tv Amy Argetsinger There She Was CSPAN October 23, 2021 6:00pm-6:56pm EDT
book tv on twitter, instagram and facebook. >> welcome, everybody. i am the owner of e city bookshop on capitol hill here in washington, d.c. thank you for being with us this evening to celebrate and discuss the secret history of miss america. a new book by amy. before we get started, just a couple of basics to go over,
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local that is wonderful. very important customers really came through during the pandemic we are still here, so thank you for that. if you are in the area, please come and see us at the shop. we had originally planned to have this event in person. we were so excited about it. we would have people back to talk about a book. we decided that we needed to shift gears yet again and not have a crowd in a small indoor space for a few more months, at least. however, we are open for business every day except for monday. twelve to six tuesday through sunday. with longer hours 10-seven on saturday. onto the main event. as someone whose family watched the pageant, then miss america pageant every year, out of the
group in the 70s with the continuous routing for and lots of arguments, it is such an important event during my childhood, i just took the chance to host this event. this is a fascinating, entertaining look at so many facets of the american pageant and the miss america pageant and competed. it's history and it's changing place and significance through the decade. amy as an editor for the washington post style section. a staff writer since 1995. she covered a variety and went on to write the reliable source column 48 years. she lives in washington, d.c. our moderator tonight is a columnist for the washington post local team. for me and many people that i know, they must read.
i just have to read this line from a bio. she writes about homeless shelters, gun-control, the quality of modern families, gas prices among other things. before coming to the post she covered social issues and crime in new orleans, new jersey and los angeles. she lives in d.c. on capitol hill. welcome. >> thank you. thank you. so, we should probably get started with, if i understood correctly, we can talk a little bit about the book. i want to hear a little bit about how she got to do it. let me do one thing first really quick. nothing to do with the subject, but the craftsmanship in this
book is so beautiful. i mean, everything that amy writes is great. i love amy, but look at me, i am not a pageant person. i tried. [laughter] in the end, it totally gripped me. the craftsmanship, everyone is still beautiful. the flow of the story is gripping. you know everything that is happened and yet you are dying to go onto the next chapter. i cannot believe it is her first book. it is just really enjoyable. the craftsmanship is beautiful. bravo on that. more to the point, i love why amy even picked this topic. we all probably watched it as kids. she took it a little bit farther
than that. [laughter] >> yeah. i moved to iowa. growing up in the washington, d.c. suburbs, you just don't encounter pageants. pageants are not really a thing around here. i did not know anyone that did pageants growing up. in iowa, if you went to the county fair, you would run into one, two or three pageant royalty. one of my friends, in the newspaper, a newspaper reporter competed in the miss iowa system 41 of the local titles. that was really the first time that i realized that miss america, how can i put this, they are regular people. i think i really had thought they were different species for a long time. they were so tall and they had up dues and they had a lot of teeth and energy and perkiness. it was just beyond what i was
accustomed to. but, i realize that actions are just regularly young women who are able to step up, put themselves out there and turn it on in a big way. after i moved to washington, around the same time that my friend, the one who competed, the woman who beat her for ms. clinton county iowa had gone on that year to win miss iowa. it occurred to us that we could just buy tickets and drive to atlantic city and see it for ourselves. and we did. you realize that there is so much more going on then you ever salt during a two or three hour broadcast on network tv. this is a subculture. this is a world. i was completely gripped. observing the competition at a
sporting event. when i came back i mentioned to friends of mine that i went to the miss america pageant and they all said, i want to go, too. and so we did. taking the pilgrimage to atlantic city. we would spend a lot of time trying to gain the system, trying to guess who the winners would be. trying to craft the miss america code. we were never very good at it. that is my history going back more than 24 years now. long before i ever encountered it as a reporter. >> that is so funny. for most of it, my mom loved pageants and variety shows. we watched it, my favorite show in the entire world, we loved that. >> tiny levels all the way.
[laughter] and then, you know, at that moment of awakening, i am going to look like a lego, no matter how skinny i am, i will never look like these people. the world that you did pick have those moments. especially when you could talk about the way you compare it to a sport the statistician to the guys that had the thoroughbreds to the different ways some of the women worked on their bodies talk a little bit about that. get the sport analogy going. >> there was a business professor at northern illinois university that decided if he was going to try to use algorithms to predict miss america. the toast of the accounting
conference in washington, d.c. a pioneer in computer science. he put all the data points about people's ages and weights and heights in the states they are from and the talents they had. he thought he could figure out the formula for what the ideal is. his name is george miller. the first year that he did this, he got it right. not only did he have this incredible formula, he went out there on a limb and said, miss mississippi has the best odds of winning and she one. reporters loved it. the next 10 years, never quite got it as right as he did here. he got very frustrated. he realized that the standards kept changing.
