traditional roles while encouraging women's independence; glorifying feminine modesty while trading on female sexuality. Along the way, it would come to be a barometer of the nation's shifting ideas about American womanhood. But in 1921, Atlantic City's businessmen were simply trying to turn a profit -- by capitalizing on the country's fascination with beauty.

KATHY PEISS: Well, there are many beauty pageants in the 1920's, and they range from pageants oriented towards African-American women, Miss Bronze America. Even the Ku Klux Klan has a beauty pageant for Miss 100 Percent America. So there's something about beauty as a symbol that is extremely important and many different groups are getting together and saying, we have the most beautiful woman who represents us. And Miss America is the national symbol of what is going on all over the country.

NARRATOR: The first Miss America Pageant was a spectacular two-day festival, culminating with a beachfront parade called the Bather's Revue. The only rule for the competition was that all participants "must positively be attired in bathing costumes." A board of censors had been appointed to review questionable entries.

VICKI GOLD LEVI, Atlantic City Historian: Atlantic City was a place where everybody was kind of given to letting your hair down and having a delicious, romantic time. Bathing suits had changed a great deal and stockings were now being rolled beneath your knees, which was very daring. And women had to have their bathing suits at a certain length. And so there were beach censors who would actually come down and measure the length of your bathing suit.

NARRATOR: On the morning of the Revue, more than 100,000 people swarmed onto the Boardwalk, hoping to catch a glimpse of the scantily-clad young women down on the sand. The spectators' stand out favorite was a slight, freckled sixteen-year-old from the nation's capitol. Named Margaret Gorman.

Ric Ferentz, MAO historian
RIC FERENTZ, Pageant Historian: Margaret Gorman was a sensation. She was tiny, petite, five one, with blonde, long ringlets who looked very much like Mary Pickford who was the biggest star of the day. So, the combination made this young, sixteen-year-old girl a star.

NARRATOR: Gorman swept the competition -- and later that evening, she was crowned the very first Miss America. "Margaret Gorman represents the type of womanhood America needs," the New York Times declared, "strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests."

NARRATOR: The first Miss America Pageant was a staggering success. Before the receipts were even tallied, city officials announced plans to continue the contest through the decade -- confident that as long as there were girls in bathing suits, the crowds would come.

LEONARD HORN, Former CEO Miss America Organization: It was one of the first, if not the first instances of the marriage between advertising and the beauty of the female form which was ingenious because from then on many, many advertisers thought they could get more attention by putting a good looking woman into the picture. Some say it got started in 1921 in Atlantic City.

RIC FERENTZ: The very first years, there was a literal breakdown. Five points for the construction of the head, five points for the limbs, three points for the torso, two points for the leg...I mean it...you know and it added up to a hundred percent. Whether they really went by that, it's hard to say.

NARRATOR: Throughout the 1920's, scores of young women flocked to Atlantic City each year, most hoping the Pageant would land them a career in show business. While the average working woman labored in a factory or a typing pool, Miss America had offers from Hollywood and vaudeville -- and the opportunity to cash in on her looks.

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: "5 feet 4 inches tall, 118 pounds of beauty. Norma Smallwood is crowned Miss America of 1926."

NARRATOR: During the year of her reign, Miss America 1926 -- a small-town girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma -- reportedly made over $100,000, more than either Babe Ruth or the President of the United States.

RIC FERENTZ: Norma Smallwood had an acute business sense. In 1927, when she was due to return to crown her successor, she demanded a fee for her appearance in Atlantic City. And although she arrived and took part in the early part of the pageant, during the middle when that money was not forthcoming, Norma picked up and left for another job in North Carolina. And the press was not very kind to that. They thought that she should have been the gracious one that didn't take the money and stayed around to crown her successor, and Norma thought, I'm sorry, this is a business.

KATHY PEISS: There was a general sense that the Old World had died and a new one was being born. And I think that was especially important for women. There'd been a women's movement that had been successful in certain ways, women had gotten the right to vote for example, and women are increasingly in the labor force in the 1920's. A number are getting college educated. And so in some ways the pageant seems to be a contradiction. Here, feminists had wanted women to move into the public sphere to sort of gain the positions that men had gained, and yet the pageant represents women very much as female and as in some ways, sexualized, as beauty objects.

NARRATOR: The Pageant's attention to the female form had troubled conservative Americans since the very beginning. But in the late-1920's, critics finally went on the offensive. All over the country, women's clubs and religious organizations publicly attacked the Miss America Pageant, and accused organizers of corrupting the nation's morals. "Before the competition, the contestants were splendid examples of innocence and pure womanhood," one protestor argued. "Afterward their heads were filled with vicious ideas." In 1928, fearing the controversy would ruin Atlantic City's reputation, the Chamber of Commerce voted twenty-seven to three to cancel the Miss America Pageant. For now, morality had shut the Pageant down. But America's infatuation with beauty would endure.

CONTEMPORARY FOOTAGE: Brandi: "It's very me, it's very Brandi..."

