I’m standing with an Atlantic City policeman, watching Miss America contestants be interviewed on video on the boardwalk, between the candy-colored Wild West casino and the tiny strip of shore. Miss America enthusiasts, mostly senior citizens, have been perched on the benches for hours trying to listen.
I’ve come to see Nancy A. Redd ’03 and Laurie B. Gray ’03, better known round these parts as Miss Virginia and Miss Rhode Island.
I ask him if he ever watches the telecast.
“To be honest,” he says, “I think it’s all bullshit.”
The site of the Miss America pageant for over 80 years, Atlantic City is a cartoon of America: schmaltzy and faux-luxurious on the Monopoly-famed boardwalk, brittle and struggling just steps away. One cab driver rattles off a list of housing projects just inside the city; she brags that her neighbors are all police officers, “but I can still go to my mailbox in the morning smoking a blunt.”
Another points to a pair of scantily-clad women poised on the corner: “Those are our Miss Americas.”
As for the actual Miss America contestants, they’re forbidden from smoking or drinking in public. In the face of declining interest in the pageant, the Miss America Organization has scrambled to be relevant to a world where beauty is no longer a woman’s primary opportunity for advancement. That means emphasizing the scholarships for these sexy but ultimately wholesome women; they’re all pretty smart, but above all, this seems to be about being the best motivational speaker.
Redd may have big dreams, but she works hard. Hers is a uniquely endearing egomania. Maybe it’s because her ambitions and quest for self-improvement are so unabashed and giddy, or because she is genuinely excited about just about everything, that it’s hard to dislike her.
“She doesn’t stop to decide whether a goal is feasible,” says her brother Sammy. “She sets it, and then she does it.”
This women’s studies concentrator from Martinsville, Va., first grabbed the spotlight when she won $250,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” breaking the show’s record for wins netted by a black contestant, and gave a hefty sum away to the 4H Club. She was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women, which also recognized her co-authorship of a Princeton Review book about the gender gap in SAT scores. Now, as a self-identified feminist, she’s been called upon to defend her involvement in a pageant that some feminists scorn.
In conversation, she frequently interrupts herself in excitement—“I just have so much in my brain, and I’m afraid I’m not going to have enough time to get it out”—chatters endlessly in her Southern accent, and laughs uproariously in between. Her favored words to describe her tenure as Miss Virginia are “hilarious” and “fun.”
She freely admits that “my goal my junior year was to be on TV and to be in a magazine. I really just wanted to be on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ so I could be on TV. It really had nothing to do with the money. I have tried so hard for so long. But I get about ten percent of the things I try for. I work like a dog. I’m constantly putting my name in the hat.”
Why did she go into pageants midway through college? It began when Miss Martinsville executive director Jane Leizer spotted her, “chowing down fries at Applebee’s,” as Leizer puts it, soon after Redd’s appearance on Millionaire. “You need to be in my pageant,” Leizer says she told her, and Redd just laughed.
In Redd, Leizer saw the potential revival of pageant culture in America: an intelligent, charismatic woman with connections to high-profile organizations. “I saw that she could bring the pageant into the 21st century,” recalls Leizer.
By January, Leizer had convinced her to compete. The pageant was in February. Redd had taken piano lessons through middle school, but hadn’t touched the keys since 8th grade. She set out to practice her talent piece, Malaguena.
Much has been made of the fact that Redd has lost around 60 pounds since last fall. (She first began a weight-loss push in her senior year, walking into Leizer’s spinning class in Martinsville in anticipation of appearing in Glamour.) After all, how purportedly feminist can a pageant be if you have to fit that societal mold of thinness? She scorns these criticisms, even listing the weight loss as her “greatest achievement” in the pageant magazine.
“I was grossly overweight,” she says. According to Sammy Redd and Leizer, she weighed about 167 lbs at 5’4”. She now weighs 105 lbs. “If it hadn’t been for this motivation, I would have gone into my twenties not as comfortable with myself as I might have been. And not being comfortable means being less effective.”
For Redd, it’s all about being effective. She thrives on the psychobabble of self-help—her thesis was on the evolution of self-help for young women—and she often falls into the cadence of a motivational speaker. She also loves to talk about role models: looking for them, being one. She happily recounts the e-mails, cards and letters saying, “You inspire me,” and times at the video store when starstruck teenage girls have come up to her to say that she’s their hero.
