Atlantic City, N.J., is one of the few seashore resorts in the world that would actually be improved by the arrival of a major oil slick. Its most attractive architectural feature is buses, which arrive by the hundreds every day to drop off thousands of gamblers, who shuffle into giant casinos decorated by people who, if you let them, would install flocked wallpaper and ceiling mirrors in the Sistine Chapel.
The gamblers fit right in. These are not your sophisticated high rollers clad in evening wear. These are people who buy petrochemical-substance shirts where the armpits have been pre- stained at the factory. They give their money to the casino via a complex and gradual process that takes several hours, then go outside to look for a place to sit until it's time to get back on the bus. You can't sit in the casinos without being sold expensive drinks by cocktail waitresses wearing those bunny- style outfits that give you the feeling you're being waited on by a crotch. So the gamblers spend most of their time either standing in the casinos or shuffling along the boardwalk, blinking. Practically nobody ever goes onto the beach, because (a) the buses don't stop there and (b) you're not allowed to throw money into the ocean.
So it's a glamorous place, Atlantic City, and hunkering right in the middle of its boardwalk, like an enormous concrete toad, is Convention Hall. This is where, every September, they hold the Miss America Pageant, which started in 1921 as a mere publicity stunt, but over the years has been transformed into a much bigger publicity stunt. This year it attracted more publicity than ever, because of the Vanessa Williams Affair. Vanessa Williams, of course, was Miss America until Bob Guccione, Penthouse publisher and intestinal parasite, published photographs depicting her in acts of extreme naked friendliness with another woman. Naturally this caused pageant officials to take away her crown, because it was very damaging to the pageant's image as one of our nation's most cherished rural airhead activities.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Around the country except where I live, I'm sure people were huddling in little groups on street corners and whispering: "Could this be the end of the Miss America Pageant as we now know it?"
So we journalists showed up at this year's pageant in hordes, and at the daily press conference we asked so many questions about the Future of the pageant that the casual observer might have thought after a while that we actually cared about the Future of the pageant, which of course we didn't. We were just looking for ways to avoid interviewing the contestants.
It's not that there was anything wrong with the contestants, you understand. It's just that when you read through their official biography sheets, you are constantly seeing statements like this, about Miss Ohio:
"Her future ambition is to make a significant contribution to the lives of others through her television broadcasting and speaking careers."
Or this, about Miss Delaware (I am not making these up):
"She enjoys giving her personal best, and this is the field in which she excels."
Or this, about Miss Pennsylvania:
"A great recent experience was a personal audience with Liza Minnelli."
Or this, about Miss Rhode Island:
"She wishes to learn as much as she possibly can throughout her life in anticipation of passing that knowledge on to others who might benefit from her experience and guidance."
Or this, about Miss West Virginia:
"Most people find it interesting how very much alike she and her sister are. Not only were they both lifeguards and majorettes, in the same sorority..."
Or this, about Miss Illinois:
"Recognizing an inherent need to express herself through entertaining..."
I don't want you to get the impression, reading these quotations, that the contestants have hair spray for brains. They do not. They are ambitious and disciplined, and I bet most of them are a lot smarter than your state legislator. But for various reasons, mostly because they think it will help them in their careers, they are competing in this bizarre contest controlled by people who were apparently taking naps during the 1960s and '70s, people who still openly refer to 24-year-old women as "girls, " people for whom the ideal American female is a cross between a Barbie Doll and Mother Theresa. So the contestants act that way, but I got the impression that, deep in their souls, they didn't really take it seriously. I like to think that, after a day of smiling like insane persons and talking about how they would very much like to help handicapped animals, they went back to their hotel rooms and unwound by smoking enormous cigars and spitting out the window onto elderly pedestrians. But if they had normal impulses like that, they sure didn't let on in media interviews, at least not in the ones I conducted.
Arranging an interview with a contestant is sort of like courting a family's youngest daughter in one of those really strict Old-World countries where all the men have beards and the women wear veils and squat in the dirt maneuvering rice.
You tell the pageant officials who you want to talk to, and they fill out a little request slip, and eventually they bring her out to the interview area, always accompanied by a hostess so she won't get pregnant or anything. I first interviewed Miss Louisiana, because her fact sheet said she had a blind dog. She didn't realize it was blind until she'd had it for a while. "I noticed he was always running into things, " she said. I asked her what was the most difficult aspect of having a blind dog, and she said: "Housetraining! I'd say, 'Go to the paper!' and he's going, 'Where? Where?' " This was my second most informative interview, my most informative being when Miss Michigan revealed that there is a ventriloquist museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky., where you can see copies of Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. "When ventriloquists decease, they generally will give their figures to the museum, " she explained.
The thing that struck me, during the interviews, as it has struck many others, is that the contestants were not all that flagrantly attractive. I'm not saying that any of them needed Hartz reflective collars; I'm saying most of them had the kind of face that was popular in 1954, before the discovery of ethnic groups. We're talking about a very perky, Doris Day kind of face, but not necessarily a beautiful face. Only one of them, Miss Mississippi, genuinely had the ability to cause commercial aircraft to swoop down for a closer look. This was not just my opinion. This was also the opinion of the reporter for The New York Times, who helped me interview Miss Mississippi on several occasions.
