Beauty pageants or beauty contests are competitions that more often than not judge the beauty of women. Although beauty pageants rank women according to physical appearance, organized pageants also give awards for congeniality or personality in order to emphasize inner beauty. Although beauty contests have existed in multiple historical and cultural contexts, modern, commercialized beauty pageants emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Today, beauty pageants for women are held in most regions and countries of the world, and international competitions like Miss World have also become increasingly popular. While there has been limited interest in male beauty pageants since the early 1990s, most contests that feature men tend to focus on bodybuilding.
Beauty contests in the United States began to appear as part of a broader culture of commercial leisure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout the 19th century, cities and towns—particularly on the northeastern coast—began to expand as a result of industrialization and immigration to the United States. As Americans spent more of their time and money on leisure activities, entrepreneurs like P. T. Barnum began to establish an entertainment industry on boardwalks and main streets. Beauty pageants emerged within this economy of commercialized entertainment in the 1880s, when beach communities on the Mid-Atlantic coast began to sponsor them in order to encourage tourism. Competition among bathing beauties also provided the public the opportunity to see women’s bodies exposed to a greater degree than Victorian norms allowed. Although public decency campaigns often curtailed efforts to hold such events, beauty pageants nonetheless became a ritual of the leisure culture in many beach communities throughout the early 20th century. In addition to beauty pageants, numerous community gatherings such as county fairs, holiday celebrations, and even football games, began to feature competitions that combined elements of civic virtue with beauty.
Arguably the most famous beauty pageant, the Miss America pageant, originated in the tourist commerce of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in an attempt to lure beach-going tourists after Labor Day weekend. The first competition was held over two days in September 1921. Known at first as the Inter-City Beauty Contest, the name of the winner was crowned Miss America at the next year’s pageant. The early pageant emphasized different styles of dress, in particular a bathing suit, as the most important criterion for the competition. However, in 1935 the pageant added a talent contest, and in 1939, a Miss Congeniality award was added. Throughout most of the history of the Miss America Pageant, until 1970, nonwhites were either excluded or chose not to participate in the competition. Nonetheless, competitions like the Miss Chinatown USA and Miss Black America pageants emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.
As the pageant spread in popularity in the 1920s, Miss America began to sponsor preliminary competitions in states and territories that became elaborate public rituals in their own right. As the pageant gained in notoriety, many Miss America winners went on to significant earnings in endorsements and guest appearances. Due to a lack of funds during the Great Depression, the pageant was suspended for several years. However, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Miss America enjoyed increased popularity as a national symbol during a period of wartime and postwar patriotism. Although the pageant officially encouraged the most prevalent and socially acceptable image of woman as housewife and mother, the organizers of the pageant introduced scholarships for women in the 1940s. In 1951, Catalina Swimwear withdrew commercial support from the competition when that year’s winner refused to compete in a swimsuit. The following year, the Miss USA and the internationally expanded Miss Universe pageants, sponsored by Catalina manufacturer Pacific Mills, emerged as the biggest competitors to the Miss America brand. Nationwide beauty pageants that emerged in other countries after the 1950s tended to espouse the patriotism and national values of their American counterparts.
In 1955, the Miss America Pageant was first televised for a national audience. The telecast attracted significant numbers throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. Several Miss America winners have gone onto become actresses and some have enjoyed celebrity status. In the 1960s, changing attitudes toward women’s status led to a resurgence in women’s activism known as second-wave feminism. This era of women’s liberation movements saw a number of organizations openly protest employment practices, the legal status of women, the social treatment of women, and the representation of women. In 1968, a group of feminist activists held a prominent protest in Atlantic City, where they crowned a sheep Miss America. Protestors also disseminated a widely read pamphlet that criticized the pageant’s organizers for demeaning women, racial discrimination, and uncritical support for the military. The protest attracted a large amount of undue media scrutiny, and ratings and interest in the program declined throughout the 1970s. In many other countries, women also protested the pageants as an affront to the dignity of women and public piety.
Although ratings for the telecast dipped in the 1970s and 1980s, changing attitudes saw some unconventional candidates crowned. Some Miss America winners made headlines by supporting feminist causes. In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first African American to win the competition, although she gave up the crown when nude photographs emerged. Arguably the most famous winner, Williams went on to become a top-selling musician and a widely recognized actress. Since the 1990s, the Miss America foundation has devoted much of its attention to women’s scholarships, although the beauty competition remains the centerpiece of the organization.
The expansion of beauty pageants to other countries also saw the emergence of a global beauty pageant circuit. The spread of competition and the media scrutiny of the pageants led many competitors to spend more time in training. In addition, a large network of commercial support from cosmetics and clothing manufacturers became a major part of beauty pageants.
Beauty pageant circuits have become common for many competitors, who spend tremendous amounts of time and effort on preparing for the competition. Although the most prominent beauty pageants feature adult women in their early 20s, nationwide beauty pageants for children and teenaged girls have been common since the 1960s. Criticism has focused on inappropriate attention to children’s bodies and undue pressure based on physical appearance. Since the sensationalized murder of child beauty contestant JonBenét Ramsey in 1996, children’s beauty contests have also come under tremendous scrutiny because of their potential for abuse by sexual predators. In recent years, dwindling television ratings and the rise of professional modeling has seen a major decline in popularity for beauty pageants.
Gay and Male Culture
With the decriminalization of cross-dressing and homosexuality in the 1960s, female impersonators and transgender women began to organize drag pageants at bars in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Early gay rights activist and notable performer José Sarria organized the Imperial Court System in 1965 as a nonprofit foundation for gay liberation organizations in the San Francisco area. The structure of the Imperial Court System spread to numerous other cities and remains a major fundraiser in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community. Since the late 1960s, male and drag beauty pageants have become a prominent feature of many gay male cultures in the United States. One of the earliest of these, Miss Gay America, was first held in 1971 in Nashville, Tennessee. In the early 1980s, Miss Continental became a major beauty pageant for transgender women. In addition to drag pageants, the last 20 years has seen a number of tongue-in-cheek male beauty pageants. Often, such pageants emphasize a subcultural aspect of the gay community, such as International Mr. Leather or Mr. Bear USA. The competitions often support local LGBT charities. Most gay beauty contests are campy, tongue-in-cheek parodies of female beauty pageants.
Since the 1950s, there have been a number of contests that have been viewed as the male equivalent of female beauty pageants. However, most of these, like the Mr. Universe competition, tend to focus on bodybuilding rather than male beauty. Since the 1990s, there have been various attempts to promote mainstream male beauty pageants. The Manhunt International competition originated in Singapore in 1993 and represented one of the earliest attempts to establish a contest based on male beauty and charm, modeled heavily after female beauty pageants. The Miss World organization also began to host a Mister World pageant in 1996. Despite serious efforts to gain wider recognition for male beauty pageants, they attract little recognition from any mainstream media sources.