“I tested myself,” Redd says. “I wanted to see if I really had the power of the crown. I wanted to see if I really could be Miss America.”
The “power of the crown” is a phrase Redd likes to use. She says it with a bit of a twang and a hint of irony, but by all accounts, she’s getting as much out of that power as she can. “If you know how to maneuver it correctly, being a Miss—state or whatever—you can just do so much,” she says. “Because people want to be fascinated by it. People want to be excited about it. It’s just that you have to believe in it. What’s happened in the last few years is that people have been afraid to believe in the power of the crown.”
If there’s anything Redd knows, it’s how to maneuver, and she’s found enough people who still believe. She fell in love with a pair of $2,000 earrings Jennifer Lopez wore in a recent issue of InStyle Magazine; a phone call later, they were hers on loan to wear with her evening gown, plus an additional $4,000 worth of jewelry the designer sent along for good measure.
“Nancy has made Miss America into personal potential development,” says Sammy Redd, a Yale graduate and close confidant. “It’s a Cinderella story, yet she’s become the most relevant voice in feminism today. What else could a 22 year-old have done to afford her these sorts of opportunities?”
She often says that she prefers her current gig as Miss Virginia to more conventional post-graduate opportunities. “At some point I’m going to have to get a real job, so I want to enjoy this,” she says. “It’s all about what I can do. There are no limits.”
Five-year-old girls are prancing around in sashes and tiaras, practicing their pageant catwalk. Their grandmothers have been coming year after year: “They’re all so pretty, how could you say anything bad about them?” The men who come up to contestants’ slow-moving convertibles asking for their phone numbers seem unaware that Miss America is a scholarship competition.
The hairspray-bound styles and vast hats the contestants are wearing—Miss Maine wears a lighthouse on her head—are impervious to Hurricane Isabel’s last threatening winds, even though the thousands of t-shirts silkscreened with contestant faces are still billowing.
Former Miss Americas pass by, valiant and coiffed. Last year’s queen, Erika Harold, towers in a skin-tight American-flag getup, surrounded by red, white and blue potted silk flowers. Miss Florida shakes her fake-fur stole, dripping with plastic oranges.
Each contestant lifts her leg gracefully to show her famed decorated shoes: Iowa’s pig and corn pair, Arizona’s Diamondback snake wrapped around her calves. Heads move in quarter turns, and smiles remain frozen wide for the entire four mile stretch of the Boardwalk. Between the queens are South Jersey Vietnam veterans, wary police officers circling on bikes, the trucks of local businesses, and something preternaturally perky called “The Miss America Bike Team.”
Sammy Redd was partly responsible for bringing the Martinsville High School band here, and when they pass him, he becomes so excited that he gets up and starts marching with them. The Martinsville residents in the sidelines that are already here—a total of 700 from Redd’s hometown are expected—jump up and start marching with him. For a moment, the pageant truly belongs to the supporters.
Two weeks before pageant night, Laurie Gray deftly threads her way through the blue and white curtains that shield lunching contestants from the press tables in a Boardwalk Hall parking lot. Clad in her Rhode Island T-shirt, she is petite and polite and somewhat cautious.
She wants to talk mostly about her main Miss Rhode Island activity, teaching and mentoring inner-city children at the Providence-based Community Music Works. Besides teaching, she’s spent the last few months as Miss Rhode Island making one or two appearances a week.
“The rest of the time I’ve spent shopping,” she says, wearily listing the inventory of evening gowns, swimsuits, interview suits and appearance outfits she’s had to amass. “I actually hate shopping. I didn’t like it before Miss Rhode Island, and I certainly don’t like it now.” She proudly volunteers that her competition swimsuit was purchased on sale at Nordstrom’s for $49.50.
Gray is the kind of gentle, studious girl you might pass in your House every day without getting to know. Academically brilliant, she wrote her biology thesis on skin cancer research and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. She’s truly passionate about music: she was the concertmaster of the Bach Society at Harvard, won numerous prizes for her violin playing, and was involved in both the HARMONY and MIHNUET community service programs. Friends say they never saw her in anything but a t-shirt, jeans and no makeup until she became involved in pageants. “She’s über low key,” says roommate Emily R. Murphy ’03.
