CINCINNATI – It was May 1992 and Jay Shatz, a WCPO reporter, didn’t hide his excitement.
“Quite frankly, this is what I had in mind when I enrolled in journalism school: the back seat of a Rolls-Royce limousine, Miss America and me,” Shatz told his TV audience that day.
Shatz figured he had drawn a Golden Ticket – spend a day with Carolyn Suzanne Sapp while the beauty queen visited Cincinnati on a promotional tour. Ride alone in the back seat of a limo with the 25-year-old Hawaii native, accompany her to a school to meet spellbound kids, to the Kenwood Towne Center to sing "America The Beautiful" for the lunch crowd, sign autographs and promote the sponsor’s clothing line, and watch her do it without ever taking off her sparkling crown (“tacky and cheap looking,” Shatz said) and her warm, inviting smile (real).
WATCH Shatz and Sapp on her tour in the video above.
Twenty-six years ago, hardly anyone questioned why Miss America contestants pranced on stage in bikinis and high heels, unlike today. Sapp herself won the preliminary swimsuit contest at Atlantic City on her way to winning the crown. She paid for college with scholarship money she won in beauty contests. But she didn’t seem comfortable, even then, talking to Shatz about being a beauty queen.
“I never thought of myself as beautiful,” she said while riding in the Rolls.
Sapp said she never forgot what her parents told her:
“Always remember who you are. Beautiful women are a dime a dozen.”
She said what she liked about being Miss America wasn’t about beauty.
“What excites me is that people want to listen to me and they want to hear what I have to say,” Sapp said.
She might have agreed with the revolutionary changes to the competition announced this week.
To understand the cultural impact of the Miss America Beauty Pageant, you have to go back to the beginning. The New York Times did a fascinating story about it Tuesday.
According to the Times, the pageant mostly followed the tradition of its birth in 1921 in Atlantic City, when it was created to get tourists to come to the Boardwalk after Labor Day. The winner got the Golden Mermaid Trophy and the title of “Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.”
The talent competition wasn’t added until 1936. Evening gowns and intellect and personality interviews came later, after the pageant was integrated. Only whites were allowed to participate until 1940. It wasn’t until 1984 that Vanessa Williams became the first African-American winner.
The winners would spend a year on the road, and in return, cash in on scholarships and endorsement money. The tour also gave them an opportunity to advocate for a social issue of their choice.
After the pageant was first televised in 1954, it became one of the most popular TV events of the year. For 25 years - 1955 to 1979 – Bert Parks crooned the famous theme song on national TV as each tearful winner took her victory walk.
There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
The dreams of a million girls
Who are more than pretty
May come true in Atlantic City
Oh she may turn out to be
The queen of femininity
There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
With so many beauties
She'll take the town by storm
With her all-American face and form
And there she is
Walking on air she is
Fairest of the fair
She is Miss America
The pageant became part of Americana - three out of four households watched it on TV before cable.
There were a few protests, even among some contestants, but they were not widely supported. The 1950 Miss America winner, Yolane Betbeze, refused to pose in a swimsuit during her reign. In 1992, Catherine Ann Lemkau, a runner-up, announced that she would like the swimsuit competition eliminated.
The public was slow to get behind changes. In 1968, 100 “feminists” gathered outside the pageant and dumped bras, girdles, curling irons, false eyelashes and other “instruments of female torture” into a trash can labeled “Freedom," the Times reported.
In 1995, the Miss America organization - all men - encouraged viewers to call a 1-900 number to vote whether to keep the swimsuit competition or kill it. Two out of three said keep it.
“We are not stupid,” Leonard Horn, then the organization’s chief executive, said in 1993. “We are very sensitive to the fact that the swimsuit competition has always been our Achilles’ heel. The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it’s been retained because the majority of the people like it.”
Over time, though, the pageant lost its appeal. The TV audience fell from 38 million viewers iin 1988 to 4.5 million last year, according to the Nielsen company.
More importantly, the movement toward equality for women and, recently #MeToo, brought women’s rights to the fore on all fronts.
Now the swimsuit competition is gone under the new leadership of 1989 Miss America Gretchen Carlson - ironically, a former WCPO reporter.
“We’re not going to judge you on your appearance because we are interested in what makes you you,” Carlson said. The evening-wear portion of the competition will also be changed to allow women to wear something other than a gown if they want.
Going back to Shatz and Sapp, Shatz said he had been curious to find out if Miss America was an “ice queen behind that smile.” When the day was over, after watching Sapp interact, Shatz decided she was the real deal.
“She’s friendly, extremely polite, and especially good with kids,” Shatz said.
The subject of the domestic violence Sapp endured at the hands of her boyfriend didn‘t come up - probably because it was hands-off. But a month after winning Miss America, Sapp revealed in a PEOPLE magazine cover story how she was subjected to beatings from the former NFL player until she got up the courage to leave him.
Sapp became a spokesperson for domestic violence victims and played herself in a 1992 TV movie, "Miss America: Behind the Crown," which depicted the physically abusive relationship with her boyfriend.
“When I learned that abuse hotlines were receiving up to 1,000 calls a day, I decided I should make the movie,” she told the Chicago Tribune four months after her Cincinnati visit. “If Miss America can have this happen to her and get out of it, it will help other people. Women can use my pain to help gain strength.”
Sapp, now 51, married a stuntman, Alex Daniels, in 2006. They have three children.
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