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Chapter IV part c: Beauty Pageant Staging and the Runway

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Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants: The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal

by

TARA MAGINNIS

Runway Staging and the Beauty Pageant

Beauty pageants, in contrast to the other two forms of theatre found in this study,came very late to runway stages, and show signs of slowly giving them up. This seemsparticularly interesting, since raising an ordinary person up to the level of an ideal(which pageants seek to do) is what runways do best.

Runways came to beauty pageants through the Miss America Pageant. Originally, the MissAmerica Pageant was held outdoors on several of the amusement piers at Atlantic City overa period of several days. The parade of the contestants in swimsuits was simply a 1300foot long march through the sand down the length of the beach between the Garden and Steelpiers as a small part of a real parade (see fig. 4-11). There were clowns, the mayor, thecity council, the members of the Chamber of Commerce, the directors of the Pageant, thepolice force, the fire department, and groups of other contestants in the seven additionalbathing suit divisions including men, family groups, and silly bathing costumes, etc.

Everyone (except the clowns) wore bathing suits, even the spectators who lined thebeach (see fig. 4-12). "It was more like a family cook-out than any skin show"remarked Deford in There She Is. According to The New York Times the 1922parade was chiefly notable for this conspicuous display of bathing-suited officialdom:

The whole police department, long, fat, lean and short, were in bathing suits, plus their badges, clubs and caps. For a moment, while men, women and children gasped, they held the center of the stage until the inter-city beauties appeared... Suddenly six bombs shot into the air, exploded, and six American flags materialized on parachutes. At that moment four trumpeters in white bathing suits stepped out from behind the curtain and blew a fanfare. Then the big curtain dropped, and revealed Neptune and his court of beauty. Neptune...was borne by nubians on a great shell. He led the parade, followed by Mayor Bader and Atlantic City officials in bathing suits, and the girls, all sorts of girls, in all sorts of bathing suits...They glided down the white beach in four divisions, amateurs, models, stage and screen, and finally the inter-city competitors for the beauty crown. Conspicuous in the dazzling spectacle was "Miss America" Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., the winner...last year, resplendent in a bathing suit of Stars and Stripes.

After moralistic protests were heard in the 1920's bathing suit parades were abandonedfor a time, and judging for this segment of the contest was done in private. When thecontest was revived in the mid-1930's both beach parades and private judging wereforgotten, and swimsuit parades were staged on the piers as part of the regular show. In1940 the pageant moved indoors to Atlantic City's Convention Hall, one of the largestindoor auditoriums anywhere. In order to permit audience members in the back of this hugeunraked house to see the competitors at all closely, a runway had to be built out into theaudience one hundred and forty feet long, and around fifteen feet wide (see fig. 4-13). Aswith the Minsky's before them the Miss America promoters solved a mundane practicalproblem with a runway, and so stumbled onto one of the greatest tricks of their trade.

And the Miss America Pageant producers do know that they have a great secret in theirrunway, even if other, more television-oriented pageants do not. Deford's remark that MissAmerica's "mere appearance on a runway occasions [the audience] to rise dutifully,out of respect" is the carefully manipulated result of thoughtful planning. TheOfficial Production Guide for the Miss America Pageant Preliminaries held in towns acrossthe U.S. makes many suggestions relating to runways, including, of course, that promotersselect a theatre with sufficient room to install one. The final walk of the outgoingqueen, and the first walk of the newly crowned winner are used as the climax of the show.It is clear that the writers of the Guide are aware of both the idealizing effect of therunway and the automatic response it triggers if done at the right moment in the show:

THE NEW QUEEN: This is the big climax to your entire production and the moment which your audience has been awaiting...the crowning of your new queen. This phase in your production should be supremely perfect! Whatever you do, do not in any way, allow the new queen's presence on the runway to be delayed one moment more than is absolutely necessary. Remember that your audience has been a very integral part of your pageant production to this point. They have, in their own minds, been evaluating and judging the merits of the contestants as they were narrowed down to your finalists. Now they are ready to explode with enthusiasm and jubilance over the selection of their new queen. They want to give her their congratulatory approval now...not later! Therefore, allow your immediate past queen to move right up to her successor so that she may place the symbolic crown on her head. If you have a scepter, allow some cast member (former contestant) to assist with this matter. However, do not permit any unnecessary speeches or award presentations to mar this moment. Once the new queen is properly attired, send her down your runway to an appropriate song so that her public can show their approval and acclaim! If you have properly rehearsed this pageant show closing during the pre-show rehearsals, using your past winner as an example of what her unknown successor should do, your new queen will make her coronation march the highlight of the show!

