There She Is

Inside the year of the Harvard beauty queen

David E. Stein

Miss Rhode Island, Laurie B. Gray ’03

“So you’re from Hahvard,” says the cop. “Are you rich, or are you smart?”

Pause. “Both?”

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.”

Multimedia

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.