From reigning to campaigning: Beauty Queen political candidates
We talk a lot about politicians’ appearances. President Obama’s suits, Mitt Romney’s perfect hair, Paul Ryan’s abs, and Hillary Clinton’s make-up. Even their spouses’ dresses got tongues wagging at the recent political conventions.
While conversation about politicians’ appearances can distract from discussion of their policies, both aspects are important. Economist Daniel Hamermesh has found that voters favor politicians who they find better-looking than their opponents. A polished appearance projects confidence - that even in a stressful situation you can hold yourself together. And no candidate knows this better than the beauty queen.
This fall, three Miss America contestants will face their toughest competitions yet: runs for political office. There’s Shelli Yoder, Miss Indiana 1992 and second runner-up to Miss America, who secured the Democratic nomination to run for U.S. Congress in the Ninth District of Indiana.
Another Democrat, Miss Vermont 2010 Caroline Bright, is running for the Vermont State Senate at just 21. Republicans are represented as well with Lauren Cheape, Miss Hawaii 2011, seeking a spot in the Hawaii State House. (Two others, Miss America 2003 and Miss Illinois 2002 Erika Harold and Miss Arkansas 1994 Beth Anne Rankin, recently failed to secure the Republican nomination to run for U.S. Congress from Illinois and Arkansas in primary contests.)
These women went much further than Sarah Palin did on the Miss America stage, though Palin was the first Miss America contestant spotlighted on the national electoral stage during the 2008 Vice-Presidential campaign. Their experiences as beauty queens helped prepare them for the rigors of a political campaign beyond knowing how to expertly style their hair (but Bright does admit that she did learn how to use a hair dryer thanks to pageants).
They know what it is like to spend day after day attending civic parades and church luncheons, where you shake thousands of hands and kiss hundreds of babies. Rankin developed an in-depth knowledge of her home state, traveling to all 75 counties as Miss Arkansas. She would often visit six cities in a single day and have to “roll out of the car after a five-hour drive and give a speech and roll back in the car and get to another” - a skill that came in handy during her two campaigns.
Given the parallels between representing a state as a beauty queen and representing constituents in elected office it’s surprising we haven’t seen more beauty queen-politicians before now, though there have been mayors here and there and a smattering of state representatives (including current Nevada Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, Miss Nevada 2002 and third runner-up to Miss America political hopeful Harold). But the public’s sometimes negative perceptions of beauty queens can be a deterrent. Cheape has worked to overcome pageant stereotypes during her campaign noting, “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You’re not an airhead like I thought you’d be.’”
Is the uptick in former Miss America contestants seeking political office in 2012 simply a Sarah Palin effect, however? There is some truth to this idea. Rankin finds Palin inspirational and Miss America 2003 Erika Harold notes that Palin’s run “signifies the idea that a diverse group of women can seek political office.”
But at the same time, our political system now operates in a 24-hour news cycle, where everyone is part of the paparazzi – an environment more hospitable to beauty pageant alumnae. It is more important than ever for politicians to be able to speak in a captivating way and to answer questions under fire. In addition, politics has started to look more and more like entertainment, complete with commentary on politicians’ attire and ability to pose for the cover of People. When Michele Bachmann used campaign funds to pay her $4700 hair and make-up bill it made headlines, but no one was surprised that she wanted to look perfect on the trail.
Just as politics has become more glamorous, the Miss America Pageant has gained more admirers in the wake of the Great Recession thanks to the lure of scholarship money that draws more academically ambitious women. The Pageant has emphasized women’s higher education since it awarded its first college scholarship in 1954, and women can use their winnings to pay for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Harold used the scholarship money she won to pay her tuition bills at Harvard Law School. The night she was crowned Miss America 2003 she earned a $58,000 scholarship; combined with her scholarship winnings from the local and state levels the Miss America Pageant awarded her more than $80,000 in scholarship money.
Many contemporary pageant contestants are more interested in professional careers and less interested in the entertainment industry, an earlier motivator for pageant hopefuls. In the age of reality television, “American Idol” offers a better ticket out of small-town America and into the entertainment business than does Miss America. Just ask Carrie Underwood, who won Season 4 of “American Idol” but was eliminated at a Miss America preliminary in Oklahoma. Instead, Miss America can help buy a ticket to law school or medical school. Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs, who was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, is now a medical resident in obstetrics and gynecology in her home state of Alabama.
So why consent to prancing around stage in a bikini and high heels? To many it seems inconceivable that scholarly women would voluntarily participate in the slightly tortuous and antiquated “Lifetsyle and Fitness” competition (a.k.a. the swimsuit contest) – hence the airhead stereotype. How serious can they be if they worry so much about their physiques? Then again, if you’ve seen the pictures of President Obama in his swimming trunks, you know that having a good bathing suit body and being a serious elected leader aren’t mutually exclusive.
But the fact we even know what our president looks like in a bathing suit shows how focused the American political system is on appearance. While politics continues to attract those who want to shine a light on important issues, it also attracts those who don’t mind if the light shines on them a bit as well. Because the Miss America Pageant attracts ambitious, motivated women who take pride in their appearance, it makes sense that they feel comfortable in the media glare that accompanies a life in the public sphere. If you can survive the pressure of walking on national television in a bathing suit and tottering high heels you can survive the high-pressure environment of American politics.
Shelli Yoder won the preliminary swimsuit competition at the Miss America Pageant in 1993. If she wins her election in November she’ll be the first woman who competed on the Miss America stage to serve in elected office at the national level. As the qualities that make a good politician become more like the qualities that make a good beauty queen, someday we might here the strains of “There She Is” and “Hail to the Chief” in seriatim. Until then, look out for more beauty queen political candidates - they'll be the ones with the perfect hair.
By Hillary Levey Friedman, PhD, a Harvard sociologist who studies beauty, childhood, and competition in American society. She is currently working on a book about beauty pageants.