In it for the Money: Miss America

"I won't be shocked at all to find myself connecting the arrow next to Nina Davuluri's name at the top of the ballot in November of 2028."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri has a local tie, having grown up in western Michigan and attended school at the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor. She graced the pages of The Ann Arbor Chronicle back in 2008 as part of The Chronicle’s coverage of the Miss Washtenaw pageant that year. Incidentally, she did not win or even place (!) in that pageant.

David Erik Nelson and  Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014)

David Erik Nelson and Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014)

On Nov. 1 the Ann Arbor Chronicle sent me to talk to Miss America. She was scheduled to speak at the India Business Conference held at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and then give a press conference.

Not being a journalist by training, I imagined a room crowded with folding chairs and jostling reporters, camera flashes bursting and shutters clacking. I figured I’d maybe get one chance to ask Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014) a single question – and no follow-ups! So I practiced saying “Thank you, Ms. Davuluri. David Erik Nelson, Ann Arbor Chronicle . . .”

I was a little foggy on what the actual substance of my question would be, but that didn’t end up being germane, because I was the only legitimate journalist who showed up to report the event [1]. So we had some time to chat.

I’ll concede that you, as a “news consumer,” are right to question this. Should news media – even small-town news media – bother covering something like the annual Miss America pageant, let alone some specific Miss America showing up at this or that conference to blather on about … oh, god, I can’t even be bothered to imagine what drivel?

Clearly, the legitimate media – the Detroit papers, whatever the thing that was once the Ann Arbor News is calling itself this week, the various alternative weekly and monthly advertising vectors that “tell it like it is” – they didn’t deem it “newsworthy” that Miss America was speaking before a pretty large crowd of business people and aspiring business people.

But were they right to skip out on the event?

No. They were dead wrong. This was absolutely newsworthy for at least three reasons:

  1. It was Miss America! She came to town! If you’ve read this far, then by BuzzFeed and HuffPo and the now-dead standards, this was news: You clicked, the ads were served, and it got tallied as Internet traffic in some log somewhere. The system works!
  2. This particular Miss America is the first Indian-American Miss America, and her coronation as Our Girl Next Door triggered a really ugly nationwide xenophobic backlash over social media – which was pretty ironic (or karmically apt), because her stated goal is to “Celebrate Diversity.”
  3. The University of Michigan’s very prestigious and well-endowed Ross Business school invited a bathing-suit contest winner to speak at a foreign business conference! What the hell was up with that?!

So, even if the regional media’s gut-level assessment had been right, and this was just a total blow-off story that wasn’t worth the photons it takes to cast it across your screen, they were still wrong not to show up. They were wrong not to be there elbowing a jackass like me out of the way so they could ask their own questions of the very affable Ms. Davuluri.

They didn’t show up because they assumed there couldn’t be a story here, as opposed to showing up to see what the story was. They didn’t do the work of showing up because they thought they already knew the story.

And the story they thought they knew was something like this:

Miss America, as an institution, is passé, sexist objectification. It’s an embarrassing hold-over from an era of Playboy Clubs and three-martini lunches. An Indian-American girl was awarded the dubious distinction this year, earning her the ire of online racists. #sigh #america #raceisover?

A “Scholarship Pageant”

So, what are some of the stories that the legitimate print media could have written about this enduring national embarrassment? For starters, how about this:

Miss America – and its system of feeder pageants – was one of the first organizations in the United States to offer scholarships specifically to women and girls, and is still the number one scholarship granting association for young women in the world.

Let that sink in for a second.

The Miss America Pageant actually did start out as an actual bathing suit competition. It was sponsored by the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City in 1921. They were intent on drawing tourists to their boardwalk after Labor Day, and decided they could capitalize on the growing mania for local business-sponsored beauty pageants by creating a sort of meta-beauty pageant. Miss America was the winner of a pageant that specifically restricted its entrants to girls who had already won a local contest elsewhere.