Here the staging is rushed to quickly take advantage of the emotional pitch of theaudience's reaction to the choosing of a winner, and so manipulate it into the desiredresponse (see fig. 4-14). One should note that the winner is expected to copy the behaviorof the former queen in much the way that the former Miss America described in Chapter 3copied her predecessor, down to "how she cocked her head to receive the crown, howshe reached for the roses, and to what extent she smiled and nodded thanks." Thisstrongly supports Deford's statement that "the modern queen is functionally, adisplay package...she is required to do nothing more than trigger the right response. Hermere ambulatory presence on a runway automatically obliges any dutiful audience to rise,reverently."

Unfortunately, it is not only the full "display pack- age" of theevening-gowned title holder who has to traverse the runway, but also all the contestantsfor the title, and this has led to considerable controversy. In 1922, when the first moralprotests against bathing beauty pageants popped up there was much talk of how the MissAmerica contestants were being exploited by being asked to parade in bathing suits beforea multitude; however these protests could be amply countered by pointing out that all the"multitude," as well as the mayor and pageant officials were also thus exposed.Exploitation, if any, in this context was pretty generally shared all around.

As the pageants moved indoors, however, the audience and officials naturally wentcompletely dressed for the theatre, and only the contestants wore swimsuits. This did notlead to any protests at the time; on the contrary, the indoor setting was praised as"a veritable fairyland" , and the new development was regarded as a great steptowards making the pageant more dignified. It was not until the feminist protests of1968-9 that anyone thought to criticize this obvious piece of clothing inequality, andconsider that perhaps it signaled an even greater inequity overall. Lindsy Van Gelder, areporter for The New York Post in 1970, and a former beauty contest winner, explained theproblem:

The gist of it is, that so long as you have beauty pageants, the opinion is reinforced that women are judged, not on the basis of how valuable they might be to society, but by how well their looks please men. A beauty pageant supports the assumption that men have a right to check out women... Can you imagine what it feels like to walk down any street, where men, any men, think they have the right to look you over, to comment, to whistle, even to say something obscene? Well, a beauty pageant is only that, on a larger scale. It supports that attitude of women. Don't you see, it dignifies, it legitimizes that kind of behavior?

And by dignifying the situation it increases the pressure on the contestants, for whilea crude remark on the street can be ignored and passed by, a contestant on a runway isasking for audience approval and attention: "for you [s]he comes forward"demanding critical appraisal, complicit in the act. Of course, since society still teachesgirls that demanding this type of attention is immodest, immoral, and unsafe (somefeminists like Simonton assert this even louder than traditional moralists do), walkingout on a runway in a swimsuit requires considerable courage and confidence. Deford notedafter the first feminist criticisms of the pageant in the 1960s that the contestantsthemselves wanted the swimsuit competition eliminated because they "feel at ease on abeach in a bikini, but uncomfortable walking down a one-hundred-forty-foot runway in amore modest coverall, as fully dressed spectators gape at them."

Now that most pageant contestants are aggressive career women, however, manycontestants regard the grueling walk down a runway past a sea of eyes as the ultimate testof self confidence, one that will make less pressured and better clothed tests like publicspeaking and job interviews easier. Sharon Dillon, the first runner up in a MissMetropolitan Atlanta USA competition, expressed this belief:

I enter for the challenge, the thrill of competing, and for personal growth. What I've learned through pageantry, I apply to everyday life and it works well. As for the confidence I've gained...if I can walk down a runway in a swimsuit in front of an audience, I can do ANY- THING!

This statement inevitably reminds one of the young woman who was interviewed about whyshe started her career as a stripper, who replied that she wanted to become an actress,and took up stripping to overcome her "terrible stage fright". Somehowconfronting this kind of total exposure and scrutiny helps a few people overcome theirinsecurities and develop an ability to comfortably face the public. Jacque Mercer, MissAmerica 1949, was the first to carefully plan a performance strategy for winning a beautypageant geared toward consciously charming her public. She wrote her suggestions forsuccessful runway competition in How To Win a Beauty Contest, the first how-toguide on the subject:

Your stage presentation in a beauty contest is exactly like a role in a play. You musthave stage movements, you must have characterization and you even need to learn somelines. The dif- ference is that in a beauty contest the lines are not spoken out loud. Ifyou think these words and phrases in your mind, however, the expression on your face willtell a story...the following stage presentation and thought script will prove invaluable.