every time he thought he figured it out, some dark horse would come out of nowhere and completely garble formulas. he mentioned thoroughbreds. >> yes. >> chairman of the miss texas pageant in the 70s and 80s. he was like a character out of the dukes of hazard. meaning that he never got to play. he would talk about miss texas contestants like they were thoroughbreds. sometimes worse than that. he had the killer advice for the young women that would come to him. you have to do something about that cellulite. you know. and people really took his advice. he was really good at picking
winners for many years there. who else are you talking about? >> let's just get real. plastic surgery. >> he was a player in that world, too. the 1980s. becoming more mainstream and safe. a number of the contestants started dabbling in this spirit i think more shockingly was at the state pageant would pay for it or the local pageant. a wonderful woman that i talked to, dana rogers had competed a couple of times, she lost too much weight because she was working out too much. she was wearing falsities in our swimsuit and she hated it. i am thinking about getting a boom job. he said, oh, wait, see if the san antonio team wants to pay for it. it pays for her to have her
breast done and her nose. she was honest about this. and a lot of women had done this the state organizations had paid for it. dana was a contender and reporters asked her, have you had anything done and she was honest. it blew up this big scandal. >> right. the media treated it like she was a doping athlete. the funny thing is she still possessed at the attitude the whole thing. it did not traumatize her. she went through the ringer with this, but she still had the whole pageant experience. >> a lot of girls, women came up to her. >> her advice was, don't tell anyone. >> exactly. i want to move to the serious
stuff. before we get to the platforms and shift, let's rewind a little bit and tell me a little bit more about the beginning. the very first miss america, what state was she from? [laughter] >> very good. you will appreciate this. being in new orleans for so many years, the miss america pageant was really just supposed to be a little side show at edge of a festival that the business owners of atlantic city put on in 1921. they wanted to expand their season. they were calling it the northern mardi gras. all kinds of parties and events. on the sideline, there is a beauty contest.
they got newspapers and all of the cities and drivable distance. washington and pittsburgh and philadelphia. they got them all to send their most beautiful girls that had been selected in various newspaper contest. from this pool of nine women, they were the most beautiful girls in america. the most beautiful girls, as it happens, washington, d.c. that amount and not a state. they grew up in georgetown. an interesting winner. and a lot of the women there were rather sophisticated and elegant. one of them had already had a career in silent film. there was a lot of cultural anxieties about this. here is a 15-year-old that had long curls and they were a generic swimsuit. that is what the establishment
of atlantic city gravitated to. they thought that this was virtue. >> i looked up a picture as soon as i read that part of it. she is adorable. the crown is hilarious. there was a mermaid statue. >> yes. they did not even call it miss america that first year. the golden mermaid. >> i love that. there were different, microbe evolutions. as women try to turn to be a little bit more substantive. and there was some really great, i am trying to find, there were
some really horrible talking points when they tried to speak up and say anything. >> when they had their first media availabilities. >> right. i think that this one was just really important that you hold this out. they ask in the 60s. they asked her about why there were no african-american contestants. [laughter] >> they really discouraged the winners in the 60s from addressing serious topics. for the most part, they would ask them about boyfriends, about haircare. now and then, later in the 60s, issues began to crop up. one woman was having her introductory press conference. someone asked if the civil
rights movement was underway. why have there been no negro contestants. the executive director, she literally body block deputy bryant from immediately jumping in front of her and say she should not have to answer questions like this. she has not the president of the united states. >> this coverage when she said, admitted that she was, you know, a chubby kid, as many kids are. she liked eating hamburgers. >> listen to this. do you mind if i read this? >> is from -- >> when deborah bryant was 12
years old she was chubby. still has the freckles. today she reigns as miss america i just love hamburgers. eats them all the time. that interview generated these headlines. x chubby miss america. seemed like the, hamburgers eating beauty wins miss america title. non-chubby debbie still has her freckles. i mean -- that was crazy. of course the iconic moments of the women's movement happened in atlantic city. it was ms. represented. that clash of these two is so interesting. i am shocked and compelled. >> oh, yeah. a group called new york radical
women. they wanted to put themselves on the map. these are women that had marched for civil rights. they were getting marginalized by the men in these movements. they wanted to assert themselves they launched a women's movement by going to atlantic city. atlantic city, miss america, this is a show that everyone is comparing to. this is how we can put ourselves on the mat. they had this really lively protest. they had a trashcan. they would find up against the wall parks. they had all the headlines from the actual winner of miss america that year. it was sensational. >> thank you for asking. this is where the burner
mythology came from. you actually were not allowed to set fires on the boardwalk. [laughter] it was a success. it really did a lot for the women's movement. they regretted the tone that they took. they were mocking this young women and we should have been reaching out to them. it put them on the map. and then the women's movement moved on. they announce figure targets. they had other things to deal. it really left the miss america pageant very rattled. it set off its decades long debate about what are we doing. are we doing right by young women as a swimsuit competition the right thing?