Technically, the first Miss America wasn’t even “Miss America” at all; in 1921 Margaret Gorman was crowned “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” winning $100 – which would be something like $1,200 in 2013 dollars. No one was calling her “Miss America” until the following year, when she showed up to defend her title draped in the American flag. (She lost to Mary Campbell, who held the title in 1922 and 1923, and almost took it again in 1924; she’s the only woman to ever win twice but, interestingly, she wasn’t super hot. Go figure.)

It was Lenora Slaughter – brought in to civilize the struggling pageant in 1935, and distinguish it from the scrum of other beauty pageants crowding the entertainment landscape – who made the pageant about being well-rounded and proper: “America’s Girl Next Door.” Slaughter added things like the talent contest and interview, foregrounded poise and personality above simple beauty. She sought to break the disconcerting link between beauty pageants and strictly commercial interests – like Businessman’s Leagues – as well as the popular notion that a beauty contest (and possibly a dalliance in the backseat of some sponsor’s Ford) was the fast-track to Hollywood or Broadway.

In 1945 Slaughter introduced the scholarship program. That first year she collected $5,000. It’s a little foggy how that money was ultimately distributed, but we do know that year’s winner, Bess Myerson was the first Miss America to receive a scholarship (and also the first Jewish Miss America, and the first Miss America to refuse to downplay her inconvenient race). For context, in 1945 annual tuition at the University of Pennsylvania cost $1000, including room, board, and textbooks; Slaughter’s $5,000 was the equivalent of something like $65,000 in 2013 dollars. [2]

Today Miss America and its feeder programs (e.g., Miss America’s Outstanding Teen) distribute something in the neighborhood of $45 million in scholarships annually, and not just to “winners.” This year’s crowned champion, Nina Davuluri, received a $50,000 scholarship – which she intends to spend on medical school. (She already earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Michigan in Brain, Behavior & Cognitive Science.) But no one walked away empty-handed: The first runner-up received something like $30,000, the second $20,000, the third $15,000, the fourth $10,000; every contestant receives at least $3,000. Contestants who distinguish themselves with specific talents or within individual competitions (like the talent competition or the interview) get additional scholarships for up to $1,000.

All of which is to say, this is a lot of money being distributed every single year. According to UM, in-state tuition alone for a four-year degree is likely to run you around $52,000 (!) these days. If you’re borrowing at around 7% and paying that loan off over 10 years, you’ll end up shelling out an additional $19,000 in interest on top of paying back the $52,000. And that’s if you don’t require food, clothes, shelter, textbooks, or supplies.

So, this “scholarship pageant” – the largest scholarship-granting organization in the world for women – sounds pretty rad . . . until you reflect on the fact that half the world is women, but $45 million is far from half the total money doled out in scholarships each year. For contrast, look at something like UNCF (the United Negro College Fund), which seeks to support African-American students and historically black colleges and universities, and distributes about $113 million per year. That’s 2.5 times as much as the Miss America Organization targeting a significantly smaller population – half of which we can assume are also women.

And, to the best of my knowledge, the application process for a UNCF grant or scholarship involves neither a swimsuit contest nor “butt glue.”

If you’re feeling sort of ambivalent right about now about both the Miss America Pageant specifically and America in general, I think that’s OK.

But, just to goad you a bit more, let’s imagine the Department of Defense wanted to really polish up its image, especially among women and African-Americans. One quick way to do that would be to forgo just three Super Hornet for-killing-people airplanes and start a scholarship program with the savings. In that scenario, the DoD would instantly become the largest scholarship granting organization in the world for African-Americans and women. And it would only cost .02% of its 2013 budget.

Why am I dwelling on this?

First and foremost, because the way this pageant has evolved is sort of fascinating: It distinguished itself in the 1930s by going beyond being surface-obsessed – but we’re so surface-obsessed as a culture that it’s been 80 years and we still haven’t gotten the memo that winning these scholarships isn’t (just) about how good your butt looks in a swimsuit.

Second, and more to the point, it’s because Ms. Davuluri, like me, has been very upfront that she is In It for the Money. Winning Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teen [3] in 2006 and finishing as first runner-up Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2007 paid for Davuluri’s undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan. She didn’t earn those titles and that degree by showing up and smiling and being pretty. She did it by working her ass off (butt glue notwithstanding), which is maybe exactly the sort of thing that we, as a society, should applaud.

