Here She Comes....Miss America
In 1945 a young, beautiful, Jewish woman by the name of Bess Myerson threw her hat in the ring for the title of Miss America. Bess was told she’d have better luck with the competition if she changed her name to something a little less Jewish—but she wasn’t having it. Bess entered the contest with her Jewish identity intact.
Bess’s beauty wasn’t the only thing she had going for her; she was a gifted musician and a graduate of Hunter College. An easy favorite to win the title, she ran away with the crown—despite the anonymous phone calls against her that were thrown at the pageant’s judges.
Bess’s reign as Miss America wasn’t all tiaras and parades; the victory was greeted with anti-Semitism and hatred. Bess experienced segregation first hand in the South. She was turned away from country clubs that didn’t allow Jews—even if that Jew was, in fact, Miss America. For unconfirmed reasons, although we can guess, three out of the five sponsors of the pageant chose not to fulfill their advertising contract, deciding not to feature a Jewish Miss America in their advertising.
That being said, this isn’t all without a happy ending for Bess Myerson.
Bess channeled her experience into work with the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), speaking out against racial hate across the country. She even hosted the Miss America Pageant from 1954 to 1968, longer than anyone except crooner Bert Parks.
Which brings us to today.
Last night Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, was crowned Miss America. Nina was born in Syracuse, New York, the first Miss America ever to hail from upstate New York. This isn’t, however, what has the public all in a huff. While she was born a proud citizen of the United States, Davuluri’s parents hail from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India.
The unfortunate reality is that fifty years after Bess Myerson broke boundaries and stretched perceptions of beauty, Nina Davuluri is faced with equal amounts of vitriol and hatred. Following her win, social media was filled with spiteful sentiments, with statements like “Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11” being par for the hurtful course. Buzzfeed collected a portion of the racist bullying.
The slurs don’t seem to be getting Nina down. She’s already looking beyond the hatred. Of the racism she said, "I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American." Most importantly, she’s already thinking as a role model: "I'm thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America."
There is much for us to learn from the experience of both Nina and Bess. While the Miss America pageant presents its fair share of problems, I can’t help but pull at the positive thread in all of this mess, which is that both Bess and Nina embraced their cultures and identity. Nina danced a traditional Bollywood style of dance for the talent portion of the competition, choosing, just like Bess, to be proud of her identity.
This is only the first day of Nina’s reign as Miss America, and it’s our roll to support her. Let’s take this moment, and talk about racism and bullying and hatred in our society. Let’s make sure that when we’re talking about outer beauty, we’re not allowing any inner ugly. And let’s make sure that in another 50 years we’re not right back where we started.