The History of Pageants: 1950-1959
Television and Royalty
As the nation approaches the half-century mark, pageants have achieved such popularity that parents are often heard to remark that every little girl’s dream is to grow up to be Miss America, as show by these wholesome 1950’s beauties eyeing the airborn 1956 Miss Rheingold pageant crown.
The new Miss America (1951) Yolande Betbeze,
Miss Alabama, refuses to pose in a swimsuit, insisting that she is a classical singer, not a pin-up. Officials support her decision.
Miffed, Catalina swimwear quits as a major sponsor of the Miss America Pageant and starts planning its own promotional vehicle, the sister pageants, “Miss USA” and “Miss Universe.”
The first Miss World Pageant (referred to as a “festival bikini contest” the first year) is held in London by founder by Eric Morley. The first winner is crowned, Kiki Haakonson, of Sweden, wearing the new-fangled “bikini”, making her the only Miss World to be crowned while wearing a two-piece swimsuit. The contest quickly switched to more traditional swimwear of the era – one-piece swimsuits featuring the now-quaint “modesty panel”.
The first Miss World Pageant is held to promote the Festival of Britain. Miss Sweden, Kiki Haakonson, wins. The contest adopts the slogan “Beauty with a Purpose” and aligns itself with Variety Clubs International to raise funds for world charities.
Catalina holds the Miss USA / Miss Universe sister pageants together in Long Beach, California. Thirty American women compete for the first Miss USA title, won by New York’s Jackie Lougherty. Twenty-nine international contestants compete for the first Miss Universe title. Actress Piper Laurie crowns the first winner, Finland’s Armi Kuusela.
The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain inspires a worldwide royal mania which popularizes public idolization of pageantry and royalty … and American queens.
Coronation of an American queen…..The first live coast-to-coast broadcast of the Miss America Pageant airs on September 11th, 10 p.m. Lee Meriwether is awarded the crown by a panel of judges that includes movie queen Grace Kelly.
Songwriter, Bernie Wayne, of Blue Velvet fame, reads an article about the upcoming first live broadcast of the Miss America Pageant. Inspired, he writes the song,
There She Is, Miss America … in an hour flat.
Television personality, Bert Parks, is hired as the Miss America Pageant’s master of ceremonies. He introduces Wayne’s new tune, There She Is, Miss America.
The man and the music are instant hits… and both go on to become pageant legends.
As the popularity of the Miss America pageant grows, so too does that of it’s upstart rival, the Miss Universe Pageant, as Miss USA, Carol Morris, of Iowa, is crowned Miss Universe 1956.
Shown: Miss America 1956 Marian McKnight (right) and Miss Universe 1956, Carol Morris (left).
The newly-crowning Miss USA, Leona Gage, resigns after her mother-in-law informs the press that 18-year-old Gage is not only married to an Air Force sergeant, but is also the mother of two small sons. In a sad scene, the teary-eyed titleholder explains that she entered the competition to earn prize money to supplement their family’s military salary.
In 1958, Jaycees expand Mobile’s Azalea contest into the America’s Junior Miss Pageant, a scholarship program to promote their community and to recognize outstanding achievement by high school seniors. The pageant judges contestants on talent, poise, community service, and school grades. Rather than present the teenagers in swimsuits, officials substitute a choreographed physical fitness competition.
Phyllis Whitenack, of West Virginia, is the first winner. Whitenack wins the physical fitness competition and she performs a dramatic piece on “the tragedies of war”* in the talent competition. She uses her scholarship to attend the University of Central Florida where she graduates with a degree in nursing and becomes a hospice nurse. Sadly, she passes away at age 70 in 2012.
According to its literature, “nearly 100 colleges and universities have made available over $1.1 billion dollars in college-granted scholarships to over 3,000 participants in more than 400 local, state and national programs.” The program is open to high school girls in all 50 states and Washington D.C. and there is not cost to enter. Judging is based on: Scholastics (25%), Interview (25%), Talent (20%), Fitness (15%), and Self-Expression (15%). The event is now renamed to the Distinguished Young Women Program, and is adamant that it is no longer a “pageant.”
As the Miss America Pageant’s popularity soars with record viewing audiences, so does its scholarship fund, which reaches over $250,000.
The Miss India Pageant, which will go on to become a powerhouse in pageantry, is held for the first time.