Gray kicked off her college pageant career by participating in the Miss Massachusetts pageant, but her boyfriend, Daniel D. Sedgwick ’03, says she didn’t tell him about it until she’d already won the preliminaries. When she competed in Miss Rhode Island, though, she couldn’t hide that she was the first contestant in the pageant’s history to win all three preliminary competitions.
“I consider myself sincere and quiet and not over the top on anything,” Gray says, smiling a little. “I don’t get very excited about things.”
She remained calm when she stumbled upon unofficial Miss Rhode Island pageant commentary on internet message boards while writing her last Harvard paper. “When I won they had a whole debate about ‘is she pretty, is she not pretty.’ They said, ‘the Harvard pedigree will only take her so far if she’s Little Miss Plain Jane.’ So I made a pledge never to go on the message boards. It happens to everyone. It’s always going to happen.”
Gray is almost embarrassed to divulge that the Rhode Island board provides her with twice-weekly personal training sessions. The traveling companion that the Miss America organization provides to every contestant accompanies her on every gym visit and watches her work out, she adds.
Why did Gray, the polar opposite of a pageant personality, get into this in the first place? She says it began because of the scholarship money, but admits that now, she’s enjoying the ride.
The press has loved Redd’s and Gray’s Harvard credentials and the seemingly novel juxtaposition of beauty and brains they represent. It’s what landed them in papers around the country, as well as on shared “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition” appearances. (Miss Wisconsin Tina Sauerhammer, who began college at age 14 and is now a medical doctor at 22, has also merited may mentions. She walked away as second runner up.)
While this is the first year that two Harvardians have competed against each other, Redd and Gray follow a tradition of state-level victory in the last decade that includes three Miss Massachusetts contestants, a Miss North Dakota and a Miss Arizona.
“The Harvard name was definitely with me, no matter where I went,” Marcia Murray Turner ’97, who was Miss Massachusetts 1995, wrote in an e-mail from New Zealand, where she now lives. Any words of wisdom to Redd and Gray from a pioneer in the Harvard-Miss America love affair? “My only advice is to present themselves as being ‘real.’ The one thing I heard about my own time in Atlantic City was that the judges felt that in presenting myself as one big string of accomplishments, the general public would not be able to relate to me.”
An article in the Boston Globe took note of the contrast between being Miss Virginia, a full-time job involving numerous appearances and perks, and the more unassuming Rhode Island role.
“The Miss Rhode Island board wasn’t very happy about that article,” says Gray. “The contrast in the end was that Nancy in Virginia got diamonds and a laptop, and in Rhode Island I got dry cleaning. They were pretty upset about that.”
From her side of the press table, Redd chimes in, “You know, that was wrong!”
“But it’s true,” laughs Gray.
“It’s southern versus northern,” says Redd amicably.
“I know that lots of girls here get paid a lot for every appearance they make,” Gray continues. “I have yet to be paid for a single appearance. Which is fine, I’m happy to do it, but at a certain point I need to figure out how I’m going to feed myself this year...It is a bit difficult to make something out of your year as Miss Rhode Island if you have to worry about paying the bills also. And I’m lucky that my parents are willing to support me through it.”
Gray isn’t waiting for the pageant ship to come in. She started applying to medical school during the summer, though she had to beg for an extension when the secondary forms arrived during the height of pre-Miss America activities.
It was less than 15 years ago that the social issue platform requirement was implemented. To hear the official line on it, though, Miss America has always carried the torch for women’s rights. And though the incongruity of a scholarship competition that requires its contestants to parade around in a bathing suit and heels is obvious to everyone—including Miss America officials—it remains popular with viewers.
Still, the grinning procession is tame and prudish in today’s world, and pageant officials seem to like it that way. In 1999, new pageant rules banned thongs and string bikinis, the better to project an innocent, all-American image. Relatively speaking, the pageant’s misogyny now consists less of objectifying women and more of a nostalgic social regressiveness.
