The winner of the 1998 Miss America pageant tells the story of her year wearing the crown while offering an incisive history and analysis of an always-controversial beauty contest.
Stage actor Shindle was a junior at Northwestern University when she won the Miss America title. From that moment forward, she would no longer simply be just another talented and beautiful collegiate. As Miss America, she would “always carry the mantle—and, as it turns out, the baggage that comes with it—of Miss America’s complicated history” and become something more than herself. Part memoir, part exposé, Shindle’s book interweaves her experiences with an examination of a nearly 100-year-old institution. She discusses her early involvement with the contest as a volunteer and the way becoming Miss America became her “ticket to acceptance” among peer groups that once ignored her. At the same time, Shindle delves into the history of the pageant, which first began in 1921 when Atlantic City businessmen used it as a sexy gimmick to bring in post–Labor Day business. From there, it evolved into a national icon that celebrated contestants for their wholesomeness and beauty rather than their aspirations and political outspokenness. Shindle documents the growing pains Miss America faced in the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s and the way organizers struggled, often without success, to align the event with changing perceptions of American womanhood and stay culturally relevant. She argues that these difficulties continue even into the present, despite an emphasis on contestant involvement in community projects. Citing “mismanagement on both the staff and board levels” as the root of pageant problems, Shindle concludes that if the Miss America “brand” is to survive, it will have to “[develop] a lasting identity and [reject] the many temptations that run counter to that identity.”
Though critical, this provocative book’s greatest strength is the author’s positive call to action to help Miss America “become something greater” than it is.