it is an interesting organization that they even grappled with those questions. i always want to respect. >> it was really interesting to see the gen x, might i say, gen x really started the world of miss america having a platform. i love that story. it was not necessarily intentional the way became formalized. tell us a little bit about the first platform. >> they really just, and incredible personality. very charismatic. they had this crazy brilliant talent. like those great big dresses. she had been on the pageant
circuit for many years. that is probably why she had the poise to win. she had already launched her career. she was a hostage nurse. a lot of miss america and had been college students. she already had her thing. her big fascination was care. it was a straight through. we just talked about those 1960 press conferences where they were talking about freckles and hamburgers. came on he got up there and started talking about care and the reporters were riveted. this really woke up the miss america organization to think, wow, we can be something more. we can be dignified. why can't we have this every year? they began this path of having the miss america have a cause. aids or cancer or domestic
violence. and it was, you know, it may sound crazy. you look around now and every movie star wants to have a cause. is it a bad thing, i don't know? i think it is probably a good thing. people are trying to do something with their celebrity. it lets the miss america title have a certain amount of -- that it had not had much of before. had not really been able to keep, unfortunately. >> right. that was one of the things that was so interesting when they actually started making news again by having different contestants and different winners and representing america a little better.
>> that was another watershed thing for miss america. racism was a real thing. it would literally codify miss america. >> tell us about rule seven. rule seven. in many ways it was not that much in the wake of other institutions during this century they literally had a rule saying all contestants must be of good health and of the white race. this continues until the mid- 50s and even after they lifted their rule, change was a long, long time to come. there was some documentation that was often demanded, to. >> this is like the constant quest of respectability. they would rub wire the miss
america to draw of their family tree going back several generations. the first jewish miss america 1945. she just found the whole thing to be oppressively, you know, white shoes, white gloves, just stifling. but, even after they lifted those racial prohibitions, it still remained a very white competition. no woman of color made it to the national pageant until 1970. the one from iowa, actually. it took another 10 years or so for woman of color to be as a in 1983, vanessa williams. and, you know, i will not say that it is a completely welcoming atmosphere. vanessa had to deal with a lot of racial flights during her
time as miss america. overall, the organization was thrilled by her. she was very good at her job. gorgeous and talented. the majority and political know how to do all the meets and greets that miss america has to do. she got wonderful media attention. the staff, you went to the white house and met president reagan. it was very validating for miss america. this was a time that the ratings were starting to slide a little bit. people were beginning to ask why are you doing this. the fact that she was greeted like jackie robinson, the fact that it was considered a big deal for woman of color to be miss america, that was validation that miss america was still a big deal. she was very much a quick year
that ended in scandal. awkwardly handled. >> horrible. for most of that year, it was a triumphant thing. >> it was, it was. >> i have a thousand of little things that i want to talk to you about. you have to buy the book. there was so much great stuff that amy has there. i will ask you some of these things. i will ask you one more question about the process. we already have some questions here, so we will move on. the craftsmanship in her book is not only going back and talking, but she goes to live pageant spirit i can imagine exactly where she is in virginia. i would love to hear you talk a little bit about the reporting
period how much the live pageant part, putting on the reporters shoes and going out there and how many of the former missus you got to talk to. >> i got really lucky with my reporting. it is a crazy thing. when i first started this project i looked around. how can i do this. i start looking up, okay, what are the pageants? the closest one that was happening happen to be the miss arlington pageant. i call the guy that runs it. i had no idea that this was considered the best pageant in virginia. this is a guy who sent seven others winners crowned miss virginia.
the partner, they were just really good at this. they were just really good at running a local pageant. immediately he met a couple women that ended up being major characters. i got incredibly lucky. one of the characters i've met that night, i was so enchanted by. i thought she would be top five miss america. you will have to read the book to find out what happens, but i decided to meet these women when they got their local titles and went on to miss virginia. as luck would have it, the woman that one this went on miss america. it is just, i got some lucky breaks. i went up not have known that the arlington virginia pageant was such a hotbed of talent. [laughter] it is. a very nice community to spend some time in as well.
