There is a lot that goes on behind the perfectly white smiles, shiny gold sequins, and immobile hairstyles of beauty pageant contestants. As a previous pageant winner, I’ve seen the ins and outs of the controversial pageantry tradition. And let me tell you, there are a lot of secrets about beauty pageants you probably don’t know.
I owe a lot of thanks to Preparation H, instant teeth whitening strips, and skin-lifting tape. And while pageantry definitely boosted my confidence, helped me make lifelong friends, and allowed me to build professional relationships that played a key role in molding me into the person I am today, winning that crown was hardly a breeze. In preparation for competitions, I was sleeping four to five hours each night, eating only plant-based foods, and working out twice a day. But that’s just the beginning.
Beauty pageants have been around since the early 1850s and we’ve seen them evolve a ton over time. Requirements change, standards fluctuate, and bans on certain things come and go (like bikinis, for instance). Here are 31 facts that will surprise anyone who’s not in the beauty pageant world.
The man behind “the greatest show on Earth” started beauty pageants.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, legendary circus showman P.T. Barnum launched the world’s first official beauty pageant in 1854. It was deemed so risqué that instead of having a live show, Barnum just asked the women to submit photos for judging.
Thomas Edison may have been a pageant judge.
Yes, that Thomas Edison. There is a longstanding rumor, which Slate explored, that an early pageant at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in 1880, the inventor served as a judge. A lightbulb moment, indeed.
Miss America became a tradition because of tourism.
The Miss America Pageant first began as an incentive to keep tourists in Atlantic City after Labor Day. In 1920, the city held a parade of beautiful women, hoping that tourists would be intrigued and extend their vacation, according to Time. The next year, the parade was turned into Miss America, and the first winner was 16-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, D.C.
Contestants had to measure up against cardboard cut-outs of the ideal body type.
In 1935, a beauty pageant in Dallas, Texas, made women pose in their swimsuits inside a wooden cut-out of what the ideal female body should look like to see how they measured up. Women who fit almost perfectly inside the outline were more likely to proceed to the next round, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Size standards have only gotten smaller.
In 1930, the average body mass index (BMI) of a beauty pageant contestant was 20.8, according to Today. The average in 2010, however, was 16.9. According to the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, a BMI under 18.1 is considered underweight and unhealthy.
In Miss America, bikinis have been both required and banned.
Each pageant holds different rules on whether women have to wear a bikini or not, but the revealing swimwear has certainly had its highs and lows in the pageant world. In 1947, Miss America contestants were required to wear two-piece swimsuits. Then, in 1948, bikinis were banned.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Miss America allowed contestants to wear two-piece swimsuits again. And 20 years later, in 2018, Miss America announced they would end the swimsuit portion altogether.
Marriage and children are forbidden.
To compete in Miss America, contestants cannot be married, divorced, engaged, or have ever had a child. This rule was enacted after Miss America 1949, Jacque Mercer, was married and divorced during her reign. According to The Baltimore Sun, as of 2000, contestants must take an oath stating, “I am unmarried,” and “I am not pregnant and I am not the natural or adoptive parent of any child.”
One Miss America bailed on her title.
Miss New Jersey Bette Cooper was crowned Miss America in 1937. Just hours after finding out she won, she ran off with her boyfriend, ridding herself of all the duties and responsibilities of the crown. People thought she was missing or had been kidnapped. It turned out, Cooper did not expect to win and did not want to be in the limelight that the success offered.
Ever since then, New Jersey contestants believe they’ve been cursed by Cooper. “I personally blame her for myself not winning the Miss America crown,” Miss New Jersey 2013 Cara McCollum joked to The Press of Atlantic City.
Contestants used to have to trace their lineage to prove they were white.
It’s hard to imagine that a little less than 50 years ago, women of color were not allowed to compete in pageants. It wasn’t until the 1970s that women of color were given a chance to compete on the main stage alongside their white counterparts. And, up until 1940, Miss America required contestants to trace their lineage back seven generations to prove they were 100 percent white, according to Fox News.
The racist history associated with pageants in America led African Americans and other people of color to form their own pageants where contestants would not have to worry about losing based on their ethnic background.
The first black Miss America had to give up her crown, but to another woman of color.
It wasn’t until 1984 that a black woman—Vanessa Williams—became the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America. But she was forced to give up her title when her risqué glamour photos were leaked to the press. She was replaced by 1984’s first-runner-up, Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, who was half Italian-half black.
There has only been one Jewish Miss America.
Bess Myerson is the only Jewish woman to ever win the title of Miss America. She won shortly after World War II in 1945. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Myserson was even pressured to change her name to Beth Merrick to avoid people knowing she was Jewish.
But she chose not to hide her identity and became the first Jewish American to win the crown. “It was the most important decision I ever made,” she said.
Girls as young as 12 have cosmetic surgery to compete in pageants.
Venezuela breeds beauty pageant winners. The country holds six Miss Worlds, seven Miss Universes, six Miss Internationals, and two Miss Earths titles. In this South American country, girls attend finishing school to learn how to walk, talk, and present themselves as a crown holder. Often, the bootcamps encourage girls to have surgery at the young age of 12, according to The Daily Mail. The facilities are surrounded by cosmetic surgery clinics, as well.
