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Judging Miss America
Marcia Bullard, CEO, President and Editor of USA W

My dilemma was summed up right before me. I was standing in an Atlantic City historical museum, looking at a photo display. It showed members of NOW picketing on the boardwalk‹protesting the Miss America Pageant as sexist and anti-feminist. The year was 1974.

I could have been in that photo. I was a college senior in 1974. I looked like those protestors, and felt the same.

Yet there I was, on that same boardwalk just two months ago, in Atlantic City.

I had come not to protest, but to judge the pageant. Later that day, I would watch young women parade before me in swimsuits, and rate them from 1 to 10.

Had I lost my soul? Betrayed the cause? Done a disservice to future generations?

The invitation to be a judge in the Miss America Pageant came as a surprise. One preliminary judge had canceled at the last minute; would I fill in? It would take a full week of my time.

The seven preliminary judges do the hard work of narrowing the field of contestants from 51 to ten. Then, on Pageant night, a fresh group of "celebrity" judges swooshes in to pick the One. Would I? I weighed my role as a journalist, which often precludes such participation. But my magazine, USA WEEKEND, would not be covering the Pageant. I wrestled with being a female role model, having come of age in the workforce at a time when I both benefited by and suffered from being the token woman. I thought of my 19-year-old stepdaughter Emily and my 9-year-old niece Rebecca; would I be sending the wrong message to them?

And then I said yes. I couldn###t fathom passing up an opportunity to witness in person one of the great rituals and traditions of American life. The Miss America Pageant! Every year as a kid, I had been aware of Miss America, watched the pageants in the family TV room, seen their glamorous pictures in newspapers and magazines. Played dress-up with sparkling tiaras. It had captured my imagination as a girl, outraged me as a young feminist, polarized me from young men in my twenties, intrigued me as a journalist.

In short, like most Americans, I had an emotional connection to the Pageant, like it or not. To say no would be like refusing to go to a Super Bowl game just because I###m not a football fan. I couldn###t. I wouldn###t.

But rating women in swimsuits troubled me.

First came the interviews. Each contestant has a 12-minute interview with the panel of seven judges. We sit, press conference style, at long tables. The door opens, the contestant is announced: "Judges, I present Miss Alabama, Beth Stomps." She stands behind a clear glass podium and answers our questions. We are told to ask tough questions, really test these women, to see if they know their "platform" topics and if they can handle the pressures of daily public life. The new Miss America, we are told, will give speeches, interviews and host events almost daily for the next 365 days. She will rarely get a moment###s peace. She will face unkind press, public scrutiny, bad hair days. Make sure, we are told, she###s the One.

Then rate her, from 1 to 10.

The interviews take three full mornings. The judges study resumes the night before, prepare careful questions, take the interviews seriously. The young women are a wonderful blend of nervous, excited, confident, funny, rehearsed, spontaneous.

These scores count for 30% of the final score. We gave them much thought and weight.

Then come three full nights of the preliminary competitions. Each night, one-third of the contestants appear in their evening gowns, another third perform their talent, another third model swimsuits.

We judges are ushered into white limos. Police cars escort us, lights flashing, through the streets of Atlantic City to the historic Convention Center, right on the boardwalk. The judges sit at the foot of the stage, and slightly below it, looking up.

Excitement and nerves run high.

For the contestants, these three nights of preliminaries would be the only chance 41 of them will ever have to perform, and strut in gowns and swimsuits down that fabled runway.

The judges work quickly. Seventeen contestants perform. Rate each from 1 to 10, turn in your card to the auditors. Seventeen contestants walk by quickly in evening gowns; watch how they hold themselves, do they project the style and personality of a Miss America? Rate them from 1 to 10, turn in your card to the auditors.

And then, there they were. Seventeen contestants, one at a time, walk by me in their swimsuits. I stare. My pen is poised. I am stumped.

How can I rate these very nice young bodies? What does it matter? Will Miss America ever be seen in a swimsuit past this night?

Truth be told, I thought they all made the most of what they had been born with. Could I mark down the one with heavy thighs? Not if she looked fit and cared for her appearance. Could I take off points for someone rather too full- or too flat- chested? I could not, as long as her suit flattered.

As far as I can tell, none of the male judges, either preliminary or final, wrestled with any second thoughts about swimsuit scores. It was all quite clear to them. Although from our conversations‹once we finally got to compare notes at the end of the pageant‹most of us agreed it is appropriate the swimsuit scores count the least in the mix. And we all have had our opportunity to tell the Miss American Organization how we believe the Pageant can be changed for the better‹an opportunity to influence that I would not have had unless I was a judge.

In the end, I am glad I did it. It was fascinating. I learned more about the Pageant than I could have imagined. And as you learn with age, and as I###ve learned as a journalist, things are rarely black and white. At worst, the Pageant is an essentially harmless anachronism suffering from the least public acknowledgement and worst TV ratings in its history. At its best, it is a program that gives out $32 million to help women attend college, and get them some exposure in the performing arts.

And in reality, the Pageant is going through the same funny, exciting, bewildering dichotomy that I am, and that many women are, every day as we pull on our nylons, paint our nails, tint our hair‹and march off to run businesses, balance budgets, decide fair trade agreements and make our mark in a world that is full of contradictions.

Marcia L. Bullard is CEO, President and Editor of USA WEEKEND, the national newspaper magazine. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the new Miss America, Kate Shindle, has acted as a spokesperson for a national day of volunteering sponsored by the magazine, called Make A Difference Day. You can find USA WEEKEND magazine in the Sunday Denver Post or visit the web site: http://www.usaweekend.com/.