Culture lines broaden at Miss America

Women of color include Alaskan Inupiaq Eskimo

Posted: Monday, September 16, 2002

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Peggy Willman is an Inupiaq Eskimo from Alaska. Vanessa Shortbull is a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota.

They aren't the only women of color who will parade down the runway Saturday in the Miss America Pageant.

Miss Delaware Shoha Kirti Parekh, whose parents were born in India, will be there, along with six black women.

And for the first time since the Miss America contest hit the airwaves in 1954, a black host -- comedian Wayne Brady -- will oversee the proceedings.

All this multiculturalism is relatively recent: In the 81 years since the Miss America Pageant started as a post-Labor Day publicity stunt on the Atlantic City boardwalk, it has never been a model of inclusiveness.

''Certainly, it was slow to integrate, but then Miss America has never been a leader in anything, whether it was hairstyles, fashion or anything else,'' said Angela Osborne, a former pageant staffer and author of ''Miss America: The Dream Lives On.''

Indeed, for more than 30 years, the pageant excluded minorities of any kind. Rule 7 of the contestant contract stated: ''Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.''

Blacks were excluded in other ways, too.

In the first half of the 20th century, the pageant used firefighters to chauffeur contestants around town. But once the city Fire Department began integrating in the early 1950s, blacks were barred from the chauffeur jobs.

''We broke that barrier in 1958 and started doing it, and we were pleased when the first black Miss America was crowned, but in the pageant organization, it was a continual struggle for blacks to participate,'' said Pierre Hollingsworth, a former president of the NAACP's Atlantic City chapter.

He says the Miss America Organization, which provides more than $40 million annually in scholarship aid for contestants and others, does not do enough to recruit potential contestants in minority areas.

''The pageant has to look at its history -- and its history, as far as African-Americans go, has not been that great,'' Hollingsworth said.

Former Pageant CEO Leonard Horn, who worked for 20 years as a volunteer and then general counsel before taking over in 1987, said he and other pageant officials wanted more color in the pageant.

''We wanted to make it more comfortable for non-Caucasian women to enter. We asked the states to make sure there were no impediments, that the women felt comfortable.

''The problem, if there was one, was the reluctance of the non-whites to compete, for whatever reasons they had. They might have felt uncomfortable, but there was nothing I was aware of that would make them uncomfortable,'' Horn said.

Miss America 1990 Debbye Turner, who is black, said minorities haven't had the same access to pageants as whites.

''Historically, the organizations and individuals that have directed and sponsored the (local) pageants have simply been in a different part of town than the minorities,'' she said.

Also, she said, blacks may have felt unwelcome.

''There is, in the African-American community, a mindset that this pageant has historically been exclusionary,'' she said. ''Not that it is today, but that was the perception and sometimes perceptions are hard to overcome.''

Blacks weren't the only minorities slighted through the years.

The longtime head of the pageant, Lenora Slaughter, tried to persuade Bess Myerson -- the first Jewish woman to win -- to change her name. Myerson, who was Miss America 1945, refused.

In a PBS documentary on the pageant last year, she said fellow Jews saw her as a symbol. ''You have to show the world that we are not ugly,'' one told her.

While the ban on non-white contestants fell by the wayside in the 1950s, the color barrier didn't really until 1970, when Cheryl Browne of Iowa reached Atlantic City as the pageant's first black contestant.

In September 1983, Vanessa Williams made history as the first black woman crowned Miss America -- and got death threats and hate mail.

The first runner-up that year was black, too, but she ended the year wearing Williams' crown. Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles took over after Williams resigned in disgrace when Penthouse magazine published nude photographs of her.

There have been three black Miss Americas since, including Turner and Marjorie Vincent, who won back-to-back in 1990 and 1991.

The first Asian-American winner wasn't crowned until 2000, when Hawaii schoolteacher Angela Perez Baraquio -- who is of Filipino descent -- captured the crown.

Today's minority contestants say they believe their chances at winning are as good as anyone else's.

Parekh, who watched the Miss America Pageant growing up and saw mostly white women, wasn't discouraged.

''I just didn't see myself reflected on the TV screen, but the idea that I couldn't enter because of that never crossed my mind,'' she said.

She never entered a pageant until this year, after working as a photographer on a documentary about beauty pageants for Indian-Americans and learning about the Miss America system and the scholarship money it offers.

Parekh, 24, of Newark, Del., believes minorities vying for the crown are judged on their qualities, not their skin color.

''I'm not here because I'm Indian. I'm a contestant who happens to be Indian,'' she said.

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