Demystifying Miss America and Miss USA

Sunday, January 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:17 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

For the uninitiated into national pageant lore, the distinctions between the two U.S. competitions, Miss America and Miss USA, are usually fuzzy. Despite the similar basic format and the relatively frequent crossovers by veteran contestants, those involved in the two pageants are acutely aware of the differences.

Starting out in 1920 as a bathing beauty contest and a marketing ploy of Atlantic City entrepreneurs hoping to spur traffic to the resort, the Miss America pageant has changed with the times. As the century progressed, the concept of the “ideal woman” swelled to accommodate more than someone fit, vigorous and “able to shoulder the responsibilities of home-making and

The Miss America interpretation of this concept came to include talent (the talent competition was added in 1935), college education (the scholarship program was launched in the ’50s), opinions on current issues (the interview portion got more weight in the ’70s) and social activism (the platform came about in the ’80s).

The Miss USA pageant was born in the 1950s when a Miss America titleholder refused to pose in a swimsuit. Sponsor Catalina Swim Wear pulled its money and invested it in what was to become Miss USA.

Many Miss America people still don’t think very highly of their pageant’s offshoot.

Miss USA does not involve a talent competition or a platform, and winners collect cash rather than scholarship money. The evening gown, swimsuit and interview portions carry equal weight whereas the Miss America pageant assigns 40 percent to the interview, 30 percent to talent and 15 percent each to swimsuit and evening gown.

While the Miss America Web site boasts the amount of scholarships available and titleholders’ volunteer work, its Miss USA counterpart gives instruction in “the fine art of applying lip gloss” and urges women to use padding instead of altering their looks permanently.

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