“We’re doing it wrong, absolutely wrong! Miss Universe should be about Space Exploration, Miss World about Science and Miss Earth about Going Green!”―Manasa Rao Saarloos.
Beauty is only skin deep, but diamond tiaras are forever. Almost every culture has their versions of “beauty pageants,” those special times in a young woman’s life where she is judged by her looks, charm, poise, and ability to answer the tough questions. Thanks to the big contests like Miss World and Miss America, most of us have a very specific, bikini-clad vision of what it means to be a beauty queen.
In reality, there are as many different kinds of beauty pageants as there are ways to be beautiful. But with great beauty comes great responsibility. Just what does it cost to look that good? What sticky secrets lay beneath a beauty queen’s bathing suit? And what do monkeys have to do with the sordid history of beauty pageants in the USA? Adjust that sash and practice that catwalk to these 42 shocking facts about beauty pageants.
Beauty Pageant Facts
1. A History of Shrinkage
Skinny was not always the standard. In 1930, the average BMI for an American beauty pageant contestant was 20.8—the universal “healthy” middle. But in 2010, the average BMI was just 16.9―“underweight” by any measure.
2. Not My First Rodeo
Atlantic City was home to the first Miss America Pageant. However, it was not actually the first of its kind: from as early as the 1880s, Delaware had been hosting “swimsuit competitions” on its beaches. It just goes to show: the Victorians weren’t as straight-laced as we might think!
3. Avengers Assemble
The Philippines holds the world record for most international beauty pageant titles. Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss Earth make up what the beauty pageant circuit calls “the Big Four.”
4. Big Hair Equals Big Mortgage
Being this beautiful is an investment: the average US beauty pageant evening dress can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on whether you’re going for an off-the rack gown or a custom-made design. Throw in $250/hour for hair and make-up, plus countless fees for headshots, transport, trainers, and entrance fees, and that’s a lot of dough for a little plastic crown.
5. Taking the L-Train to Self-Esteem
Look, we know that commuting is hard. But you know what’s harder? Looking beautiful. We’re not sure who on the New York Subway’s Advertising board though that “subway” and “beauty competition” would make a good match, but we’re sure glad they did. The subway-based beauty contest ran for over three decades, all the way from 1941 to 1976.
At first, winners were chosen, then crowned and photographed to be displayed on subway cars and buses—a beauty to brighten people’s day, so to speak. Later, commuters could vote for the winners themselves, looking at contestant photos on subway ads and then—this being the 1970s—sending in a postcard or calling in.
The only pre-requisite to compete? The lady had to be a New York City resident and an NYC subway regular.
6. Little Kids, Big Mouths
Ironically, judges will punish child beauty pageant contestants for looking too childlike. For one, baby teeth are natural in real life but taboo on the pageant stage. In fact, not wearing your “flippers”—special false teeth which cover the “jack-o-lantern” smiles of developing baby chompers—is worth more than a few demerits.
7. Junior Needs a Cup of Joe
It’s not unheard of for “pageant parents” to caffeinate their kids through those long-lasting rehearsals and competitions. June Thompson of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo came under fire for serving her daughter Red Bull with Mountain Dew; the concoction is known in the child pageant circuit as “pageant crack,” which doesn’t sound so great for a kid’s development.
8. Don’t Put a Ring On It
Some beauty pageants take the “Miss” part of their titles very seriously. Like, creepily seriously. In such cases, these “Miss” pageants forbade contestants from being married before competing. Even worse, these rules are still used in certain pageants! At the very least, Miss America now allows divorcées to compete.
9. No Babies Allowed
Certain beauty pageants used to forbid women who had ever been pregnant from entering the competition. These rules have been rolled back in recent years, changing to only bar women who have “given birth to a child.” This is considered fairer for women who have had abortions and miscarriages.
10. Too Old to Make It
Are you over the hill yet? The age limit for the Miss American Pageant is 24. But you can take that extra two years to the Miss USA competition, where the oldest you can be is 26.
11. Just Say “Non”
In 2013, France put a nation-wide ban on child beauty pageants. Children below the age of 13 can no longer compete in these parents out of fear for “sexualizing” young girls. I mean, do you really need a spray tan, fake lashes, and fake teeth before you’re even in high school?
12. All the Ladies
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: competitions exist for all types of women, from short ladies to plus-sized ladies. But if you’re feeling really “adventurous” …
13. Go Bananas for This Beauty
In 1972, there was a “Miss Beautiful Ape” beauty pageant to promote the film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Bikini-clad contestants wore hyper-realistic ape masks over their lovely faces to win a role in the upcoming installment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The most ape-worthy beauty was Contestant No. 2, Dominique Green, whose looks clearly meant monkey business.
