Understanding the beauty-queen politician

Sarah Palin didn’t need to wear a sash or tiara for pageant experts to see the beauty queen in her.

“When the announcement was made, and I saw the first photo of Sarah, I was like, ‘Wow, she looks like a former contestant,’ ” says Miss Rhode Island 2006 Allison Rogers.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s a mini-me!’ ” says Kristi Vetri, Miss Maryland 1973.

“She definitely still has the big pageant hair,” says Hilary Levey, a sociologist who has studied beauty pageants.

The rest of America — those of us who did not pick up on those early cues — learned after Palin’s introduction to the nation that she did indeed compete in pageants as a 20-year-old. She captured the title of Miss Wasilla in 1984 and went on to win first runner-up and Miss Congeniality in the Miss Alaska pageant.

This accomplishment has since become boilerplate language in her biography. But instead of just adding to the emerging image of the Alaska governor, her beauty-pageant past has served to upset traditional perceptions of what women are capable of. Wife, mom, governor — former beauty queen? Can that be?

Yes, insist her beauty-pageant colleagues — some of whom are in Congress. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) are alumnae of the Cherry Blossom Princess program. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was the Oil Festival Queen in Laurel, Miss., in 1969, if she remembers the year correctly. She was also a Junior Miss and a first runner-up for Miss U.S. Teen. And Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, an emerging national politician who is helping Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) prepare to debate Palin, was Miss San Carlos (Calif.) in 1977.


Pageants and Politics

It isn’t such a stretch for a former beauty-pageant contestant to segue into politics. The Miss America Organization, the umbrella group for the pageants in which Palin participated, stresses that its competitions aren’t just about beauty, but about poise, public speaking and community involvement.

“That is what our organization is all about: finding the smart, talented, beautiful young lady,” says President and CEO Art McMaster. The interview, when contestants are grilled by at least seven judges on their social platform, current affairs and other topics, comprises 25 percent of the score and ensures that these women don’t succeed on looks alone, he says.

Miss America officials celebrated Palin’s rise in national politics but also noted the many other alumnae who have made their way into the field. Among them are Vetri, who became mayor of O’Fallon, Ill., after her reign; Rogers, who works for the House Chief Administration Officer on its Green the Capitol initiative; Miss District of Columbia 2006 Kate Michael, who worked as a House and Senate aide before she earned her crown, and now works for the D.C. government; and Tiffany Lawrence, Miss West Virginia 2006 and a candidate this year for the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Many credit their pageant experiences for their political successes.

“I call it the art of the grip and grin,” says Heather French Henry, Miss America 2000. She got a taste of politics through the career of her husband, former Kentucky Democratic Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, and travels to Washington frequently to testify before Congress and work with the administration on veterans’ affairs.

“You’re constantly learning the skills a politician needs, where you’re going to a room full of hundreds of people and having to make them feel like they want to invite you for Christmas dinner.”

Even components of a pageant that some people may think are about beauty can help contestants aspiring to be politicians, Michael says.

“You have 20 seconds to be out onstage in a swimsuit,” she says, explaining that the self-confidence needed to pull that off is not unlike the public presence a politician needs to make good impressions on voters and constituents in a limited amount of time. “You have to be very comfortable with yourself, and very comfortable putting yourself in an awkward situation and coming out gracefully.”

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful

On the other hand, these beauty queens have explaining to do. These former pageant contestants have succeeded in the political world, yes, but along the way, they often have to face grilling about their past crown-wearing activities.

“I constantly feel like I need to justify to people I’m talking with — if they find out that I participated — I need to explain to them why I ran,” Rogers says.

Rogers notes she ran for Miss Rhode Island for three reasons: to promote her platform of environmental education, to give back to her home state and to help fund a master’s degree at Harvard University.

It took her two years to decide if she wanted to run for Miss Rhode Island. She thought about whether she agreed with the contest and how it would affect her future. While at Harvard, she recalls, she encountered academics who questioned her commitment to feminism after learning about her pageant past.

Vetri, too, felt pushback when she was elected mayor. She heard comments like, “She’s a beauty queen? What business does she have running a town?”

“So I did have to prove myself,” she says. She ran the town for eight years, moved on to a higher level of local government, and now advises mayors.

