The History of Pageants: 1990s
The Era of Diversity Dawns in the World of Pageants
Ten years after being fired, Bert Parks is welcomed back for the 70th anniversary of the Miss America Pageant. Sadly, Bert misses several cue cards and fails to introduce a dozen former winners standing behind him onstage. As the show closes, the aging legend sings There She Is to a Miss America (Marjorie Vincent) for the last time.
For the first time, Russia sends a Miss USSR (Evia Stalbovska of Latvia) to compete in the Miss Universe Pageant.
The decade begins with several racial milestones: Carol Gist, Miss Michigan-USA, becomes the first African-American woman to win the Miss USA title. Black women hold both the Miss USA and Miss America titles in the same title year (Carole Gist, Miss USA 1990, and Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990). African American women (Debbye Turner and Marjorie Vincent) win back-to-back Miss America titles (1990, 1991).
The Miss Black USA Pageant awards its first full tuition scholarship to the national winner.
Talk show hosts Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford are signed as co-hosts of the Miss America Pageant, making Gifford the first full-fledged woman co-host.
After appearing as a celebrity guest at the Miss Black America Pageant, world heavy weight boxing champion Mike Tyson is arrested for raping a contestant, Desiree Washington, during pageant week. After the national winner and other contestants claim he groped them, the pageant’s director labels the boxer a “serial buttocks fondler ” and sues for damages. The case creates a media frenzy and Tyson is later convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison.
Dr. Deborah Williams becomes the first African-American woman to win a national pageant for married women. She is a practicing psychologist and mother of one, from Texas.
Carolyn Sapp, Miss America 1992, achieves national recognition for her campaign against domestic violence after reporters reveal that she was physically assaulted by her former fiancé, an NFL player. She makes the cover of People and stars in a film about her life, Miss America: Behind the Crown.
As Hurricane Andrew threatens to hit Biloxi, Mississippi, site of the Miss Teen USA Pageant, producers decide to hold the contest early. To maintain suspense, they tape the crownings of two winners, Miss Iowa and Miss Oklahoma, and keep the name of the actual winner a secret. Later that night, the pre-taped pageant airs and Miss Iowa, Jamie Solinger, is revealed as the new Miss Teen USA.
Miss Florida, Leanza Cornett, is crowned Miss America 1993 and uses her year to advocate her platform, AIDS Education, Awareness and Prevention. She addresses Congress and is credited with playing a substantial role in the passing of the 1993 AIDS Prevention Act.
For the second time in pageant history, black women hold the Miss USA and Miss America titles simultaneously: Kenya Moore, Miss USA 1993, and Kimberly Aiken, Miss America 1994 (selected in September 1993).
In a pageant first, Sandra Earnest, the mother of ten children, wins a pageant for married women, Mrs. International.
Charlotte Lopez, Miss Teen Vermont, wins the hearts of judges and viewers as she shares the heartbreaking story of her thirteen years in the foster care system as a child after authorities determined her mother was mentally unfit to care for her. After she is crowned Miss Teen USA, Prime Time airs a feature on her life, and she writes a book about her experiences, Lost in the System. She goes on to have a successful career in television and movies, and is named Best Actress at the Valenciennes International Festival of Action and Adventure Films for her role in Love the Hard Way.
At the 1995 Miss America pageant, for the first time in pageant history, a the profoundly-deaf woman walks away with the coveted Miss America crown. After performing a ballet to Via Delarosa – music she could not hear – and interviewing with Regis Philbin on live national television by lip-reading, Heather Whitestone becomes the first woman with a physical handicap to win the famous title.
As the final two await the announcement of which woman will wear the crown, doubt shadows Heather’s face, making it clear she is uncertain she will be able to correctly lip-read Philbin’s announcement. As Regis shouts that Culen Johnson, Miss Virginia, is the first runner-up and Heather the winner, Johnson points her fingers at Heather and mouths, “It’s you!”
A beloved titleholder and inspiration to millions of Americans, Heather promotes her platform, S.T.A.R.S. (“Success Through Action and Realization of your dreams) throughout her reign. Whitestone also becomes the first Miss America ever interviewed on a Barbara Walters’ television special.
In 2002, her hearing is largely restored by cochlear implant surgery.
To stay or not to stay? To deal with perennial demands that the swimsuit competition be eliminated, the Miss America Pageant puts the matter to a public vote. Viewers call in to vote on whether or not the Miss America swimsuit competition will be kept or canned. By a 3-1 margin, callers vote for the swimsuits to stay with 73 voting in favor of keeping the traditional category.
India takes the pageant world by storm when the nation’s two winners of the Femina Miss India pageant (which chooses two titleholders who represent India at Miss Universe and Miss World) capture both international crowns. Sushmita Sen, who placed first in Femina Miss India, wins the 1994 Miss Universe title, while Aishwarya Rai, who had placed second, wins the rival Miss World Pageant. Both ladies go on to become Bollywood leading ladies, with Rai becoming an international celebrity and marrying into India’s royal family of Bollywood, the Bachchans.
In 1994, India enjoyed the distinction of having producing both that year’s Miss World (Aishwarya Rai, left) and Miss Universe (Sushmita Sen, right).
Chelsi Smith, Miss USA, becomes the first bi-racial American to be named Miss Universe during the first Miss Universe Pageant held in Africa.
In 1995, the 75th Anniversary of the Miss America Pageant, and the 50th Anniversary of the Miss America Scholarship Fund, the Organization has become the world’s largest provider of scholarships for young women in the world.
Just months after the infamous Oklahoma bombing in April 1995, Oklahomans win both the Miss America and Mrs. America titles. Shawntell Smith, Miss Oklahoma wins the Miss America title and Kimberly Brasher, Mrs. Oklahoma is named Mrs. America.
The Miss America Organization conducts its first-ever National Day of Service by staging nearly 100 events throughout the country featuring Miss America Organization titleholders and community, government, business and education leaders.
Business tycoon Donald Trump purchases the Miss Universe system which consists of the “triple crown” of pageantry — the Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, and Miss Universe pageants.
The Miss America telecast appears on ABC television for the first time since the 1950s.
Miss America contestants are allowed to wear two-piece swimsuits for the first time since 1947. The winner, Kate Shindle, Miss Illinois, makes a statement of wholesome altheticism wearing a two-piece suit with modest, bicyclist-style swim-shorts. Her advocacy of needle exchange programs as part of her AIDS Education and Prevention platform, is viewed as progressive by some, extremist by others.
In a surprising upset in a competition often dominated by pageant powerhouse states, Miss Massachusetts-USA, Shawnea Jebbia, walks off with the Miss USA title.
Miss Virginia Nicole Johnson, a diabetic who wears an insulin pump on her hip, becomes the first woman with a long term physical illness to win the Miss America title. She champions diabetes awareness as her platform and inspired millions of Americans with diabetes, who, like herself, work to lead healthy, successful lives despite the illness.
The nation of Botswana sends its first ever delegate, a statuesque, elegant beauty named Mpule Kwelagobe, to the Miss Universe Pageant. In a stunning upset, the African beauty beats the powerhouse nations of the United States and Venezuela to walk away with the coveted international title and over a quarter million dollars in cash and prizes.
In another stunning upset, the tiny state of Delaware boasts the Miss Teen USA title, after its adorable representative, Ashley Coleman, charms the judges with her fresh, unaffected teen style.