Or maybe just report.

At the very least, we should be willing to dedicate a few minutes of our collective, splintered attention to grokking all this: Why is the largest scholarship program in the world for women a freaking beauty contest? Or, conversely, why do we insist on continuing to characterize the largest scholarship program in the world for women as just a beauty contest? Military scholarships that traditionally favor men also insist applicants demonstrate talent, intelligence, service, and athleticism. But we don’t dismiss those as “beauty contests” – even though those guys are, on the balance, pretty damn good looking fellas.

So, right there, that’s an article some legitimate reporter could have written as a result of this event, just a quick little thinker piece along the lines of:

Isn’t it interesting that so many of us believe Miss America is an anachronism, yet no one seems to be eager to suggest some new way to get $45 million in scholarships to well-rounded, hard-working American women.

Boom! There’s your column, Detroit News – and we haven’t even thought about what Ms. Davuluri actually said yet. We’re already at 1,500 words, and that’s all just background!

Miss Marketing in America

Regardless of her ethnic background, it initially seemed to me like a pretty odd (if not downright pandering) choice to invite Miss America to a business conference whose slate of speakers was dominated by authors, journalists, activists, Harvard professors, successful venture capitalists, Ford Motor Company’s Chief Operating Officer, and Ann Arbor’s own mayor.

Over the course of her half-hour on the stage, Ms. Davuluri spoke quite a bit about business, and specifically the business of marketing oneself. This highlighted something that gets lost when we discard Miss America without consideration: These women are not idiots.

The Miss America Pageant is a job application process. We focus on the damn bikini, but among actual contestants, it’s generally acknowledged that it’s the interview (which is neither televised nor widely noted, and goes basically unreported) where the title is won – which, again, is just like landing any other job.

But what is the job? Folks within the Miss America universe refer to it as a “year of service,” and it’s basically a corporate spokesperson role. That spokesperson represents a specific vision of being American, a vision that includes being sophisticated, poised, educated, attractive, and equitably remunerated for your efforts. This spokesperson also promotes her chosen platform for social change. In the case of Ms. Davuluri, that’s “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency”.

When we reject the Pageant out of hand – because it’s stupid and passé and offensive and beneath us – we do so without considering the precise nature of our beef. Are we against telling our children that they should study hard, groom well, speak well, and get paid a decent wage?

No, of course not; we’re against the butt glue and the swimsuits!

And it’s fine and good to be against those. But it’s probably just naive to pretend that, when it comes to landing competitive jobs, how one looks in a swimsuit is immaterial.

To be blunt, if you are a member of a protected class in America – a woman, a Jew, a homosexual, an immigrant, an African-American, etc. – you often need to treat your appearance and presentation as a product, something that you test and tailor to specific situations in order to get the specific results you need.

This isn’t shameful or inauthentic, and it isn’t betraying yourself or your culture; it’s simple marketing. It’s something that in the past we’ve called “acculturation” or “Americanization” or “blending in” or “assimilation.” You need to talk to your audience in a way they are prepared to hear. In some situations that will mean playing to stereotype, and in others it will mean playing against it, but in any case – as Ms. Davuluri put it – at its core it’s about “owning” what you are and deploying what you are at your discretion.

The core privilege inherent in being “privileged” is that you can invest little to no mental energy in these calculations. You don’t have to worry about proving that you are American enough to be Miss America. You don’t have to measure the need to be sexy enough against the danger of being too sexy. You don’t have to calculate how to forestall the terrible moment when the person you’re talking to abruptly realizes that you are Jewish or gay or blind or Hispanic – or any of the thousand things that might make someone subconsciously uncomfortable.

So that’s another story a reporter could write in covering this event:

How successful folks – for example Indian and Indian-American business people – talk about how to negotiate their identities and present those identities.

