As Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle and I chat on the telephone, she mentions that the Miss America Organization has already expressed their displeasure with her book, Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain. That’s not surprising.
Based on what Shindle writes and documents in her debut book, which is part memoir and part expose, pageant management obviously isn’t open to criticism, not even constructive criticism by one who intimately knows the organization and loves it so passionately that she wants to see it succeed in an era when girls are more likely to hero-worship sex tape star Kim Kardashian than have heard of a supposedly virginal Miss America.
In fact, Shindle desperately wants young girls to love the pageant as much as she does. Perhaps that’s why she uses “damn” on the first page of chapter one, and “damn” and “ass” on the second page—as if she’s trying to make Miss America as relatable to today’s girls as a Nicki Minaj rap. My guess, however, is that the Miss America Organization will consider the true vulgarities to be Shindle’s mild to horrific revelations about the pageant.
A mild revelation is her statement that “pageant officials were frequently known to tell the winner in advance so that she might maintain her composure before the cameras.” Then again, in these days of reality TV, maybe that isn’t much of a revelation.
Much more disturbing is her statement about the pageant’s fundraising partnership with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital—that “as much as 60 percent” of the money Miss America contestants raise for CMN actually goes to the Miss America Organization.
Shindle knows that the Miss America Organization created that lopsided partnership because the organization was in dire straits financially and it was a way to earn some money. But she also knows that contestants stand outside supermarkets and department stores asking people to donate to CMN. “And I don’t think anybody’s standing outside the WalMart saying, ‘Hey, would you donate to the Children’s Miracle Network to help terminally ill children and, by the way, part of it goes to back to the Miss America Organization,’ ” Shindle says.
Then there’s Shindle’s statement that an organization that began as a mere beauty pageant intent on bringing more tourists to Atlantic City and transformed itself into a respected scholarship pageant—“scholarships that supposedly are the raison d’etre of the whole enterprise,” she writes—has too often failed to award those scholarships.
“Now part of that is because there are lots of in-kind scholarships, and you can’t use them all,” she explains. For instance, Shindle won a scholarship to Palmer College of Chiropractic, which wasn’t awarded simply because she had no need of it. There’s also a massive amount of paperwork with a great deal of fine print that the winners must fill out to collect their scholarships, and they don’t always fill it out correctly or on time.
“But there are also any number of situations,” Shindle notes, “ … where contestants feel that they have done everything and followed the instructions to the letter, and they—for one reason or another—are not able to collect their money.” Sometimes that’s because a local pageant that awarded the scholarship has shut down, she says, making the scholarship impossible to obtain. “Now ultimately, I would hope that the Miss American Organization would step up and be responsible for that…and make sure she gets it.”
Still, for all the shameful assertions made in Being Miss America, Shindle, who spent her Miss America year speaking to young people about HIV and AIDS, says that for anyone, including the Miss America Organization, to treat her book as “some big, scandalous airing of dirty laundry, I think it’s just a total misread, because if they don’t like this, they would hate the book I didn’t write.”
And while I don’t know what she didn’t write, though she does say she took out a great deal, even I can tell that the Being Miss America is a pleading love letter to the Miss America Organization, begging its board, officers and staff to incorporate systemic changes so that it can live up to its potential of inspiring young women and changing lives.
“The reason that it changed my life was not because I was able to capitalize on it to launch another career,” says Shindle, who works as a writer, actress and real estate agent. “It was because I realized that I had a voice that was an important part of the conversation on a very important issue”—HIV/AIDS. “And I think that anything that…focuses on the substantive things that someone like Miss America, or actually very specifically Miss America, can accomplish is a lot more interesting than just being another figure on whatever red carpet.”
Suzy Spencer is a New York Times bestselling author, whose most recent book is the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.