Miss America is back in town. After being exiled to Las Vegas for seven years, the pageant moved home to its birthplace for an end-of-summer carnival of kitsch and kicks, beautiful women romping in the sand and dipping toes in the sea, and showing their gams to the boardwalk empire. That's entertainment -- and it's big business.
The founders in 1921 were the Atlantic City Businessmen's League, eager to keep tourists in town for one final week after Labor Day, a fall frolic before cool weather closed the beach and the boardwalk. Newspapers in those days often ran beauty contests to promote circulation, and Atlantic City set out to find "the most beautiful bathing girl in America." Casinos are the investors today and bathing beauty is still good business. This year's show was estimated to bring in $30 million for a city getting over last year's Hurricane Sandy.
Some feminists still complain that Miss America deserves to go the way of corsets, girdles and sturdy cotton underwear, as if they've never heard of Spanx, part of the big business of body-shaping undergarments. Victoria's Secret hasn't kept one for years, and the cosmetics industry is more or less recession-proof. Pretty girls and looking good continue to be as American as tacos and pizza.
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the modern Miss America combines smarts with sexiness, and the pageant has awarded $45 million in scholarships to young women. (The first Miss America got $100.) Many contestants have worn caps and gowns as well as bikinis in heels, and evening gowns with naughty decolletage. Miss California, this year's runner-up, earned bachelor's and master's degrees in four years at Stanford.
Nina Davuluri, the new Miss America from New York, has a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science from the University of Michigan, where she made the dean's list and intends to spend her $50,000 scholarship on medical school. For the year of her "reign," her "support project" is STEM education, STEM for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Men far outnumber women with college majors in these fields and despite Larry Summers' suggestion that nature intended it that way, Miss America wants to encourage young women to prove him wrong. She flashed a bit of provocative political humor as Miss New York, introducing herself with a warning to the audience to "be careful of the pictures you tweet in my state."