Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtainby Kate Shindle
For nearly a hundred years, young women have competed for the title of Miss America—although what it means to wear the crown and be our "ideal" has changed dramatically over time. The Miss America Pageant began as a bathing beauty contest in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, sponsored by businessmen trying to extend the tourist season beyond Labor Day. In the
For nearly a hundred years, young women have competed for the title of Miss America—although what it means to wear the crown and be our "ideal" has changed dramatically over time. The Miss America Pageant began as a bathing beauty contest in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, sponsored by businessmen trying to extend the tourist season beyond Labor Day. In the post–World War II years, the pageant evolved into a national coronation of an idealized "girl next door," as pretty and decorous as she was rarely likely to speak her mind on issues of substance. Since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, the pageant has struggled to find a balance between beauty and brains as it tries to remain relevant to women who aspire to become leaders in the community, not hot babes in swimsuits.
In Being Miss America, Kate Shindle interweaves an engrossing, witty memoir of her year as Miss America 1998 with a fascinating and insightful history of the pageant. She explores what it means to take on the mantle of America's "ideal," especially considering the evolution of the American female identity since the pageant's inception. Shindle profiles winners and organization leaders and recounts important moments in the pageant's story, with a special focus on Miss America's iconoclasts, including Bess Myerson (1945), the only Jewish Miss America; Yolande Betbeze (1951), who crusaded against the pageant's pinup image; and Kaye Lani Rae Rafko (1987), a working-class woman from Michigan who wanted to merge her famous title with her work as an oncology nurse. Shindle's own account of her work as an AIDS activist—and finding ways to circumvent the "gown and crown" stereotypes of Miss America in order to talk honestly with high school students about safer sex—illuminates both the challenges and the opportunities that keep young women competing to become Miss America.
The winner of the 1998 Miss America pageant tells the story of her year wearing the crown while offering an incisive history and analysis of an always-controversial beauty contest.Stage actor Shindle was a junior at Northwestern University when she won the Miss America title. From that moment forward, she would no longer simply be just another talented and beautiful collegiate. As Miss America, she would “always carry the mantle—and, as it turns out, the baggage that comes with it—of Miss America’s complicated history” and become something more than herself. Part memoir, part exposé, Shindle’s book interweaves her experiences with an examination of a nearly 100-year-old institution. She discusses her early involvement with the contest as a volunteer and the way becoming Miss America became her “ticket to acceptance” among peer groups that once ignored her. At the same time, Shindle delves into the history of the pageant, which first began in 1921 when Atlantic City businessmen used it as a sexy gimmick to bring in post–Labor Day business. From there, it evolved into a national icon that celebrated contestants for their wholesomeness and beauty rather than their aspirations and political outspokenness. Shindle documents the growing pains Miss America faced in the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s and the way organizers struggled, often without success, to align the event with changing perceptions of American womanhood and stay culturally relevant. She argues that these difficulties continue even into the present, despite an emphasis on contestant involvement in community projects. Citing “mismanagement on both the staff and board levels” as the root of pageant problems, Shindle concludes that if the Miss America “brand” is to survive, it will have to “[develop] a lasting identity and [reject] the many temptations that run counter to that identity.”Though critical, this provocative book’s greatest strength is the author’s positive call to action to help Miss America “become something greater” than it is.
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Meet the Author
KATE SHINDLE, who represented the state of Illinois, was Miss America 1998. Today, she is a working stage actor who has starred in Broadway musicals, including Cabaret, Legally Blonde, Wonderland, and Jekyll & Hyde, and dozens of regional productions. She has sung at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, worked as a correspondent for NBC’s Today, and appeared in TV/film projects such as Capote and Gossip Girl. Shindle maintains relationships with many of Miss America’s volunteers and contestants and continues to speak and write about HIV/AIDS prevention, marriage equality, and other issues in the Huffington Post, salon.com, and Newsweek. She lives in New York City.
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