Karen Heller: The years have caught up with Miss America

There they are. . . . The 53 contestants (50 states plus D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) gather for a photo on the pageant's return to A.C. after seven years.
There they are. . . . The 53 contestants (50 states plus D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) gather for a photo on the pageant's return to A.C. after seven years. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: September 09, 2013

Here she is, Miss America! The venerable, some might say archaic, pageant has returned to its seaside ancestral home of Atlantic City after a seven-year, stiletto-heeled walkabout to Las Vegas.

A.C. has high hopes, about $45 million worth, according to business leaders, that Miss A will reap additional revenue to this shaky Boardwalk empire.

In truth, wholesome Miss A isn't suited to either dens of iniquity. She's like Sgt. Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission preaching among the sinners. But this is her birthplace, as tied to A.C. as subs and taffy, not that contestants would consume either.

Miss A is a nomadic creature, possibly lost. The event has not only traversed space but network and time. The new Miss A, to be crowned Sept. 15, will be the year's second, the current one chosen in January.

The pageant is riddled with absurdities, as conflicted as its host city, trying to be simultaneously retro and current. Miss A, according to the website, is about "empowering young women to achieve" but relentlessly parades would-be doctors and lawyers around in pinup couture, spike pumps and bikinis, the last a gesture toward modernity.

The pageant promotes youth, vitality, and equality while clinging to customs so dated that they are reduced to camp. Contestants are the model of health while their appearances remain insistently artificial, bordering on alien life. Skin is spray-tanned Creamsicle orange. Makeup can attain drag proportions, as though it were applied by trowel. Hair is teased and fluffed into epic architecture.

How do you celebrate contemporary womanhood by having 53 women - the pageant has grown in contestants - pitted against one another? These young women are considered leaders and independent thinkers yet assigned middle-aged chaperones/Politburo adjutants ready to censor any reporter's questions that are deemed inappropriate. Not that I speak from personal experience.

Years ago, I was sent to Atlantic City with this novel pitch: "Sooner or later you're going to have to cover Miss America, so you might as well get it over with." I went. I saw. I was conquered by the absurdity. I abandoned all neutrality, rooted for the aerodynamically confounding Miss Louisiana, Linnea Marie Fayard - who came in only fourth! - and had such a blast that I was sent back a second time.

Never cover Miss A a second time.

Little has changed since. The press is still asked to call the organization "a scholarship program," not a pageant. The whatever-it-is must be promoted as "the world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women," yet most winners ultimately become anchorbots and infomercial chatterboxes. True, there are doctors, lawyers, and Vanessa Williams, the most talented Miss A ever, but the year's first Miss A, Mallory Hytes Hagan of Brooklyn, 23, claims her ambition is to "obtain a degree in cosmetics and fragrance marketing." How much scholarship assistance does she need for that?

Most people cannot recall past Miss Americas, not even the singularly named Kaye Lani Rae Rafko. That's because the excitement ends the minute the mascara melts and the winner is crowned. It's all downhill, albeit in high heels, from there. Miss A is about the quest, the years of grooming, diets, tapping, and strutting.

The pageant's ultimate problem is that viewers don't know the contestants and don't care. They have no emotional investment, other than the weak hook of geographic chauvinism. There are no playoffs or buildups to the Super Bowl of sequins.

The pageant's managers missed the perfect opportunity to increase revenue and viewership: Turn the thing into the two-week reality show that it has always been. Resist attempts to rationalize the absurdity, and revel - if you'll pardon the economically challenged word - in the otherness. Atlantic City would do well to do the same. Normalizing camp is futile.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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