MARGARET CHO: I think the fascination with beauty pageants is that there can be a winner. That there are certain rules, guidelines that constitute beauty, that it is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder. That we as the collective beholder have agreed on certain qualities that create beauty and uh that there can be a contest to judge it. It's this fascinating thing. TRICIA ROSE: What gets defined as beauty? I mean, it's not unlike high fashion supermodels in that the bodies that work are the bodies that are least like what women look like. So what are we saying? What are we actually saying about what women look like when we say, well you know what, to be most beautiful you have to not look like what women look like?

ISAAC MIZRAHI, Designer: I think that fashion and beauty is everything in the way a woman marks her identity today, unfortunately. But I can't think of a period of time when it wasn't about that, and there are all sorts of obvious manifestations of that you know, the length of your skirt, the size of your waist. But there are other even more subtle things. Like when you shave your legs, even if you're wearing pants that day you feel three times prettier, I think.

JULIA ALVAREZ: You know, there's a yearning in the human spirit, an aspiring for beauty. And, the successful man still has a beautiful woman on his arm. That's the prize. It's been our power structure and it's...it's still operative. Beauty is still the currency out there.

GLORIA STEINEM, Writer: The traditional way to get ahead is to compete with other women for the favors of men, you know and this is not different from any other marginalized or less powerful group. You're supposed to compete with each other for the favors of the powerful. So what could be a greater example of that than a beauty contest?

NARRATOR: Not long after the Miss America Pageant was cancelled, a devastating economic depression brought Atlantic City's tourist trade to a halt. Desperate, local businessmen opted to ignore the critics and revived their lucrative beauty pageant. In 1933, thirty young women were brought to Atlantic City, aboard a chartered train called the Beauty Special, to compete for Miss America's crown.

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: Yeah it's sort of relaxin' what with strikes and food shortages and international disputes and so on to have the lassies back with us once again. Oh well, one good turn deserves another.

NARRATOR: "So striking was the change between the ideal figure of the twenties and that of 1933," one observer said of the contestants, "that one might almost have thought that a new anatomical species had come into being." Among the entries was Marion Bergeron, a high school sophomore and the daughter of a Connecticut policeman.

Marion Bergeron 1971
MARION BERGERON SETZER, Miss America 1933: 1933, it was a depression and at 15 years old I hadn't been out of Westhaven, Connecticut, let alone wind up in Atlantic City.

NARRATOR: A curvaceous blonde with a striking resemblance to screen-siren Jean Harlow, Bergeron had competed in her first local pageant just weeks before. To her surprise, she had won the title of Miss New Haven, and then Miss Connecticut -- and before she knew it, she was being crowned Miss America.

MARION BERGERON SETZER: To the judge's eyes, I was the typical American girl. Totally unsophisticated, very naïve, had a lot of enthusiasm, had a lot of talent that they didn't ask for, but I did have that. And I was just a 1933 typical American girl. My figure then as they described it was a typical Mae West figure, which was hourglass, thirty-four bust, a twenty-six waist, eighty-two buns.

NARRATOR: The new Miss America was just the kind of girl vaudeville producers were looking for -- and they soon came waving contracts, promising to make her a star. But all the attention was short-lived. As soon as the newspapers reported that she was only fifteen, the show business contracts were quickly withdrawn -- and Bergeron went back to high school.

MARION BERGERON SETZER: On our way home, I had to go back only to be met by the nuns that said I had had entirely too much undue publicity. And they felt that it would be better if I chose another school. Yeah, and that's practically being kicked out of school. Here I feel like I'm really somebody. You know, I'm just the most glamorous thing that ever happened at 15 years old, but the nuns didn't think so.

KATHY PEISS: Beauty pageants by the early thirties had a reputation for being somewhat disreputable, like ...a carnival atmosphere. And especially the association with Atlantic City and the seaside resorts made that venue somewhat of a question mark I think for women in terms of their respectability. To be a public woman had a longstanding connotation of having loose morals, of being either a prostitute or sexually loose. And that doesn't disappear, certainly through the 1930's.

Tonight, the first documentary from Sundance makes it to television, airing on 'American Experience' on PBS . I probably wouldn't have paid much attention to 'Miss America' otherwise. I've never watched more than a few minutes of the pageant and could only name past winners Vanessa Williams, Bess Myerson, and Marilyn Van Derbur (who has spoken about child sexual abuse). But this is definitely an excellent experience. There is a good mix of archival photos, newsreel and tv footage, and music. Eight former Miss Americas are interviewed including Myerson (1945) and Marian Bergeron (1933). The intelligent commentary is provided by Margaret Cho, Julia Alvarez, William Goldman, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan and others. — Steve Rhodes.

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Donna and Marilyn both have copies of the PBS special. There is some archival footage of the 1933 pageant, but nothing close up, and it does not appear to have any pictures of Ellie. Copies can also be purchased from the Miss America Organization website or directly from PBS.