We first asked Miss Mississippi whether the Evening Gown competition had been stiffer than she expected, and she said yes, it had been, because the girls were all so poised. Then we asked her about her gown, which according to the official pageant gown fact sheet was studded with 25,000 rhinestones. Specifically, we asked her if she studded her own gown, and she said no, she had it studded for her. I can't tell you much beyond that, because my notes get very sketchy at this point, and The Times reporter didn't take any notes at all.
Despite the fact that objective journalists from major news media institutions thought she was the most attractive, Miss Mississippi didn't win. This is because the Miss America Pageant is not a beauty contest; it is a Scholarship Competition. Pageant officials never tired of reminding us of that. As Sam Haskell, a member of the prestigious William Morris talent agency and one of this year's judges, put it: "The girls all have extremely high IQs. We are having a wonderful time with these girls because of their intelligence."
The pageant officials were always talking about intelligence, as if the contestants whiled away the hours in the dressing room solving quadratic equations, rather than smearing Vaseline on their teeth to add luster to their smiles. The reason for this emphasis on intelligence, as pageant officials never tire of reminding the media, is that the pageant is not a beauty contest, but a scholarship competition. It's a highly amusing concept when you consider that many women drop out of college to compete in the pageant. They have to, because it can take years to make it to the top: first you have to win a local pageant title, like Miss Harmful Preservatives, and then maybe a regional pageant, and then a state pageant. Along the way, you have to work constantly to develop the best possible all-around combination of the following scholarship achievements, which the Miss America Pageant judges will be looking for:
* Wearing Quite a Few Outfits;
* Continuing to Smile in a Perky Fashion Even If Somebody Jabs You with a Cattle Prod and Tells You Your Mother is Dead;
* Walking While Looking Sideways and Waving;
* Having a Personality;
* Knowing Something About Current Events Such as Peru;
* Answering Nosy Questions from The Press Without Making It Obvious That You Think The Press Should Be Filled With Quick-Dry Cement and Dropped from Federal Aircraft into the Marianas Trench;
* No Armpit Stubble;
To demonstrate their proficiency in these scholarship areas, the girls compete in the pageant's four main events: Evening Gown, Swimsuit, Talent, and Interview. A girl can win individual scholarships in each of these events, which means even if she doesn't win the overall title she can still further her education, assuming she finds a college that will accept an Evening Gown scholarship. They used to have a scholarship for the contestant who was elected Miss Congeniality, but pageant officials had to discontinue this because, this is the truth, the girls were all voting for themselves.
Anyway, here is a summary of how the four main competitions work:
The girls wear these gowns that can cost upwards of $3,000 and look like something a medium-priced hooker might wear to her wedding. The typical gown is in an electric blue or red, with many reflective surfaces and slits, and it conforms very closely to the contestant's bodily surfaces, so that the overall effect is that she has been swallowed up to her bosom by a giant tropical fish.
In the competition, the contestant first walks up to the microphone and makes an Evening Gown Speech. This, for me, is the highlight of the entire pageant, for it is a chance for each girl to say what is on her mind. In the words of Sam Haskell, who as I mentioned earlier was one of this year's judges and also in my opinion is a real weenie, the speech is a valuable part of the pageant because "a lot of them had some very important things to say."
Your typical Evening Gown Speech should sound like the first sentence of the kind of letter you write to prospective employers when you've just gotten out of college and will say absolutely anything to get a job interview. Something like: "As both a person and a human being, it is my future goal to fulfill my ultimate objectives, while also attaining those achievements to which I intend to dedicate myself to striving toward. Thank you."
What the judges are looking for in the Swimsuit Competition, of course, is Grace. Also Poise. "Get a load of the poise on Miss Texas, " is the kind of remark you often heard in the press section during the Swimsuit Competition.
Mostly the talent consisted of singing songs that were mildly popular during the Eisenhower administration. A good example of the kind of song you do not hear performed at the Miss America Pageant is "I Want a Lover With a Slow Hand." The most memorable nonsinging talents were Miss District of Columbia, who did a modern dance wherein she climbed a stepladder and struck a pose that I think right then and there got her disqualified, and Miss Maine, who gave a performance on the electric violin that had the entire audience on the edge of its teeth.
This is the biggie. This is when the contestant goes behind closed doors to be asked questions by the judges. It is very, very tough, because you must remember that the Miss America judges are not just a collection of hicks: they are a collection of washed-up show-business personalities and random weenies. They ask the girls about issues such as the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. The reason for this is that the judges know that the news media will ask the new Miss America just this kind of question, and God forbid she should answer: "Well, I don't actually know too much about the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, for I have spent the last 11 years applying makeup and shopping."
I was privileged to be sitting in the press area right next to the runway when this year's winner, Miss Utah, was announced, and although the press is supposed to be hard-nosed and cynical, believe me, a stirring of genuine emotion swept through the press section when we realized that the concession stand had run out of white wine.
I watched Miss Utah at her big press conference the day after her crowning, and she did fine. For example, one of the reporters asked her for her views on capital punishment, and as I understand her answer, she said she was against capital punishment except when the person had done something very bad. This is the kind of levelheaded opinion you want from your Miss America.
Nonetheless, we in the press were mildly surprised at the choice because, frankly, in terms of personal appearance, Miss Utah is hardly Miss Mississippi. She is hardly your sister.
The only thing we reporters could figure was that she had impressed the judges with the fact that she is a devout Mormon and had never, under any circumstances, including her own birth, been naked.