And some undergo hormone therapies.
In Venezuela, some young girls even undergo hormone therapies to slow down puberty in an attempt to grow taller for beauty pageants, The Daily Mail reports. Young women also have mesh sewn onto their tongues to stop them from eating solid foods, according to the BBC.
Backstage at a pageant smells awful.
While the stage is filled with picture-perfect makeup and curls, backstage is a totally different story. Body odor, sweaty clothes, and the stench that arises from a packed room fills the air of pageant dressing rooms. Trust me, it is not pleasant at all.
There are pageants for everything, from vampires to ankles.
Most Beautiful is not the only theme of pageants these days. According to Listverse, Miss American Vampire, Prettiest Ankles, and even Miss Subway are a few of the strangest pageants the U.S. has seen.
Today, niche competitions exist based on size and ethnic background, like beauty pageants specifically for plus-size women and women of color.
Butt glue and skin tape are commonplace.
Contestants use “butt glue” and skin tape to keep their bikini bottoms in place, or to keep tops from revealing too much cleavage. “It happens,” admitted former Miss USA Olivia Jordan in an interview with Yahoo! “Can’t say that it doesn’t.”
Pageant contestants also prep with Preparation H.
One thing you’ll notice when watching a beauty pageant is that many contestants have a super tiny waist. While a lot of that can be attributed to constantly working out and dieting, it’s also because of hemorrhoid cream and plastic wrap.
Contestants rub hemorrhoid ointment on their stomachs and around their waists, and then wrap themselves in Saran wrap, and exercise. “I slather on hemorrhoid ointment, wrap myself up with Saran wrap, and run on a treadmill with an incline for 30 minutes,” Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010, told Yahoo! Beauty. “It’s not permanent, but it tightens you up.”
Tea bags act as instant eye relief.
Contestants barely get any sleep during the final days of the pageant and used tea bags can help de-puff eyes and reduce dark circles. Miss Rhode Island Allie Curtis told Today that she swears by this beauty hack.
Vaseline is used to keep contestants smiling.
Contestants have a secret to keep them smiling for long amounts of time on stage: Vaseline. Rubbing Vaseline on your teeth keeps your mouth open to avoid feeling the slippery texture and tasting the unpleasant flavor. It’s tried and true.
Wearing a weave is the norm.
In my experience, most girls wear extensions on pageant day. With all the teasing, hairspray, and curling necessary to achieve a perfect ‘do, it’s safer to throw in some clip-ins or opt for a sew-ins, so you don’t damage your natural hair.
Competing in pageants is costly.
After hearing about all of that primping, it’s probably not a surprise to you that, according to Bankrate, most beauty pageant contestants spend around $6,000 for their hair, makeup, clothing, and classes. It’s a lot of money, especially if you don’t win when it’s all said and done.
You want to do everything to avoid being “a clapper.”
In the pageant world, the term “clapper” is used to describe someone who did not make the final cut in a pageant, because all they are there to do is clap. So if you didn’t at least place, you’re a clapper. Ouch!
Most pageant queens are 5’6″ or taller.
Taller women are more likely to win. While there aren’t height requirements to enter most pageants, winners tend to be between 5’6 and 5’11, writer Ash Pariseau wrote for Thought Catalog. Pageant winners usually end up pursuing a modeling career, so judges pay close attention to height and stature, which give the women a bump in the fashion industry.
There have only been two Miss America pageant winners who were 5’4″: Jackie Loughery in 1952 and Tara Conner in 2006.
“Go-Go Juice,” which keeps young pageant queens peppy, is like two cups of coffee.
If you’ve ever seen the TLC show Toddlers and Tiaras, you know beauty pageants are filled with young children. In fact, according to Occupy Therapy, about 5,000 child beauty pageants are held every year with 250,000 child contestants participating.
And they run on “Go-Go Juice,” which the world was first exposed to by Alana Thompson (better known as Honey Boo Boo) on Toddlers and Tiaras. It’s a mix of Mountain Dew and Red Bull used to keep young pageant queens awake during long days of competition. According to ABC News, one serving is equivalent to two cups of coffee.
France placed a ban on young girls competing in pageants.
Although the United States is known for hosting beauty pageants for children and young adults, France banned children under the age of 13 from competing in beauty pageants, according to the New York Times. “It is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what’s important for her is to be beautiful,” Chantal Jouanno, a French senator, told The Times.
The Philippines holds the most titles from the main pageants.
There are four main international pageants for adult women to compete in—Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss Earth. The Philippines holds the most titles from the Big Four currently. They took home 12 international wins in 2018 alone.
Venezuela is the only country to have won Miss Universe twice in a row.
Dayana Mendoza and Stefanía Fernández of Venezuela won Miss Universe in 2008 and 2009, making their home country the only one to take the crown at the Miss Universe pageant twice in a row. And for more fascinating information, check out these 200 Awesome Facts About Everything.