“Hurry-up grandma! It’s on! It’s on!” Although she lived in New York since I could remember, my maternal grandmother, Ruth, and I would get together to watch the Miss America pageant over the phone or in person. For this particular pageant being held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Ruth had been visiting us in Urbana, Illinois and I was thrilled to share the time with her in person. As we sat on the couch in my family room, we watched one gorgeous woman after another cross the stage, adorned with the black stitched name of her state across her shiny white sash.
In those days, after the swimsuit, ball gown and talent portions of the competition were completed, the final twelve contestants were lined up so that Gary Collins, the host, could announce the five finalists and ultimately which young woman would be crowned Miss America. Immediately, I was taken with one contestant in particular, the extremely attractive woman from New York. Her name was Vanessa Williams. She had big blue eyes, and although her eyes and some of her facial features appeared to reflect some white ancestry, unlike the majority of tall blondes on stage with her, she was a light-skinned African American woman. After sharing which woman I found the most appealing, I turned to my grandmother.
“Grandma, who is your favorite?” Without moving her eyes from the television screen, my grandmother replied instantly. “I like Miss New Jersey.” I turned to look at Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles. Charles was easily memorable, since during the talent segment she had sang Barbra Streisand’s “Kiss Me in the Rain.” “You just liked her because of the song she sang.”
“Actually, I like her the most because she reminds me of you. Just look at her!” Charles was petite, with dark eyes and even darker hair. “She’s got a beautiful voice, too, just like yours.” “Oh, puh-lease grandma!” While I appreciated the comparison, I knew it came from a completely biased place. Behind my smile, however, I felt a new emotion flood through me. Even if in my wildest dreams I could be compared to Suzette Charles, I knew that likeness didn’t extend below my neck, given my abnormally looking hands, forearms and feet.
Late that evening my choice, Vanessa Williams, was crowned as the first African American Miss America, with Suzette Charles her first runner-up. As I watched Miss New Jersey graciously accept her runner-up honor, it occurred to me she was not just petite, but actually significantly shorter than the other eleven pageant contestants lined up. Knowing that an imperfect girl like me could never grace the Miss America stage, I relished in the fact that at least the winner and runner-up looked different than the rest of the contestants.
I have to admit, that it has been years since I have watched the Miss America pageant. Therefore, writing about something I have not seen since the ‘80’s (I think) when I left for college, feels a bit lame. However, when I heard that Nicole Kelly, Miss Iowa, was competing in Atlantic City, I was more than game for watching the competition this past Sunday. Aside from the fact that the beautiful and inspirational Miss Iowa was born without her left forearm and hand, I had recently heard that this year she will be the keynote speaker at the Helping Hands Winter Conference in Boston, an honor I held this past winter. It was in this context that I settled in on my couch to watch Nicole Kelly grace the stage.
Once all the Miss America contestants had a chance to dance around (awkwardly, it seemed to me) and simultaneously introduce themselves, it was time for the first cut. I watched the host, Chris Harrison, run down the names of the semi-finalists, as each responded to a pre-recorded taped interview: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Although the contestants gave a different answer, a few mentioned wanting to inspire people. I know it probably sounds ridiculous, at least in hindsight, but I fully expected Nicole Kelly to make that first round of cuts. After all, she was already an inspiration to countless viewers. But perhaps I’ve been drinking the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Kool-Aid too frequently. It’s not to say I was delusional to believe that, in 2013, a woman born missing her forearm might just make it to the final round of Miss America. It’s just that…she didn’t.
The final name was finally called for the semi-finalist round, and Nicole Kelly was left standing in the group headed for the door. When she flashed a gracious and sincere smile and began to hug her fellow contestants, I was…well….frustrated. I found it incredibly ironic that Nicole Kelly didn’t need to hope that in the years to come she would one day inspire. As I wrote on the DHIFI Facebook page, Ms. Kelly had been doing that her whole life. Couldn’t the judges recognize that? Still somewhat fuming, I took to Twitter, stating to the Miss America pageant: “You just missed the opportunity of embracing true beauty—the beauty of imperfection.”
At that point I almost turned off the set, but decided to stay tuned. As the contest drew to a close, and Harrison reduced the competition to the final two, all of a sudden it occurred to me that the remaining contestants, one from California (Crystal Lee) and the other from New York (Nina Davuluri), were of Asian descent. Right before the winner was announced, when asked what was going through their minds, Ms. Davuluri, whose family was Indian American, responded proudly, “Standing here making history as Asian Americans, we are so proud!” And within seconds, Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014.
The next morning and throughout the week, I noted in the media reporting an outburst of anger came from certain people against the choice of Davuluri as winner. There were even cries via Twitter that, “Miss America should be more American.” Although Davuluri graciously dismissed the negative reaction, it made me reconsider my initial reaction to the event. In fact, beginning in the 1930’s there used to be a Rule (#7) that Miss America contestants “must be of good health and the white race.” Along the way, even those that fit that description didn’t always meet the expected conforming standard. For example, before she was crowned Miss America in 1945, Bess Myerson was pressured to change her name to “something less Jewish sounding.” As horrible as the hate-filled messages that flowed through social media after the announcement of Davuluri as winner, there were just as many statements in support. For example, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League denounced the negative reactions to the crowning of Nina Davulri as the new Miss America, comparing the reaction with Myerson’s being crowned.
All of a sudden, I actually felt quite ashamed of my reaction to Nicole Kelly’s loss. The point of my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It site is to celebrate all differences. While I would have been over the moon had Nicole made it further in the competition, I think the better point is that others who are viewed as “different” did. And as for Nicole Kelly, win or lose, she doesn’t need the platform of the pageant anyway. She just lives her life and naturally inspires by example.
When Vanessa Williams was later forced to relinquish her title and crown amid a scandal involving nude photos in in a men’s magazine, Charles was crowned in her place, and served the remaining period of Williams’ reign.
Sometimes even when you lose you can turn out to be the winner in the end.