PRESENTATION AND THOUGHT SCRIPT

ACTION THOUGHT

1.Enter stage, smile, look from side to side making a sweep of the audience.1."Hello! Good Evening. , How nice of you all to come."

2.Walk directly to 2."Well, now you must judges, smile with be the judges..."eyes, pause, facing judges, (broad smile).

3.Turn with back to 3."Don't you think I'm judges (sober face) pretty?"4.Face Judges again (a 4."So nice to meet you" small smile) pause "See youagain" (a Mona Lisa Smile). 5.Walk to runway (broad 5."Hello out there-- smile)looking slowly you wonderful people from side to side with --isn't this fun?" a smileto various indi- viduals along the way. 6.Pause at end of runway 6."Don't you thinkI'd (broad smile). be a wonderful queen?" 7.Turn back (sober face). 7."How doyou like my dress?" 8.While turning front 8."Isn't it pretty?" (a Mona Lisasmile). 9.Pause (broad smile). 9."Thanks for all your help." 10.Walk back tostage, 10."Good-bye. I've had smiling at people a wonderful time." along theway. 11.Pause before exit 11."Good-night. Thank (a broad smile) you!" This isprobably the clearest description of how a successful contestant "works" therunway; most other manuals speak rather generally and idealistically about poise andelegance and posture, and even how "natural, inner beauty" will show through.Mercer, on the other hand, was more direct; she once said "You could take anorangutan, and with a year's training, it could be Miss America." Mercer's"script" is a direct appeal to the audience for support, taking into account therunway's power to "break through the arch" and demand a reaction from thespectators. Audience members "cheer" for particular performers, hoping to affectthe judging, either because they are part of a claque of friends or countrymen of aparticular contestant, or simply because her performance has convinced them she is theproper winner. Even when the judges are oblivious to the audience response (as officiallythey are supposed to be) performers gain confidence and are likely to deliver a betterperformance when they hear they are getting a positive response. Audience appeal helps anycontestant. If you can get the audience to like you, it will do wonders for your stageconfidence, thus your eventual fate. But don't expect it to affect the judges--It doesn't.Claques of family and friends generally hope to influence the judging anyway, and plantheir responses accordingly: About the only people who attend preliminaries are family andfriends, who show up on the night their girl performs her talent. As each girl comes on, acertain little section of the hall will suddenly cheer, then grow silent thereafter, asthe applause takes hold again in some other area. Certain types of performers, notablydancers and baton twirlers, have a distinct edge in this department, because their actsusually have some high spots where it seems appropriate to interrupt with applause. Unlessa singer manages something really gimmicky, it is difficult for even her family tointerrupt with "spontaneous" applause. A veteran pageant promoter...gathered hisgirl's rooters about him..."We're not down here to be entertained. That's all verynice, but you've got to make the judges realize that there's people here who likeher." In this way the pageant audience makes its opinions felt in a much moretangible way than can an audience watching a play in a proscenium setting, where applauseis usually reserved only for the end of each act. The act of psycho- logically breakingthrough the arch, in order to make closer contact with the audience, and so draw them intothe performance is accomplished in advance by the runway, which encourages this activeaudience participation. However, except for the Miss America Pageant, which is still heldin cavernous Convention Hall, many large pageants have dropped the use of the runway. Noexplanation is given for this change, but the cause is fairly obvious when viewing apageant on television. While runways are good for creating dignity for the performers in alive setting, they do nothing for them on T.V. screens. Eye level is wherever the camerais pointed, and the dynamics of theatre space become completely irrelevant when mostspectators are viewing the pageant in a box in the living room. If this weren't enough,the runway also is awkward for "live" filming. It is difficult to positioncameras in place to film the action on the runway without obscuring the view of the liveaudience; in addition, with a long runway, one contestant is usually still traversing itwhile another is introduced onstage. Finally, it is difficult to light a runwaysufficiently to film well without blinding the live audience nearby. So the usual habit ofthe television director of a pageant is simply to ignore the runway altogether, and onlyfilm the show as it occurs on the stage proper. This solution was arrived at very early,and started to effect the staging as soon as pageants began to be televised. Asurprisingly well researched and insightful pulp novel about a beauty pageant, BeautyQueen, written during the early T.V. era in 1957, describes the blocking of the openingproduction number as conceived for television: The general theme was to be Beauty isTimeless. The opening scene, representing the past, would have a backdrop showing the faceof an old southern mansion. The girls would be ranged in tiers in front of it, theirbillowing skirts...completely covering the stage so that the upper part of their bodiesappeared like mystical flowers springing from cloud drift...Each girl