But beyond the most avid followers, fewer and fewer Americans are buying into the mystique. NBC dropped the telecast due to unspectacular ratings. But ABC, the current network carrying the telecast, is trying its best. This year, the executive producer is a veteran of shows such as “Britney Spears in Hawaii!”
Two weeks before the pageant, Redd went on the NPR radio show “OnPoint” to explain how she reconciles her Miss America involvement with her feminism. According to Redd, Diane Rosenfeld, a lecturer on women’s studies, helped her prep for the interview, “getting out of pageant mode and back into academic mode,” as she puts it.
Pitted against Elizabeth Nesoff, the Wellesley junior who wrote a Christian Science Monitor op-ed using Redd’s candidacy as a symbol of a crisis in feminism among young women, Redd is introduced with the perennial Legally Blonde references. (Later on in the show, she admits to being an Elle Woods fan, in whom she was “seeking a role model that represented the type of empowerment that I believe it, that makes me tingle inside and challenge myself.”)
Nesoff goes first. She says she thinks that embracing traditional femininity isn’t in itself an empowering act. She says she’s worried that young women are assuming inequality and gender violence are settled issues and are moving backwards instead of forwards.
Then it’s Redd’s turn. Her voice is light and sweet, perfectly polite but sharp. She’s tamed her Southernness, but she can’t help speeding up when she starts getting excited.
“I heard the word ‘can’t’ so many times in your argument. And it frustrated me because ‘can’t’ comes from fear,” she says, reverting to self-help mode. Then she sprinkles in some women’s studies terminology: “And so many people are so afraid of women who border cross between beauty and brains, between feeling confident in the way they look and feeling confident in their knowledge. And that means people want us to fail! And they want us to deny ourselves the right to be beautiful and smart and talented, and confident in these elements of ourselves.”
Snowed under by the force of speech that is Redd, Nesoff manages only to stammer that “I don’t really have a response.”
In the background, ever so faintly, Redd’s soft, triumphant giggle can be heard.
Host Tom Ashbrook is skeptical of Nancy’s breathless defense of Miss America. “But it is a beauty pageant at bottom,” he says.
“It’s not just beauty, it’s not,” she insists. “What you have…”
“Well,” he says, slowing the word down, “We’ve all watched it for many years.”
“This is the funny thing,” she says. “People have all these ideas about what Miss America is, but they’ve never watched it, they’ve never seen it…”
“Yeah,” he cuts in, “but a lot of people have, and they’ve seen a lot of pretty striking looking women. I mean, you can’t walk away from the beauty part of it. Yes, people play the piano, and they speak to their issue, whatever that may be, but does it not hold back up that kind of exclusive notion of beauty that leaves a whole lot of women out in the cold, that feminism was intended to ease a bit?”
After another spirited defense by Redd about how this is one of many choices she could have made, Ashbrook evidently has had enough.
“Nancy, it sounds like you’re ready for primetime there,” he says wryly. “Let’s hear from our callers.”
She later asks me what I thought about the radio show, pressing me to tell her what she could have done better. I tell her she sometimes came across as a cheerleader for Miss America at all costs. “If you’re part of an organization, you have to defend them,” she says simply. “[Ashbrook] was talking about something that existed 20 years ago. If you’re working with an old textbook, I can’t give you the news.”
Polished, professional and articulate, 2003 winner Erika Harold is the exemplar of the new Miss America. Her multiracial background, firm right-wing beliefs and upcoming Harvard Law School attendance have gotten more attention than her swimsuit catwalking or small town parading.
That the Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Illinois was headed to Harvard was a particularly sweet prize to Miss America organizers last year, who asked Harold to wear a Harvard shirt to the traditional “toe-dip” beach photo shoot the morning after she won.
“Miss America organization really wants to showcase the fact that people of substance do compete,” says Harold serenely. “They thought that [wearing the Harvard shirt] might be a nice visual way of conveying that message.”
Over the past year, Harold has traveled 20,000 miles a month for speaking engagements, writing and researching her own speeches; she comes home about once every three months. “There’s a lot less glamour than you would expect,” she admits. “The most glamour is the telecast that people see. The hard work comes after you win the crown.”
