Extras » The Straight Dope

Miss America = success?

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Does winning the Miss America title give the ladies a start on financial success? Or is it just something to list as an extracurricular, like a guy being an Eagle Scout?

—Martha

Boy, there's a much-devalued commodity. Once the pageant was one of the biggest events on television, with 85 million viewers in 1960. Today ratings have fallen so low the contest briefly lost its network slot and was consigned to basic cable.

Nonetheless, the fact that Miss America has been strutting her stuff since 1921 gives us a chance for a long-term look at whether being officially declared beautiful (and talented, let's not forget that) pays off. As usual I delegated the job to my assistant Una, as usual she made a spreadsheet, and as so often we had acrimony and slammed doors.

The point of contention was the criteria for judging success. Una looked at how the lives of each of the 87 winners from 1921 to 2013 turned out and categorized them as Dismal, Humdrum, Successful, and Star. Spreadsheet v1, it seemed to me, betrayed a retrograde notion of what constituted success.

"Una," I said, "the major lifetime achievement of Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926, was to marry two millionaires, and you're categorizing her as a Star. Whereas 1996 winner Shawntel Smith became executive vice president of administration for IT firm PBH Holdings, and you're calling that Humdrum. What kind of message does that send?"

"Shawntel Smith is married to the rich guy who ran PBH Holdings, which lost hundreds of millions of dollars before he was forced out amid accusations of shady dealing," Una said. "She's lucky I didn't put her down as Dismal."

"OK, not the best example," I said. "Just the same we need a more systematic method of evaluation."

By and by I received spreadsheet v2. Miss America winners were now scored on a range of criteria, ranging from "married rich" to impact in politics, activism, and showbiz, plus professional and educational attainment.

The scale of achievement also changed. No Miss America led a truly Dismal life. Instead, the continuum started at Meh and up through Modest and Successful to Star.

The problem was the results didn't pass the sanity test. The Miss America winners who had been most conspicuously successful didn't crack the Stellar ranks. I know you specified financial success, Martha, but I thought we should cast a wider net, including fame and professional distinction in addition to fortune. After much angst we came up with a measure of the first two commodities, namely, the length of each winner's Wikipedia entry, on the possibly debatable two-part theory that,(a) long entry = noteworthy life = success, and (b) Wikipedia = vox populi = voice of God.

The results ultimately produced:

• Meh, 5 percent (3 women).

• Modest, 23 percent (19).

• Successful, 63 percent (55).

• Star, 11 percent (10).

In sum, three-quarters of the Misses America went on to become Successful or better—no surprise in my opinion. The women were attractive and ambitious and knew how to make an impression. If you can't parlay that into a comfortable lifestyle, you're doing something seriously wrong.

Perhaps more interesting is that one in nine became Stars. A sampling:

• Bess Myerson, who won the 1945 title, remained in the public eye for decades, first as a TV game-show regular and later as a New York City public official and politician.

• Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, enjoyed a showbiz career more than 50 years, appearing as Catwoman in the 1966 movie version of Batman and earning several Golden Globe and Emmy nominations.

• Phyllis George, the 1971 winner, became a network sportscaster and later morning news anchor for CBS.

• Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984, resigned under pressure after nude photos of her were in Penthouse but got past that to become an award-winning actress, model, and singer.

• Gretchen Carlson, the 1989 winner, has hosted Fox & Friends for years and will get her own show.

Miss America isn't the only title that presents opportunities, though. Just ask Oprah Winfrey, who broke into broadcasting after being crowned Nashville's Miss Fire Prevention of 1971. cs

By cecil adams

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