would have a lacefan...and when the curtains parted she would hold it before her face and keep it thereuntil her name was called for the opening number which was the "Parade ofStates." "Steve Wilder will announce Jane Doe, Miss So and So, and Jane Doe willstep center front, strike a pose...." He struck the pose and mentally everyone in hisaudience followed him. "Lower her fan, smile at the audience, then off down therunway!" In this staging, the walk down the runway is treated as a final exit offcamera, and not as a crucial entrance to an important stage area for the audience. Also,the chief stage direction--the hiding, then revealing of the face behind the fan--isgeared purely towards a camera close up. Clips from televised pageants in the 50's and60's show these kinds of productions geared towards the new media, but also usuallyincluded a runway for the benefit of the live audience. However, as T.V. ratings improvedfor pageants, and T.V. advertiser dollars became the primary source of pageant revenue,the needs of the television camera and its home audience took ascendancy over the needs ofthe live audience, and runways began to be abandoned. Among the ten televised pageants Ihave been able to view in the last year, only Miss America used a runway, although theother pageants ranged in venue from Moscow to Wichita to Hong Kong and included titles asvaried as Ms. Fitness America, Miss USSR and Miss Chinatown USA. Of the major televisedpageants, only Miss America holds out with a runway. Other pageants most frequently use aproscenium stage which has had a temporary thrust apron added to it. This is the standardset-up of the pageants owned by Madison Square Garden: Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and MissUniverse. The locations of these pageants change each year and must fit into a differentrented theatre each time, so a thrust platform is also the most practical plan forbuilding out into a raked house. Some of these platforms show vestigial runways at thetip, and most thrust out into the house in a point or curve that seems to try to emulatethe effect of a runway. Performers on parade are still blocked to come out towards theaudience at these tips, stand, and turn, like a model at the end of a runway, then turnback to exit. This staging method grew out of the use of runways in earlier pageants, andshows no sign of leaving even if the runways themselves have. On the Miss America stage,contestants still parade in gowns and swimsuits, in the traditional, dignified, verticalstance now used on all pageant stages. They do not employ the aggressive walk of fashionmodels, but do keep their body gestures to the absolute minimum in an even moreexaggerated upper-class "ladylike," manner. Needless to say they do not strutlike strippers, and absolutely never lower themselves, even slightly, towards the stagelevel. Since the Miss America runway is 15 feet across they are thus never closer thansocial distance with the audience, although spectators can see "details of skintexture and hair" of contestants at this distance. Miss America has experimentedlately with having contestants bring some of the choreographed production numbers (nottalent competition) out onto the runway, which looks as though it is interesting for thelive audience, but makes televising the show awkward. Ultimately, the future of the runwayin beauty pageants is linked to their future as largely television events. If pageants arechiefly seen by an audience on T.V., the physical dynamics of the theatre space in whichthe pageant is held will continue to be comparatively unimportant to a majority of theaudience. If, on the other hand, pageants were to lose all but their hard-core liveaudience, runways would probably enjoy a revival. As it is, many pageants, Miss Americaamong them, are in danger of being destroyed by their own success, having become so wellorganized, emulated, and polished that their "product" is as predictable andexciting as cottage cheese. No single point was more obvious in watching these televisedpageants than that all of them were the same; even the Miss USSR competition was only anamateurish tacky version of the others. By concentrating on creating an inoffensive,predictable show that would attract sponsors, instead of an unpredictable but excitingpiece of live theatre for a live audience, they sucked all the life out of their ownproductions. The runway offered one of the best stages for spontaneous interaction betweenthe live audience and the performers, and its abandonment by many pageants is symp-tomatic of a decreasing interest among televised pageants with both live audiences andspontaneity. Of the three forms of theatre included in this study, beauty pageants haveexploited the possibilities of this form the least, surprising when you consider thatpageants are so obsessed with transforming their performers into ideals. However the factremains that it is fashion shows that have experimented the most with the shape ofrunways, and strip shows that have most fully exploited the range of movement and levelson them. Beauty pageants, by being sucked into the prime-time television mold ofpredictability and small-screen visuals, have temporarily abandoned the search forinnovation in runway staging. The next chapter will include summation and conclusion ofprevious arguments, ideas for topics of further study, and a discussion of the possibleuses of runway staging in promoting alternative feminine ideals.

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