Girls Gone Mild

The Miss America Pageant returns.

Pageant School: Becoming Miss America

The Miss America Pageant is on tonight (CMT at 8 p.m. ET), so let’s be clear: There’s Miss America, and then there’s Miss USA. Miss USA is the little girl from Kentucky who went up to New York and got into all that fast living, unconscionably supplying Donald Trump, who owns that pageant, with another excuse for flapping his mouth at live microphones. Miss America, meanwhile, is a national institution. On yesterday’s Chris Matthews Show (NBC), Newsweek’s Howard Fineman discussed whether Phyllis George, Miss America of 1971, was getting ready to run for the governor’s office of Kentucky or just one of its Senate seats. He discussed it with Andrea Mitchell, as Matthews himself was out of town … judging the Miss America Pageant.

When this column checked in last year, Miss America was in an awkward transitional phase. ABC had parted ways with the pageant, and the country-fried cable channel CMT had moved in, relocating the show from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and giving the old gal a proper overhaul. The trick is to American Idolize the show without violating its spirit. Miss America should have a sense of humor about herself without turning into a joke, and CMT needs to find a new vessel for the old values—”poise and confidence and grace.” Pageant School: BecomingMiss America, a two-hour film that premiered last Friday, is central to the new effort. It’s a reality drama without any drama—a sweet-tempered, well-mannered showcase with the standards of a Vanderbilt sorority mixer. It also forces the cynical viewer to quit sneering and re-evaluate a few preconceived notions (or, as Miss Utah calls them, “pre notions”) about the pageant.

Four months ago, contestants representing each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands, gathered in Santa Monica to hone their skills, make new friends, and, quite literally, do one another’s hair. At the end of Pageant School, one woman is crowned Miss Pageant School—which doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s a favorite to win the big enchilada, but rather that the expert panel took a shine to her “spirit and enthusiasm.” Further, in a new twist on the Miss Congeniality award, fans could watch the contestants vote for three finalists and then go to CMT’s Web site to pick their favorite, announced live tonight. And there’s a lottery: If you correctly predict the actual finalists, you can win a million bucks.

The centerpiece of this inaugural Pageant School was Miss Texas. She’s tall, bright, and powerfully glamorous, with that intimidating Lone Star star quality. Her tears welled up sincerely when she talked about how proud she was to be “the first African-American Miss Texas.”  But she’s also shy, a touch gawky, maybe even a bit aloof. Can she go all the way? Is she becoming more self-confident? Should she do something else with her bangs?

Pageant School also spends time with the contestants who definitely aren’t going the distance, those 42 nonsemifinalists relegated to the background of Miss America before you’ve even settled into your couch. They’re rather endearing, especially Miss Vermont, whose tiara has been lost in her luggage, and even Miss D.C. When asked what superpower she would wish to have, she replied, with that combination of tone-deafness and grubby paranoia peculiar to the District, “I would like to be able to be a fly on the wall at any location. That way I would be able at the same time to know where Osama Bin Laden was hiding and also know how my best friends really thought about me.”

One challenge explored makeup. First, the contestants listened attentively as a cosmetics expert ran through “the four main mistakes” of beauty-pageant makeup: 1) too much makeup, 2) heavy foundation, 3) dark lipstick, and 4) wrong color eye shadow. If I understood the compare-and-contrast demonstration correctly, then Divine wore too much makeup in Mondo Trasho and everyone else is doing OK. The girls then paired up in a kind of trust exercise, taking turns powdering and glossing one another. Miss Texas graciously strained to compliment what Miss North Dakota had done to her face: “It’s very … natural.” Miss New Jersey had some trouble, too, “I made the mistake of adding some bronzer?”

Then it was time for line dancing. The contestants donned boots and denim skirts. A new-fangled group called The Lo-Cash Cowboys materialized to provide music and some notes on choreography. Miss Texas was having trouble learning the steps, but Miss Maryland, who’s actually a dance teacher, was thrilled to help her. Miss Nevada, meanwhile, had a bad attitude. The camerawork and editing were a bit queasy-making in this segment. You couldn’t quite tell if this was a small disaster of fake-vérité filmmaking—after all, the production values of Pageant School are often on the level of an infomercial—or if they just kept the camera swaying to disguise the fact that the dancing was not really dancing. ” … 5, 6, drop it like it’s hot,” exhorted one Cowboy, quoting Snoop Dogg. “What if it’s not hot?” asked Miss Nebraska, “Then how do you drop it?”

We next turned our attention to swimsuit-related matters. The girls broke into seven groups, each of which was charged with donning vintage one-piece bathing suits from a particular decade and devising a little skit. The girls of the 1920s did a vibrant flapper routine. The girls of the 1940s made a shout-out to Rosie the Riveter. The women of the 1980s provided the most absorbing moment of this whole experiment. The suits being “delightfully tacky,” as Miss Alaska put it, the contestants did a big-haired New Wave thing. They resourcefully went over the top, with too much makeup and the wrong color eye shadow. In the skit, robotic as Robert Palmer girls, each of them pledged her commitment to “world peace,” “world peace,” “world peace … ” The joke had a Max Headroom angle to it. Miss America had embraced irony.

It’s looking good for Miss Texas going into tonight’s competition; Phyllis George herself was excited to see her grow more extroverted, while another panelist praised the good job she’d done restyling those bangs. I’ll also be keeping an eye out for Miss Arkansas, who became the inaugural Miss Pageant School; for Miss Mississippi, who seems really sweet; and for Miss Colorado, who asked if she could vote for herself for Miss Congeniality. Then there’s Miss Alabama. Never count out Miss Alabama. In 1951, Yolande Betbeze of Mobile won the Miss America crown and then refused to make any further public appearances in a bathing suit: “I’m an opera singer, not a pin-up!” The swimsuit sponsor then went off in a huff to found Miss USA. Miss America stayed true to herself—progressive as the boardwalk, pragmatic as Main Street, poised like a daddy’s girl, as classy as a cornball can be.