How the Damsel Fights Racism

Even if you are thoroughly over Miss America – what with it being so passé and misogynistic and an embarrassing vestigial expression of Patriarchy’s former strangle hold on women’s bodies, et cetera ad nauseam – you probably still heard at least a bit about Miss America this year. That’s because of the depressingly predictable racist/xenophobic backlash that accompanied the crowning of a dusky maiden of the exotic backwaters of Her Majesty’s Commonwealth. [4]

In the media this largely played as having very little to do with Ms. Davuluri herself: She was invariably portrayed as a hapless victim, blindsided by racist vitriol.

So, it was really, really interesting when six minutes into her Q&A at the Ross Business School’s India Business Conference, Ms. Davuluri characterized the hateful Twitter backlash as “such a silver lining.”

Because, you know, that’s not how one usually categorizes hate mail.

Hate tweets are an audaciously public form of hate mail, when you think about it, really more like hate-flyering someone’s neighborhood. The silver lining, according to Ms. Davuluri, was that it meshed really well with her platform [5]: “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.”

I’d initially scoffed at this platform. First, it is just a monstrously clumsy phrase to say aloud, which is a major marketing misstep. Beyond that, I’ve got the rapidly aging liberal Jew’s disdain for “diversity.” No offense, but I sorta feel like offering “diversity” to America right now is like offering a Kleenex to a hemorrhaging car-accident victim.

So, I was interested to hear her defense of this mouthful of seemingly disingenuous marbles:

What I really like about ‘cultural competency’ more than just talking about ‘diversity’ is that it’s supposed to engage people with different cultures. It’s not simply about opening a discussion about race, because that’s not necessarily proven to be effective. It’s really about engaging people with different cultures, whether that means trying a different cuisine, learning a different language . . . asking questions.

This was especially apropos once you looked at the content of the Twitter backlash, which was characterized by the tweeters’ inability to distinguish the differences between Muslim and Hindu, Egypt and India, foreign- and native-born, or correctly identify Al-Qaida’s theater of operations or the U.S.’s very friendly diplomatic relations with India. Many seemed especially off put by Ms. Davuluri’s alien talent offering – a Bollywood/Classical Indian dance fusion – characterized by some tweeters as “Egypt” and “terrorist” dancing.

Talk about cultural incompetence! This is obviously a rain dance, people; she’s Indian. #duh

Anyway, counter to the narrative that media outlets were content to repeat to each other, Davuluri was no hapless naif catching one in the chin. She’d seen all this coming: When she’d won Miss New York the year before, she’d weathered a similar bombardment via social media. I asked her about this when we hung out with the UM marketing consortium following her appearance:

David Erik Nelson: “Did that [the expected deluge of hate mail] ever give you pause about pushing forward toward Miss America, or did you just shake it off?”

Nina Davuluri: [bright eyed and smiling] “Nooo. If anything it gave me more motivation and drive to not necessarily prove myself, but to showcase, to really showcase that I am an American woman, young woman, that there’s nothing wrong with the fact that I’m Indian as well and there’s nothing wrong with sharing my culture and heritage. And I just really wanted to encourage, like I said, that little girl watching on television, you know, feeling like she had to be blond haired, blue-eyed to win Miss America. Like I said, it wasn’t about me, it was about reaching out to a wider demographic.”

DEN: “So, I mean, knowing that there’d be a backlash like that, in advance, really allowed you to enhance your message – “

ND: “Absolutely!”

DEN: “Like it really gave it a push forward that . . .”

ND: “Absolutely, it did. And I remember talking – like I said, Miss America is truly won in that interview room. It’s very similar to this – well, I’m standing [in the interview] and you guys [as the judges] are sitting, but it’s very similar to this. It’s a very private interview and judges can ask you any sort of question, and I remember a similar kind of question came up. We were talking about my platform, and I said ‘You know, as Miss New York I’ve experienced these things, people have said this about me, and if I win Miss America those comments will probably happen, but I now know how to handle that.’ “

That strikes me as really admirably audacious: Ms. Davuluri actively baited the racist (and culturally incompetent) trolls with her own identity – her own skin – knowing that doing so would activate a lot of ambivalent people to distinguish themselves by publicly showing how not racist they are. And those previously ambivalent people would rise up against the trolls, decreasing the free-floating sense that it’s dandy to sound-off on the Internet with “America is for the Americans who Look Like Me” bullshit.