Harold was swiftly anointed a heroine in Christian and conservative circles for her steadfast values. She is a committed Christian: Gary Grogan, her pastor at Urbana First Assembly God told a Christian magazine, A Woman’s Touch, that Harold was a “wonderful, Spirit-filled Christian young lady.”
He added that just before her appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” to read the top ten list, Harold refused to go by the script, which contained “two swear words.” According to Grogan, they changed the script.
The political right wing is even more enthusiastic about Harold, who has made public her aspiration to run for governor or senator on the Republican ticket. “The job of Miss America is very similar to running for political office,” she says.
Harold’s valorization among conservatives began immediately after the pageant, when she scuffled with Miss America organizers over her professed decision to advocate for sexual education programs that focused on abstinence during her “year of service.”
It took three tries for Harold to win the Miss Illinois crown, though her abstinence-only platform of “Teenage Sexuality: Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself,” won the State Community Service Award three years in a row. She now concedes that her “controversial platform may have had an impact” on the judge’s willingness to crown her the first two times around.
Illinois requires its state winners to sign onto its official platform of preventing youth violence, so Harold arrived in Atlantic City with stories of severe racial and sexual harassment she had suffered as a teenager. But after winning, Harold was set on talking about her pet cause of abstinence. The Miss America Organization balked, unwilling to enter the political morass of the culture wars. Abstinence advocacy is deeply contentious among those who argue for a comprehensive sexual education in schools, and who call abstinence-only education an ultimately damaging and ineffective substitute for AIDS awareness and condom distribution. Cynics suggested that she had waited until her win to mention abstinence, fearing that chastity talk would jeopardize her chances of winning.
When word got out about the platform dispute, the abstinence-only lobby promptly crowned Harold queen of standing up for what you believe in. Conservative and mainstream news outlets took the issue of Harold’s supposed silencing and ran with it. Thirty-eight members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, sent Harold a letter of support, encouraging her to press on with her “healthy message of abstinence until marriage.”
Harold eventually convinced them that she could integrate youth bullying and sexual abstinence.
“It took some conversations, some negotiations, and a real explanation of why this is important to me,” she says. “After all that, young people might think I had backed away from my views only after becoming Miss America.”
The Harold controversy illustrates just how much Miss America is the site of profound disagreements about the nation’s cultural and political direction. Harold herself, who plans to focus on public interest law at Harvard, says that introducing platforms means that politicization is inevitable.
“It’s no longer just ribbon cutting and riding in parades,” she says. “You now are serving as a means of social change.”
To that end, Harold has testified before a Congressional hearing on Welfare Reform Reauthorization Proposals and organized a poster contest for youth to express their feelings about abstinence. Liberals continue to label her switch to an abstinence platform as a “stealth campaign.”
The parade is over, and Laurie Gray supporters are waiting on line. Even the families of contestants have to wait for a table upstairs at Bally’s. There’s a smattering of cousins and relations, plus Carol Pellegrino, Gray’s music teacher, who remembers her as a first-grade violin prodigy, and beams with pride at the fact that her pupil won the preliminary talent competition. Everyone cheers when Laurie arrives, still in her pageant makeup, but having traded in her black and white gown for a gray sweatshirt.
“She has few friends, but good friends,” says Max G. Lin ’03, sitting at the table of a dozen or so recent Harvard grads. He urges me to “play up the dorky aspect” among the friends, though it’s not immediately apparent. “We’re all science nerds,” he explains cheerfully. “Not the type that hide in our rooms, but still. Essentially dorks.”
Longtime Harvard roommate Emily R. Murphy ’03, who flew in from London that morning, takes a different tack. “I’ve been in the same room as her while showering,” she says, sipping her cocktail. “That’s hot.”
The chatter turns serious. “Where I’m from, three-miles-from-nowhere middle America, being in the Miss America pageant is astronomical. It’s your only chance out,” says Eric B. Hart ’03. “At Harvard people are so matter of fact about these things. Maybe we’re just used to people doing these huge things all the time.”
(At the next table, Miss Oklahoma Kelly Scott’s very animated table is uniformly clad in shirts that read “Kelley Kix,” in orange and white; the alliance with children’s cereal is perhaps a nod to her platform of “Developing Active Kids.”)
