‘PSince Charles only had to do it once, but Americans have to do it every year. What? Find “a charming, level-headed, intelligent girl who is also a virgin – or a reasonable facsimile.” This is how the Observer launched her exploration of who would win the Miss America crown on November 4, 1984.
The competition was attempting to restore Lysol’s clean image after the previous year’s scandal, when winner Vanessa Williams posed for “nude lesbian photos” in Attica and was forced to abdicate. To get back on track, it was necessary to return to “white bread Republicanism” (35 out of 49 candidates were Reagan supporters) and “militant virginity”. The property was Victorian. Competitors were not allowed to smoke, drink or gamble and had to be accompanied at all times, although they did not appear likely to object. Miss New York opposed premarital sex, and Mormon Miss Utah said, “I try to live my Christian values seven days a week.” Their interests were clearly healthy: cancer research, inspecting rocks historic tombs and “international soap collection” (Miss Utah again).
With demonstrations outside (“Vanessa got it!” read one sign), the debates began with the star-spangled banner, then the swimsuit adorned with rhinestones. The talent – “required not only for little girls with big dreams, but also for cynics and homosexuals” – sadly lacked the diversity of earlier eras (an earlier issue of equestrian stuff ended when the horse “dived into the orchestra pit”); the girls mainly sang. “Apparently no one told Miss Alsaska that ‘I Am What I Am’ was the gay national anthem,” the writer noted.
Who won? Miss Utah, Sharlene Wells, a decision greeted with “dismay, disbelief, discontent”. The room buzzed with comments that she had been selected because “no one would take naked photos of someone who looked like that”; sexism and Miss America have remained as inseparable as motherhood and apple pie. But job accomplished on the image level: “America’s honor is clean, clean, clean with Sharlene Wells. How could it be cleaner? She has 200 international bars of soap.