14. The More the Merrier
In the US alone, It’s estimated that over 2.5 million adult women risk it all in beauty pageants every year. Some hairspray manufacturer is very happy about that statistic.
15. School or Horror Film?
In Venezuela, “Miss Factories” thrive as popular schools for wannabe beauty queens. Before they even reach puberty, some students learn drastic body modifications to achieve the “right” look. These modifications can include everything from hormone treatments to get taller and installing meshes put on their tongues to minimize intake of solid food. Is it worth it?
16. No Ifs or Butts
Many contestants use something called “butt glue” to keep those skimpy tops and bikini bottoms in “place.” Sure, laugh until you’re the one strutting down the aisle in a tasseled outfit with high-heeled shoes.
17. Don’t Count on Leftovers
Don’t try this at home: hemorrhoid cream and plastic wrap are not unheard-of ingredients in a beauty queen’s wait-slimming regime. Thankfully, not for consumption: one former Miss USA described how she would “lather on hemorrhoid ointment, wrap myself up with Saran wrap, and run on a treadmill with an incline for 30 minutes. It’s not permanent, but it tightens you up.”
It’s like I always say, who needs the gym when you have kitchen supplies?
18. Make it Like Monroe
We don’t think of look-alike competitions and beauty pageants as one in the same, but aren’t they? The theatrics are certainly similar. Take the popular Marilyn Monroe look-alike contests, which took the world by storm in the 1950s. Wannabe Marilyns would even put themselves in fully-sized cut-outs of her body to see exactly how much they fit her iconic proportions.
19. Stay for the View
The American beauty contest has roots in a surprising source: tourism. Desperate to keep people around for Labor Day, the Atlantic City Boardwalk started the “Miss America” competition. What better way is there to keep feet on the boardwalk than offering pretty young ladies for your ogling pleasure?
20. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Sash
Hollywood can’t resist a good catfight. However, the popular male fantasy of backstage hair-pulling and backstabbing is mostly just that: a fantasy. When asked, the vast majority of girls and women on the beauty pageant circuit reported feeling a sense of sisterhood with their “competitors” more than anything else.
Many will also tell you that they met their best friends on these shows. I mean, who else could relate to the world of high-pressure hair drama and sticky-tape malfunctions?
21. Books Before Bouquets
In 1937, Miss America Bette Cooper gave up her title after just 24 hours under the crown. Why? She decided she’d much rather pursue her education. Abdicating all responsibilities to attend Centenary Junior College, she left the crown to no one.
22. From Catwalks to Red Carpets
Legendary comedic actress Cloris Leachman owes it all to Miss America. In 1946, Leachman used her Miss America participating scholarship to move to New York City and begin her acting career. Sure, Leachman now has a Best Actress Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a decades-long career, and critical acclaim…but do you think she misses the sash and crown?
23. A World of Competition
When it comes to the most “Miss Universe” titles alone, the USA is still #1. As of 2012, with Miss Universe Olivia Culpo of Rhode Island, America holds eight titles, putting the good old US of A right before Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
24. To Wear or Not to Wear
Bikinis have been a controversial topic for beauty pageants since their inception. Some events have banned them all together, while others have gone for the softer approach of making them optional.
25. Be The Crown, You Are The Crown
While having a personal coach isn’t mandatory, a Beauty Queen is in the minority if she goes it alone. About 72% of Miss America hopefuls go with a professional pageant coach. What’s involved? Just making sure the lady knows what to say, what not to say, what to wear, what not to wear, and how to generally act. It’s those itty bitty little subtleties than can make or break a winning sash, after all.
26. Heavy is the Head That Wears the Crown
While 6% of Miss American competitors identify as having a mental illness, it’s estimated that the real number is much higher.
27. We Reign Supreme
California, Ohio, and Oklahoma have produced more Miss America winners than any other state. How many, you ask? Six winners apiece. To give you some perspective of what that means, there are 19 US states that have never sent a winner to the podium, let alone six ladies. What’s in the water over in California, Ohio, and Oklahoma?
28. Heritage in a Crown
To date, only one Jewish woman has ever won the Miss America pageant. The honor went to Bess Myerson, who became Miss America in an especially significant year: 1945. Many saw her win as a triumphant stand against the incredibly horrific and recent Holocaust that had just marred the landscape of World War II.