>> you were in this middle school, these gems, these auditoriums with a few contestants on stage. i just cannot imagine how much acting it took for these women to stand up there when they were walking up the lockers to get ready enough middle school bathroom. >> that is part of the job. that is hitting your mark. that is part of it. i think a couple of generations ago these local pageant may have had 20 young women in them. they are not that big anymore. everyone is still going out there like it is a crowded house and just owning it. >> i remember my time in new orleans. i do not know in northern virginia, you know, if you really do carry around your miss apple orchard title, but it was
a big deal if you were the strawberry queen or that crab queen. [laughter] >> yum yum. >> i know. right. the little pageants really mean something. it was a great recording. >> we have to go on to light, is it over. has it ran its course. >> listen, things do not look great right now. finances are bad. back in the day, this is just as recently as 25 centuries ago. you would have gillette or chevrolet or pepsi-cola writing big checks. you put america on their airwaves. that landscape is all gone.
they have this in order to be on network television. for several years they around basic television. a lot of feuding and infighting that have been very destructive. i set out to do a book to try to answer what went wrong. how did it come to this. i had a moment months ago, i was reading an old news clipping. talking about the spectacular ratings. it really was at the very top. 60 million viewers for the annual pageant. we happen to mention in passing, those are very good numbers. you have to consider they got a very good lead in at 8:00 o'clock. what am i doing.
the point is none of us are sitting around saying what happens. why don't we have variety shows anymore. it just died out. it's fine. we all moved on. people are asking the question of miss america. it is all relative 1950s television. and yet it is still in some form trying. it may not have much of a future >> that is pretty good. it is an evaluation of american women. the molding and reshaping of what the ideal is. generally you have that. but it changed and everything with the times. this is just so interesting to see. private to that respectability.
let those women be women. let the older women common so they are actually grasping professionals that uplift a little. eliminate the swimsuits. at one point, i don't know if it was so much this management or inciting, but maybe we don't need that for women to be heard. i welcome the idea to be heard given what i'd look like versus the need of that was one of the ways to really be heard. first be sexy and then you can get a scholarship. maybe we just have finally gotten to the point where there are other ways for women to be seen, heard and celebrated. >> young women standing up there
on the pedestal. here is a fascinating 21-year-old woman. beyoncé or taylor swift had one all of the grammys long before they ever hit the age limit for miss america. jennifer lawrence. there are so many ways, obviously now for women, young women to have this. >> a beautiful evolution. it is women's history in america. it really is. a line where you could see the little moments when women could be heard and broke up the not necessarily in huge spectacular ways. a woman told to wear the red dress but she wanted to wear the yellow dress. i want to wear yellow. she ripped the zipper out of her
red dress so that she would have to wear the yellow dress. that was a beautiful moment. >> all right. i am loving all of these comments. someone knows this. thank you. [laughter] >> let's look at some of the q and a's. is it okay? i set up all of your research and writing the book. what is your perspective of the miss america pageant and how is it changed? >> that is a good question. i obviously was kind of a super fan. this is not the trajectory where i gained new respects for it. if anything, a big sort of melancholy undertow for me. when you go back and see just how big it was.
and you realize how it is just not big anymore. again, i look at some of those things in our culture that i've replaced it. the bachelor in so many ways. the cultural space that miss america used to have and that makes me sad. criticism for so many years. now it is so quaint compared to the things you have set up for our young women to do. you know, i think that realizing how close to the end we may be. >> yeah. that is right. scott asks what is the most surprising thing. this is a really great question. atlantic city is fascinating. between the trump casinos eating each other, i was reporting a new jersey a while, i had a very unfortunate mother's day at
atlantic city. it was really depressing. scott asks what is the most depressing thing you discovered about the longtime relationship. >> oh, yeah. i guess two things. you would not think this now, but part of the reason miss america began a constant quest for respectability was because they had to please the conservative business establishment. you don't think of it that way. even in the 1920s it was kind of a party town. certainly it is now. that party town is ran by some pretty sober people that were pretty deserving of these attention seeking women. to survive, miss america had to become more prim and proper.
to fit the taste of atlantic city. that is why they had all of this behavior, talent competition so it is not just another leg show. that was probably the most surprising thing for me, i would say. >> that is interesting. i love seeing, in the beginning, the way they came. it was just peak atlantic city. do you mind telling us. >> well, the star of the show that year was not miss america. the star of the show was king neptune. raise your hand if you've heard of him before. apparently he was the inventor of smokeless gunpowder. and that made him a southern new jersey local celebrity. i guess that they have the kings
of mardi gras. king neptune was the boss here. a big ceremonial rival. he via barge with his nine lovely maids. margaret korman and all of her future. >> it was wonderful. so lovely. [inaudible] >> yes. >> i went to the sun competition. the first time that they had at their. >> you know, in some ways it is nicer.
