As I quickly learned in my interview with Lindsey Petrosh, former Miss New Jersey who competed for the Miss America title, it is a snafu to mix Miss America and Miss USA.
“I know a lot of people confuse the two or interchange the two,” Lindsey said, “but it’s completely different organizations.” The distinction was very important to her, and to many of the Miss America circuit girls I spoke with. In order to best explain why this is, we need to go to the beginning of each show.
Miss America started out as a beauty pageant waaaaaaaay back in 1921 in Atlantic City, NJ. The event was part of a larger “Fall Frolic” week that was designed by the casino owners and businessmen of AC to bring in tourists after Labor Day. The ploy worked, the pageant grew, a scholarship prize was added, and in 1989 the leadership/community service/platform aspect created. Thus the Miss America that we know today was born. Those aspects of scholarships, community service, and extensive interviews are important to keep in mind, as they are unique to the Miss America circuit, which is the levels of titles and pageants that must be won in order to be eligible to compete for the Miss America crown.
The Miss America Organization is the leading provider for scholarships to young women in the world, which is awesome, and the competition requires an enormous amount of community service and activism both before and after the pageant itself.
Petrosh also pointed out, “We [Miss America] do a private interview with the judges. I think they [Miss USA] just do swimsuit and evening gown, and the on stage question, which is a joke. They usually ask really controversial questions sometimes that they [the contestant] can’t answer.”
Miss USA began in 1952, started by the Catalina Swimsuits company as a product marketing tool (this company also created the Miss Universe Pageant for the same purpose, which Miss USA feeds into). Currently, Donald Trump owns the pageant. When I discovered that little fact, I couldn’t hold in my snort of derision, and my hopes for the Miss USA Pageant dwindled. This pageant is far less formal than the Miss America one, in that there are fewer rules for contestant behavior before, during, and after the event, which has resulted in several controversies over the years.
For example, in 2009, Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, made a tactical blunder on stage during the question and answer section. She responded to a question about same-sex marriage (and really, Petrosh was right about the ridiculous things these judges come up with) and said that she felt marriage should be between a man and a woman. The public did not respond favorably, and after a deluge of awkward interviews, Internet bashing, and a humiliating release of her “sex tape,” Prejean was relieved of her crown.
I interviewed Samantha Mazza, a college student who competed in the Miss USA circuit, and she certainly had run ins with the “cattiness” that Petrosh mentioned. “I saw girls ‘accidentally’ drop a hot iron on another girl’s dress and things like that,” Mazza said, nose crinkling in disgust. “You learned to watch out for yourself.”
Now, this all seems very one sided in favor of Miss America, but that’s not necessarily what this post (or this argument between the two) is about. You see, the two shows are extremely similar in why they started and it was only relatively recently that Miss America broke from the beauty contest mold in an effort to market itself in a more “forward thinking” way.
But how crazy is this debate when you think about pageantry as a whole. The reason the Miss USA is somewhat looked down on by others of the industry and possibly by most of society, is because the show in no way tries to cover up the physical aspect of the industry. It’s all about how the women look, how they walk, and how attractive they can make their voice. So is Miss America, but instead of leaving it at that, the Miss America Organization tried to build on the practice (or make the practice more palatable) by creating the interviews, the scholarships, and the community service. Now, at least, the Miss America Organization helps women almost as much as it hurts them. The Miss USA Organization is content with bikinis and consistently enraged feminist groups.
Much like rival gangs, the women that compete in each circuit are fiercely loyal to their chosen show. While girls can compete in both circuits, the needs for both are different, and research shows that attempting to transition from one to the other is “discouraged” due to the difficulty. That’s not a major issue, since USA and America contestants have in the past openly distained each other. Heaven help those who confuse Miss New Jersey with Miss New Jersey USA.