“Yeah, but still,” objects Murphy, “at Harvard there’s a stigma about pageants. And it’s still an old-boys school where people have trouble accepting a woman who’s a science major and who’s beautiful or wants to be social. People are still surprised, and someone like Laurie makes them rethink that.”
“Laurie’s really in it for the right reasons,” says Sedgwick, her boyfriend, quietly. Everyone nods emphatically.
“She’s laughing with it,” says Lin.
Across the boardwalk, at the Hilton, Nancy Redd has already left the post-parade dinner. Leizer, who wears the same red Miss Virginia shirt as all the supporters (the back reads “Redd Hott”) says Redd has to wake up at 5 a.m. tomorrow, the final day. Having been with Redd every step of the way, she takes responsibility for the details.
The table is full of supporters, only a fraction of the busloads that will arrive tomorrow. Sammy Redd struggles to identify each one: Leizer’s family; their pastor and his wife; Rupak Bhattacharya ’05, Redd’s boyfriend; Amanda Redd’s high school friends; assorted cousins.
Sammy shares his sister’s dizzy, teasing energy. “The pageant’s so big, it expands to fill whatever space available,” he confides as I join the table. “It’s a freight train everyone grabs onto.”
Hotels for miles are swarming with Henry County denizens. The band is in my hotel—their chaperone estimates that the trip has cost $12,000 —and just down the highway, at the Clarion, are proud neighbors and white-haired Miss Virginia hostesses kicking back Coors Lites.
Amanda Redd, Nancy’s mother, says she isn’t nervous. “It’s almost over, and Nancy has done her very best.” Did she have any idea her daughter would come to this point? “She’s always just been a joy,” says Amanda, throwing open her hands.
I ask Leizer whether she thinks Redd can be Miss America. “I’ve been here for two weeks,” she says. “I’m about to go upstairs and paint Nancy’s toenails. I don’t even paint my own toenails. Do you think I’d do that if I didn’t think she could be Miss America?”
The Miss America pageant is the type of event where middle-aged women in prom dresses line up to buy cheese fries. The tension and excitement in the air are palpable, since most people attending are directly connected to a contestant. Only the top 15 will enjoy anything but ensemble status, so ultimately the friends and families of 36 contestants might travel thousands of miles only to have their girl get cut in the first round.
In the press box, the regional reporters are all pageant vets. Many of them are betting on Redd, but during the numerous commercial breaks, the conversation wanders a bit. I announce my absolute horror at child beauty pageants; my neighbor replies that she has judged a few. She doesn’t get offended, because she’s too busy looking for her friends, ardent Clay Aiken fans who call themselves “The Claymates.” The American Idol runner-up is an audience draw for the telecast.
Erika Harold is introduced on stage, announcing her intention to ultimately run for president.
It’s a triumphant day for Harvard contestants when both Redd and Gray make it into the top 15, and then the top ten. This means that both of them get to compete in swimsuit, the new “casual wear” competition and evening wear. Redd, clad in red-orange silk, is escorted by Sammy; Gray, in sparkly red, is on her father’s arm.
When it comes time to announce the top five, neither Redd nor Gray make it, to the dismay of many in the audience. It is useless to speculate on what might have caused them to be cut. Is it too much hype, too much Harvard? Was it that dress?
One thing is clear: both Harvard contestants would have greatly benefited had they been able to compete in the embarrassingly easy multiple-choice quiz given to the top five. Between questions like, “Who said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” (hint: it’s not Benedict Arnold) is a desperate plea for pop-culture relevancy: “What does the phrase ‘bling bling’ mean?”
When it comes time to announce the winner, the stage is flooded by eliminated contestants in white dresses. The Miss Virginia contingent, loyal to the end, starts shouting Redd’s name.
Miss Maryland is an audience favorite, so when her name is called as a runner-up, the audience reverberates in boos. The selection of Miss Florida Ericka Dunlap comes as a total surprise to pageant watchers. Her enormous eyes widen to massive dimensions as she jumps up and down in ecstasy. Perhaps as proof that the pageant is no longer tainted by racial politics, three African-Americans have made the top 10 (including Redd), two last into the top five, and Miss America is a black woman with a platform of cultural diversity.
As for Redd and Gray, their smiles don’t waver.