When the Miss America Pageant left Atlantic City for Las Vegas in 2005, she didn’t just leave a trail of sequins, bronzer and hairspray in her gown’s wake. She left a hole in the downbeach community— the towns of Ventnor, Margate and Longport, which share an island with Atlantic City.
“There isn’t anything that wasn’t local about this pageant,” says Michele Gillian, who grew up in Margate. Gillian’s mother was a Miss America chaperone and used to travel with the winner for six months a year. The majority of organizers, the chaperones, the volunteers, even the pageant’s accountant lived in the region.
Miss America started in 1921 on the Boardwalk as the Inner-City Beauty competition; for the next 83 years, Atlantic City was the home of the September competition. It became an iconic image: the tearful winner with glittering tiara and bouquet of roses parading down the catwalk in the middle of Boardwalk Hall as host Bert Parks sang, “There she is…Miss America. There she is…your ideal.”
But the Miss America experience wasn’t just a one-night affair. The contestants lived in the area for a week, with local women as their chaperones. They attended fund-raising events and could be seen playing tennis in Margate and riding their bikes in Longport. They were in the Show Us Your Shoes parade on the Boardwalk, sporting shoes each decorated as a tribute to her home state. After the actual pageant, the winner would take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean and get a sandwich from the White House Sub Shop.
Despite an emphasis on talent and education, the pageant fell out of style in recent years. “It’s an easy target,” says Vicki Gold Levi, author of Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness and a Miss America judge in 1997. “They have wonderful platforms, and this is the biggest scholarship pageant in the world. Still, it’s easy to sneer.”
The pageant also lost out to the brasher, flashier new reality-television shows. Sure, Miss America had a bathing-suit segment, but with women who would strip for food on Survivor, who cared?
In 2005, after years of declining viewership, ABC pulled the plug on its television broadcast of the pageant, saying it was too expensive to produce, even with $720,000 paid in from the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. The pageant producers wanted more money. When they didn’t get it, they left.
So the pageant moved to Las Vegas. It aired on Country Music Television in 2006 and 2007, then shifted to TLC from 2008 to 2010. This year, the pageant went back to ABC, airing in January.
Remnants of the pageant still exist in Atlantic City. The walls of the White House Sub Shop are lined with photos of former winners, and Miss America’s headquarters remain in Linwood, just outside of Atlantic City. Gold Levi has curated wall displays for Atlantic City restaurants and hotels, including the Knife & Fork Inn, the Chelsea and the new Harry’s Oyster Bar at Bally’s.
Perhaps the most overt homage is the Miss’D America Pageant, which happens the same day as the official Miss America, held in her former home city. In January, more than 1,300 people packed one of Boardwalk Hall’s side ballrooms for this drag competition, which, of course, includes a bathing-suit segment.
ABC’s contract is up after the 2013 pageant, and locals hope that Miss America could come back to the Boardwalk. The Miss America Organization declined to comment for this story.
“We were the home of Miss America,” says Gillian. “To lose [that] part of traditional Atlantic City, to lose the home of Miss America, was very disappointing. I wish it hadn’t left.”Click here to leave a comment