That’s a helluva marketing ploy – and a helluva story. I like that headline a lot:

Damsel Draws Out Trolls to Be Slaughtered by Chivalrous Online Mob

Sure wish someone had shown up to write it . . .

What I’m Talking about When I Talk about Miss America

I like Miss America 2014 – she’s a sharp, fantastically poised lady with guts. I won’t be shocked at all to find myself connecting the arrow next to her name at the top of the ballot in November of 2028.

But in the end, this isn’t about Miss America. This is about us – the folks on my side of the screen, the “media” – and our failure to uphold the basic social contract we have with you. Our job isn’t to republish corporate and government press releases. Nor is it to bang out our own uninformed fact-free opinions about the world. Nor is it to maximize per-click ad revenue.

This job is about showing up at a place with our goddamn eyes open, shaking hands, seeing what we see and listening to what we hear, going home to do some research to figure out what we saw and heard, and reporting the findings back to you folks, on the far side of the screen.

If I hadn’t attended the Indian Business Conference, if I had not met Ms. Davuluri in person, if I had not connected with her, I would have written the same “The Miss America Pageant is sexist / Isn’t it a shame what racist pieces of shit we all are / Why are Internet jerks picking on this poor pretty girl?” bullshit so many other columnists and bloggers and guest outrageurs did. [6]

Or, more likely I wouldn’t have written anything at all, because “Miss America doesn’t matter any more.”

Except it does. She does. When a non-profit saves a Michigan girl four years of tuition and at least ten grand in debt while she studies neuroscience en route to becoming a doctor – and then gives her $50,000 more to go to medical school – that matters. If that non-profit is only willing to offer her that scholarship – at least in part – because her butt looks OK in a bathing suit, that matters, too.

But what matters most is that, even before reading this, you almost certainly had an opinion about Miss America, one that influenced your actions. And that opinion wasn’t based on having gone to the place and having shaken the hand – because you didn’t have the opportunity to do that. It was based on things other people like me wrote, and those people didn’t go to the place, either.

I know, because I was there, and if they were worth their salt they would have knocked me out of the way so they could get their story.


[1] I hesitate to call myself “legitimate.” As I’ve clearly stated in the past, I have no journalistic training, and my only real credential is that the management of this fine publication keeps sending me out on these increasingly quixotic assignments. After Noam Chomsky and Miss America, I’m not sure what’s next. And I don’t mean to imply I was the only person in the room with Miss America. All told, there were ten of us there, but I was the only person who was neither an employee of the university hosting the event nor the Miss America Pageant organization. As I recall the headcount was: One handler from the Miss America organization, one handler from the India Business Conference board of directors, two folks from the University of Michigan News Service, two from the school paper of the UM Ross Business School (the Monroe Street Journal – which is currently offline), one from the Michigan Daily, a member of the UM English Department faculty working as a freelancer for the LSA magazine, Ms. Davuluri, and me. I’m not saying that any of those other media outlets are bad or irresponsible news sources; I wrote (occasionally entirely fake) book reviews for the Daily when I was an undergrad, and have freelanced for the LSA Magazine within the last couple years. You could even reasonably argue that the Daily and MSJ have editorial freedom – within the confines of their university funding – but News Service and the LSA Magazine are clearly marketing entities. It would be patently absurd to call any of these impartial or independent news sources.

[2] Just so Lenora Slaughter doesn’t come off sounding like too much of a saint, let me hasten to include this: It was Slaughter who, in the 1930s, added the notorious Pageant Rule Seven to the Miss America rules and regs: “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Pageant Rule Seven stood until 1970 (!) when Iowa’s Cheryl Brown competed.

[3] Juvenile Tangent: Please add your own joke about dating or shaking hands with Miss Michigan here.

[4] If you’re really living under a rock, you can check out coverage from Salon, HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Matt Binder’s Public Shaming, NPR – or just Google it yourself.

