Richard Nixon famously revealed that the only television show he let his daughters stay up late to watch was the annual Miss America Pageant. This Sunday night the 95th Pageant will appear on ABC—and according to promos history will be “rewritten.” So what are the chances President Obama will allow his daughters to stay up late to see the 2016 winner crowned?
The odds went up when it was revealed earlier this week that Vanessa Williams would be Head Judge. To a casual observer this seems like no big deal—Williams is a successful stage, film, and TV actress so it makes sense for her to judge. But anyone who remembers the news from the 1980s will remember that Vanessa Williams was a historic Miss America in more ways than one.
Thirty-two years ago she was crowned Miss America 1984, the first African-American winner. At the time Shirley Chisolm (the first African-American ever elected to the U.S. Congress) said, “Thank God I have lived long enough that this nation has been able to select the beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America.”
But ten months later Williams became another first—the first Miss America to resign. The reason? Nude photos. Of course she didn’t pose for them while she was Miss America. She posed for them before she ever thought of competing in a pageant, though when she was of age to consent to them being taken. Though she never consented to them appearing in Penthouse (in what would go on to be their best-selling issue of all time).
Williams violated no laws, but according to the Miss America Organization, she violated the extremely vague moral turpitude clause in her contract. Williams writes in her 2012 autobiography, You Have No Idea, that the photos didn’t even cross her mind when she signed the contract. Nonetheless, Williams resigned in part to show that, “It has never been and it is not my desire to injure in any way the Miss America title or pageant.”
Now the nude photos were not just nude photos. They weren’t even nude photos with a man. What got people even more upset was that they were nude photos with another woman. Sarah Banet-Weiser, a Communications professor at the University of Southern California and the author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, writes: "Shaping every part of this discourse was a sometimes implicit but more often explicit theme of homophobia. The Penthouse photographs’ depiction of Williams engaged in simulated sexual activity with another woman not only disrupted the heavily regulated moral boundary of femininity, but also dismantled the even more institutionalized framework of heterosexuality that defines the Miss America pageant."
Of course we live in a much different world now. Same-sex marriage is legal and young people in particular support same-sex marriage. Openly gay contestants have competed at the state level in the past several years and it is not at all crazy to think that within the next decade an openly gay contestant will compete on the Miss America stage, or possibly win.
Moreover, we live in a society where some people’s celebrity—and lucrative careers—are based on scandal and promiscuous behavior or images. Some of the then-shocking images would hardly rate on Instagram today and they wouldn’t even violate Facebook’s more stringent policies about images. Openness and social media have certainly changed how we all view and perform the corporeal.
Still, whoever wins Sunday night will sign a moral turpitude contract. Over time the language has become more specific, including actions that, again, are not illegal. As John Oliver put it in his scathing take on Miss America last fall, the winner must have a “mint-condition uterus.” As it turns out Vanessa Williams would not have been qualified on that point, as she writes in her autobiography, but at the time she didn’t violate the contract explicitly.
Williams has gone on to be productive in both her professional and personal lives, and yet she has had little to no contact with anyone from the Miss America program since her chaperone dropped her off at her parents’ doorstep in the summer of 1984. At times she hated the notoriety but now as she explains it, “For better or worse, Miss America will always be a part of me. It doesn’t define me, but it will always be a part of my story.”
When Williams return to the Miss America stage Sunday night it will be even more evidence that Miss America reflects changes in our ever evolving society—even if, particularly in this century, that reflection is often a beat or two behind. It remains to be seen if the Pageant can ever reclaim the positions it took earlier in its history that placed it at the vanguard for women, like establishing educational scholarships that still remain the largest source of scholarship money for women in the United States.
My prediction for saving the best for last? Vanessa Williams singing the iconic “There She Is” to Miss America 2016. Perhaps Malia and Sasha will be watching—or at the least, DVR-ing the Pageant, because times continue to change.