“Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain” by Kate Shindle
c.2014, University of Texas Press
$24.95 / $30.95 Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
Elbow, elbow, wrist-wrist-wrist.
It’s like icing a cake with your hand, they say, and you practiced that wave aplenty when you were young. You never knew when you might find yourself walking down a long stage with roses in your arms and a crown on your head.
Millions of young women try. Only one per year becomes Miss America – most of the time. In “Being Miss America” by Kate Shindle, you’ll peek behind the brocade curtains to learn more.
Growing up in New Jersey, in a family that often volunteered for the Miss America Organization, Kate Shindle had a first-hand, on-the-ground look at making a pageant. That knowledge obviously didn’t scare her: she later entered a local Illinois pageant, won, and won again to eventually become Miss America 1998.
Pageant fans know that the first Miss America was crowned in 1921, in an effort to keep tourists on The Boardwalk a little longer. Only one woman won the title twice (1922 and 1923). There’s been one Jewish winner (1945) and one Native American title-holder (1927), but no Muslims or lesbians (yet) to wear the crown. Scholarships weren’t given until Miss America 1943 suggested them. The pageant schedule, originally set for mid-September-ish, has often been in flux; in fact, it was completely cancelled for a few Depression-Era years.
In the beginning, there was no “platform” (it seems to have “become a thing of the past” today). Swimsuit parades clashed with feminism, racism quietly lingered as “an ugly underbelly,” countdowns were tweaked, and the pageant once endured an attempt at reality TV. Political maneuvers and corporate rules now determine things.
Today, Shindle still gets the “What was it like?” question, and it’s complicated.
At first, travelling was fun and receiving gifts was interesting. Both became tedious pretty quickly. She was happy to have a chance to work with HIV awareness, but was often instructed on what she couldn’t say. Winning the pageant was empowering, but with the growing popularity of the internet then, it was too easy to find forums filled with vitriol and even easier to fall into an eating disorder…
It’s very safe to say that the majority of us never were Miss America material. That never stopped us from dreaming, though, which is why a behind-the-scenes book like “Being Miss America” is so fun to read.
Author Kate Shindle takes the (elbow-length) gloves off in this book, and tells the truth as she knows it: the good and bad of wearing the crown, the humor and difficulty of being an “ideal” woman, changes that title-holders have made within pageant workings, and the struggles some have endured. She does this with wit and passion, as well as with sadness; Miss America’s future, as Shindle sees it, isn’t quite so rosy but, with work, “she can become something greater than ever.”
I liked this book for its lightly-scandalous humor and its tarnished-crown honesty, and if you’re a pageant-watcher, I think you’ll like it, too. Grab “Being Miss America,” and you can wave the hours good-bye.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.