[5] Every Miss America contestant needs a “platform,” a sort of broad campaign to address a social issue like eating disorder awareness, bullying prevention and recovery, childhood grief, youth ministry, living tissue donation, the power of positive thinking, “Best Buddies,” “Chandler’s Challenge: Reading is Believing – Don’t Stop Believing” (I have no clue what the hell those last two are, but just to be clear: I’m not making any of these up; those last two are from this year, the platforms of Miss Massachusetts and Miss Alabama, respectively).

[6] Not to pick on anyone, but this piece from the Nation is as good an example as any. But it’s far from isolated; as I recall, the Detroit News ran something similar, as did the New York Times and Washington Post and . . . basically whoever. The thing about a bandwagon is how much fun they are to jump on.

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  1. November 21, 2013 at 4:25 pm | permalink

    That is probably the best selfie ever. It is a selfie, right?

  2. By Bob Elton
    November 22, 2013 at 10:42 pm | permalink

    I see real diversity, not the kind most Ann Arborites talk about all the time, every day at my day job. I sit next to guy from northern India, and I learned about visa problems. Across the aisle is a Chinese woman. She works with a guy from Romania who emigrated to Canada, and commutes from Windsor every day. Another colleague emigrated to Canada from Abu Dabi, along with a guy from Italy, also living in Canada. My boss grew up in rural Ohio. His boss is a woman who went to an Ivy League college. Our expert in mechanisms is a guy whose parents escaped Cuba and got to Florida. One of the top people in our department is a black guy who grew up in Detroit. I could go on. The point is, real diversity is when you get a group like this all working together, and working well.

  3. November 23, 2013 at 10:20 am | permalink

    I was surprised that the Ann Arbor news wasn’t there… on that same day, SPARK and the mayor of Ann Arbor spoke as well.

  4. By Tom Moletteire
    November 24, 2013 at 11:49 am | permalink

    I am a huge fan of the Miss America program as well as a volunteer. I currently serve as the Executive Director of the Miss Hollywood pageant in California – a Miss America local preliminary. This has to be one of the most insightful articles I have ever read about the Miss America pageant. Thank you David Erik Nelson for taking the time to write it.

    I must correct you on one grave error. In note #2 you mention Lenora Slaughter instituting rule #7. That is not true. Rule #7 was initiated at the local level only and not all locals had such a rule. By the way, the rule predates Lenora’s involvement with the pageant as some locals excluded black women as early as 1924. The national pageant has never had a requirement about race in order to compete. Women of color have competed at Miss America dating back to the 1920s. In fact, Lenora Slaughter is the one who outlawed rule #7 back in 1948 when a local pageant in Washington was told by the state pageant that they could not allow women from the local Native American reservation to compete. (Note that Native American women had already competed at the national level – two that I can recall off the top of my head, made the semi-finals in 1940 and 1941.) Lenora intervened and allowed the local to accept Native Americans as contestants. The Miss Hawaii and Miss Puerto Rico pageants were started in 1948 and they sent their winners (most of whom were not white) to Miss America. Harriet Vawter – a black woman – competed in the 1948 Miss Philadelphia pageant. Nine black women competed in the 1948 Miss West Oakland pageant in California. Three black women won local Miss America preliminaries in 1959. Consider also that some of the Puerto Rico titleholders were likely biracial – Hispanic and Black.

    Two possible stories about the pageant to consider 1- That a woman was in charge of the pageant during a time when most women worked at home. 2 – The pageant actually ended rules that promoted racism in 1948. (Although let us not kid ourselves – many local pageants found creative ways around the ban on racism.)

    Just thought you would want to know.

    Thanks for the great read!

  5. November 27, 2013 at 12:07 pm | permalink

    I don’t normally chime in, but wanted to take a sec to thank folks for chiming in so thoughtfully, and to singly out Tom for his clarification and attention re: Lenora Slaughter. I’ve written a bit more about this column, the response its garnered, and local media here: [link]

    Thank you again for reading and for doing this thing that we all do together.