29. Put Your Hands Together
In the first Miss America beauty pageant, audience appeal counted for 50 percent of a Beauty Queen’s vote. This was determined by the empirical metric of “clapping.” It’s called science, guys.
30. Cheaper By the Hundred Dozen
There are currently more than 3,000 contestants listed on the International Register of Pageants. It makes you wonder, maybe beauty pageants are America’s true favorite sport.
31. Too Early to Start?
How early is too early? Kids aged 6 to 16 account for 3 million beauty pageant contestant every year. That’s a lot of tiny tiaras.
32. Spend Money to Make Money
McKenzie Myers of Toddlers and Tiaras fame notoriously spent $4,00 on a dress. And that’s not weird. Even kids’ beauty pageant dress can cost thousands of dollars.
33. Miss Village
In their earliest form, beauty pageants are older than indoor plumbing in Europe. The English May Day festivals, for example, climaxed with the crowning of the “May Queen,” a young and beautiful woman who symbolized village values and the bountiful harvest. Pageants like Miss America have simply grabbed that tradition and televised it.
34. A Matter of Church and Beachwear
In 1947, the Roman Catholic Church used their almighty power to…condemn the use of bikinis in beauty pageants. As a result, the bikini was completely banned from early Miss America competitions. Pope Pius XII himself lost it when the first-ever Miss World in 1951 was crowned while adorned by the “sinful” swimsuit.
35. From Tragedy to Tiaras
In 2008, a Norwegian theatre director held the first “Miss Land Mine” pageant in Angola. As you might have guessed, the pageant showcased the most beautiful victims of land mines in the country. Some people called the competition “exploitive” of local women’s suffering and disability. Nevertheless, the competition was a huge success.
Miss Land Mine did a lot of good. The event raised awareness about land mine victims, promoted health services, and offered a self-esteem outlet for the underprivileged. Such a show was planned for Cambodia until the government canceled the controversial event literally hours before it began.
36. Only the Inside Matters
“Miss Morals” is a Saudi Arabian beauty contest that is completely about inner beauty. Instead of looks, contestants are covered up completely and judged solely by their family history, morals, and social values. It takes three entire months to do the judging, but it’s worth it: the lucky Miss Morals wins money, a diamond watch, a pearl necklace, and a Malaysian vacation.
I guess being “pure of heart” pays off outside of the fairytales.
37. Better Safe Than Sorry
Sexual health is important; what way to make that statement than to hold a “Miss Condom” beauty pageant, as Thailand did in 2003? To promote safe sex, contestants were judged on their vast knowledge of HIV…and asked to compete in a condom balloon blowing contest. Anything to remove the stigma around contraception, right?
38. One Small Laugh for Man, One Giant Leap Backwards for Womankind
On the surface, it’s funny that NASA held beauty pageants until the 1970s. Several installations—from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the Lewis Space Center—held their own respective beauty competitions with colorful names such as “Miss NASA” (of course), “Miss Guided Missile” (okay, that’s clever), and “Lunar Landing Festival Queen” (they’re scientists, not poets).
Who didn’t find it funny? Some of the female employees, whom NASA pressured into participating.
39. Too Manly to Take a Joke
In protest of the sexist “Miss NASA” competitions, a group of feminists swapped the ballots one year with joke slips where workers could vote one of 45 male NASA employees for “King of the court” (or more demeaning, “Boy of the court”). Faced with a challenge from mysterious forces, the men bravely freaked the heck out and called security.
Nevertheless, the “results”—featuring cartoons of the winners themselves—were shared among workers the very next day. This shocked the men so deeply that they canceled the Miss NASA competition before it could ever launch again. Point, set, match. Now, where’s that Men of NASA commemorative calendar?
40. Narrow Definitions of Beauty
Unfortunately, the history of Miss America is mired in racism. For almost thirty years, non-white women were barred from even competing, due to a rule that said, “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” This law wasn’t repealed until 1950s, but even then, the first black contestant didn’t run until 1971. I mean, can you blame her?
But even then, a black contestant didn’t win until future actress Vanessa Williams took the crown in the totally not dystopic year of 1984. Take that, Big Brother?
41. Return to Sender
For being the first black woman to win Miss America in 1984, Vanessa Williams received the usual fare: flowers, a crown, and—oh right—death threats. This marked the first time in the pageant’s history that a winner received any hate mail, let alone mail which made threats against the triumphant beauty queen’s life.
42. Ask Permission Before Publishing
In addition to becoming the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams was also the first Miss America who had to resign due to the release of scandalous nude photos. For the record, Williams was informed that the photos in question would never appear in print—but they were published without her consent nonetheless.