But it wasn’t easy. Vetri recalls that it took about six or seven meetings with mayors from nearby towns before they would sit with her. Four months after that, she became comfortable enough with her colleagues to ask why it took so long. Their answer: She intimidated them. Her interpretation was that, in part, her beauty was off-putting.

“These men were all in their 50s, all white, all came up through a political base,” Vetri says. “I came out of nowhere. I was young, I was an attractive woman, I was bright. I beat one of their own. I scared them to death.”

Michael, too, has received a lot of questions from people skeptical of her participation in a pageant.

“People think that you’re just a pretty face and a nice body, and there’s nothing beneath that crown,” she says.

French Henry, though, sees the difficulties of being taken seriously — not just a part of having a beauty-pageant past but more a fact of life for any woman.

“To a large degree, it happens just by being a woman,” she says. “Not only do you get it from being Miss America, but you get it from wearing high heels.”

To be sure, pageants have sent mixed messages to the American public.

Levey, the daughter of Miss America 1970 Pamela Eldred and a Princeton University sociology Ph.D. candidate, reminds us that Palin ran for Miss Alaska a year after Vanessa Williams had to forfeit the crown after nude photos of her surfaced.

Also, Palin didn’t have to run on a social platform; Miss America didn’t require that until 1988.

“There’s an unresolved tension that’s inherent in the Miss America pageant,” says Levey.

She points to appearances of Miss Americas at USOs and National Pancake Day that keep the throwback image of a beauty queen alive, and contrasts them with what she says is much headier work of their platforms. French Henry, for example, worked with Congress on a bill for homeless veterans assistance named after her in 2001, and veterans’ legislation that she lobbied for passed that same year.

“I think it’s reflective of the unresolved tension we have in American society about the place of women,” Levey says of the contrast between a woman’s beauty and brains.

She sees that tension play out in how Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was covered during her run for the nomination and how Palin is covered now. Talk can focus more on mango-colored pantsuits and librarian glasses than on policy stances — especially compared with their male counterparts, she says.

“Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have been a touchstone for that unresolved tension,” she says.
Sharlene Hesse-Biber, a sociology professor at Boston College, says these women have experienced the very thing Palin’s candidacy has brought to the fore: confusion from the American masses, who rely on a society of order and categories.

“Along comes Sarah Palin, who is really, really enacting a set of what we call very hybrid identities,” says Hesse-Biber, referring to Palin’s simultaneous roles as wife, mother, vice presidential candidate, governor, former beauty queen, hunter and whatever else may emerge in the coming weeks. “She’s yin and she’s yang. For a very binary society, we like things in categories,” she says.

The American public is skittish about the idea that a woman could be both a former beauty queen and a successful politician, Hesse-Biber says. So Palin is forced to play into the duality by downplaying her appearance. Hence the Alaska governor’s achieving a no-nonsense hairdo and a schoolmarmish look intended to tamp down any sex appeal she may have.

“She’s dumbing her appearance down because the tradeoff is greater,” she says.

 

Here she is, Ms. Vice President

Meanwhile, many of the women in the trenches of American politics are celebrating the new image of the female politician that Palin presents.

“I think the face of the female politician is changing,” says Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.). The congresswoman never participated in beauty pageants but stands out for her beauty and doesn’t think pageants on a résumé should be “a qualification or disqualifier” for a politician’s job.

“I’m glad to see femininity being accepted,” Bono Mack says. “It’s interesting to see a powerful, beautiful woman out there.”

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) seconds Bono Mack’s thoughts. She was Duke University’s May Queen, a distinction recognizing service to the college’s community, but otherwise didn’t enter any beauty pageants.

“I think she is a reformer. She has a lot of skill” in running a government, Dole says. “Those are the things that are important.”

Still, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says she believes Palin’s beauty-pageant past isn’t something anyone needs to ignore. If anything, it will help her, she says.

“She’s a very attractive woman, and I think any woman would have liked to have been a beauty queen once in their life,” says Bachmann, who, as a young woman, placed in the top 10 in the Miss Anoka Pageant. In that same pageant, she was crowned Miss Congeniality.

The American public may not be granted much more time to decide how it feels about beautiful, strong women taking national leadership roles. If Palin isn’t elected to the vice president’s office this fall, other women, like Miss D.C. 2006 Michael, are working their way through the ranks. Michael is kicking around the idea of running for City Council.

“We’re taking over,” she warns. “The pageant women are taking over.”