she declared that she was done posing and swimsuits. this was unwelcome news for the sponsor of the pageant. they would take her out on a national tour where she would model the latest swimwear. no, i am done. i want people to focus on my talent. catalina was upset and they pulled all of their funding. they started their own pageant. the miss universe pageant. miss america is a nonprofit.
it was very tied to atlantic city tried to retain favor there whereas miss usa has always been a for-profit. they never really got hung up on the scholarship thing. miss usa is a pageant that has always been at peace with the entertainment value with young women in the state. miss america, continuing to have young women and swimsuits for another 68 years, not that comfortable with it. it never, always searching for the right thing to do. always consumed by anxiety of what is right. miss usa, turn on the tv. bigger brooms, bigger hair, sexier. just a bigger vibe. by the way, that is the one that donald trump owned. donald trump does not own miss america. >> that is kind of all you have
to say. [laughter] >> we have to have some other folks that may want to ask some questions. tell me, and i know that this is probably very controversial. do you have a favorite? [laughter] >> that is very controversial. i think that my favorite is -- [inaudible] do you remember her? she had this pioneering career in sports broadcasting. the first woman to have success in the field. miss america 1971. she really broke some glass ceilings. it is interesting. she was a baby boomer. and, so, and a lot of miss america's wood finish their gear and they would go home and get married or they would finish college. she had this energy, this
ambition. she wanted more. she spent a couple years in new york trying to break into show business. nothing was quite working. she was just this great personality. at some point, the head of cbssports, wanted to have a woman on the team and he met her. she was a huge success. she transformed the broadcasting the up close and personal, that really resonated with her. she had a very unhappy 10 year was morning you news. the first lady of kentucky. she was just really kind of having incredible energy. i mean, the truth liberty. talking to people, outside of
pageants who talk about, they want to tell you about the one time they were in a room with ellis george. the one time they were in a room with sinatra or oprah. she had that kind of energy. it always just blew people away. >> that is awesome. that is awesome. that was a great question, laura. do you have any input on the pageant. will there be tribute? i need to have a beer, i am sorry. [laughter] >> a lot of stuff is up in the air. is it only just today which happens to be the 100th anniversary. the miss america organization announced a date for this year's
pageant. they did not have one last year because of the pandemic. they are very late in announcing when they would have a pageant. there are no announced brands for a broadcast. lots of rumors and speculation that it may not be on tv this year. it may be streaming and said. i think to even speculate about what that will look like, this has been some unhappy years for the organization and there have been a lot of risks. a lot a former miss america's have been unhappy with the organization. there is no guarantee that you will have a large number of them show up. they love to be around each other. they love to celebrate the organization, mostly. >> that is awesome. scott asks in your opinion who was the best pageant host.
>> here is what i think. do you remember him? he was so cheesy and yet you go back and you watch and you can see that his act was brilliant. people that actually went to the pageant loved him. he had this very hammy presence. that is what you need. >> you have to do what you have to do what they. i feel like, you know, he was inspired in 1979 and i feel like if he had been allowed to last a few more years, i feel like the david letterman's of this world would have latched onto him and really embraced this smart and irony that bert was working. he was like the hardest working man in showbiz.
>> he was like texas hair. >> totally. he was great. >> so, abby asks, i was wondering if you ever run across any pageant advice books. trying to be successful. i don't think that i've seen it any over the years. they are out there. from the early days. i am sorry. >> i have one that i can send you. it may be a little out of date. it is from the 90s. i am not crafted in a while. >> that is awesome. >> the '90s may have still been there. >> i mean -- you spray firm grip on your butt so the swimsuit does not ride. we would all do it if we were in
the same situation. >> totally. pageant coaches. letting people in on all the tricks like this. but, yeah, these days, beauty queen tips are the exact type of things that women are doing on the red carpet. >> totally. but glue comes in a roll-on. thank you. [laughter] >> that seems like a good evolution. >> our mommy suits at the city pool. [laughter] equally important could have equally devastating consequences. [laughter] >> we have time for probably one more question if anybody has any more. we may want to start turning it over to lori before they close us down.
>> i don't want to cut anybody off if there is anyone. that sounds useful. [laughter] >> thank you so much. this is very enjoyable. there is just so much in the book. it is just a pleasure to read. >> there really is. they are so many things that we did not focus on. go body. read it. >> there is a link for those that would like to buy it online right now. we have signed copies. we will have more signed copies for you. that is exciting these days. we are just so happy. thank you to everyone for one be