How Miss America Stopped Being Our Biggest Celebrity

Whatever happened to Miss America?

This is the story that Twitter tells: Miss America currently has fewer followers than the latest American Idol winner whose name you probably don't know, fewer followers than the parody account for the long-dead author Edgar Allan Poe, and fewer followers than Miss USA, whose July crowning you almost certainly didn't see.

This is the story that the TV ratings tell: Miss America used to be bigger than the Oscars, and now it's not, and it's not even close.

But if you're going to ask whatever happened to Miss America, the pop-culture icon and platform that gave early spotlights to Vanessa Williams, Fox News' Gretchen Carlson, Batman's Lee Meriwether, and more, then you must first be reminded that Twitter's not good at telling long stories, that the TV ratings always tell the same story and that the pageant, marking its 95th anniversary this Sunday, is a complicated story.

Also a simple one.

First, the simple story: The world got bigger.

In the first, black-and-white years of its TV era, Miss America had the monopoly on girlhood dreams as much as the primetime competition. There simply weren't a lot of women in public life who weren't entertainers — or Miss Americas.

"It [the title] was as important to a young woman as it was to a middle-aged man to be the president of the United States," says Mark Stevens, a branding advisor and author of Your Marketing Sucks.

For a time, Miss America cornered other markets, as well: the talent showcase, the mainstream meat market.

Then those worlds got bigger.

American Idol, The Voice, The Bachelor, YouTube, and so many more shows, networks and outlets arrived — and TV ratings cratered, down nearly 90 percent from 2000-10.

"Today, overnight fame is commonplace," Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle, now a stage performer, wrote in her 2014 memoir, Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain.

Also commonplace: Venues for oglers. "There are so many things these days, like Maxim, where you can check out beautiful women," Mario Lopez, a three-time Miss America host, said to Entertainment Weekly in 2010.

Another world of opportunity opened up in 1972 when President Nixon signed Title IX, effectively outlawing gender discrimination and spurring an influx of women, including Miss America 1971 Phyllis George, into on-camera roles in TV news and sports. The monopoly on ambitions was over now, too.

"Some women today will aspire to be Carly Fiorina. Some women will aspire to be Hillary Clinton, and some women will aspire to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg," Stevens says.

And, yes, some women will aspire to be Miss America. In a bigger world, after all, there's room for everybody. Everybody who survives. And Miss America is nothing if not a survivor.

The pageant, declared "boring" by its first-ever winner, dismissed as having "outlived its usefulness" in 1928, criticized as outdated from the 1970s on, and dropped by its longtime broadcast network in 2004, just keeps keeping on. It even returned to broadcast TV (and its former home, ABC) in 2011, where ratings have stabilized.

And while outside of Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004 who went onto compete on The Amazing Race, it hasn't produced a recent title-holder who's made a significant dent beyond her yearlong reign, it has occasionally produced viral moments, such as Kira Kazantsev's plastic-cup-percussion routine at Miss America 2015. (And to be fair to the 21st century, the much-watched pageants of the 1960s didn't produce any breakout winners, either.)

"Anything that can survive 90 years... think about that," says Elwood Watson, an East Tennessee State University history and African American studies professor who coauthored There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant. "That's wow."

To Stevens, if the average person today can't name the reigning Miss America (that would be Kazantsev), well then a lot of average people today can't name the current U.S. vice president, either. In the end, he says, Miss America is a still-potent brand with strong elemental and regional appeal.

"The brand is princess — it means princess," Stevens says. "If you're Miss America today, in the Midwest and particularly in the South, it's still Grace Kelly time." 

For those on the pageant circuit, Miss America is still the one.

"For many reasons, the Miss America title is the ultimate goal," Leslie Birkland, a pageant coach, producer and participant, said via email.

The lure of the college scholarship — something long dismissed by cynics as a front for the swimsuit contest — is real, Birkland said. (Williams, for one, has said she solely entered the Miss America system in 1983 to help pay for her Syracuse University tuition.)

To Birkland, the lure of the Miss America crown is real, too — in her view, and one all but echoed by Miss America itself, "it is the only pageant that selects contestants who have beauty, brains and talent."

So, whatever happened to Miss America? Nothing and everything.

"I think Miss America transforms," Watson says. "If anything's happened to it, it's transformed."

Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of the pageant's shape-shifting ability than the scheduled Sunday return of Williams, the first African American Miss America winner who was thrown under the catwalk by pageant officials when Penthouse published old, racy photos of her in 1984. This time, Williams will be in judgment, literally, as head judge.

Says Watson in summing up Williams's ride as much as Miss America's: "You can't make that stuff up."

UPDATE 9/18/15: The 2016 Miss America pageant bubbled up in the pop-culture discussion thanks to an on-air apology to Williams by Miss America Executive Chairman and CEO Sam Haskell, and a controversy involving Miss Colorado's Kelley Johnson monologue in nurse's scrubs, which was mocked by View cohost Joy Behar. The TV audience, however, remained the same as last year, which means it got trounced by football as it did last year, and the new Miss America, Betty Cantrell, still has fewer Twitter followers than dead Edgar Allan Poe.